Evidence for Learning: Small group tuition

Small group tuition

A summary of the research evidence on small group tuition in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of small group tuition on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on small groups. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of small group tuition interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Small group tuition is defined as one teacher or professional educator working with two, three, four, or five students. This arrangement enables the teacher to focus exclusively on a small number of learners, usually on their own in a separate classroom or working area. Intensive tuition in small groups is often provided to support lower attaining learners or those who are falling behind, but it can also be used as a more general strategy to ensure effective progress, or to teach challenging topics or skills.

As an intervention strategy, it is often used for students who are falling behind. Despite being commonly used in Australian schools, the Australian evidence on small group tuition is inconclusive, as working in small groups often occurs concurrently with other interventions (e.g., phonics intervention). Relatedly, very few Australasian-based studies have evaluated the efficacy of small group tuition. The few studies reviewed below collectively indicate that students’ learning outcomes improve as a result of small group tuition. Furthermore, working in small groups enables students to develop interpersonal and communication skills.

Hempenstall (2008) examined a literacy intervention that was conducted in small groups of 10; 206 students (males=150; females=56; mean age=9.7 years) completed several literacy assessments and were assigned to either the experimental (n=134) or control (n=72) groups. The intervention occurred over 50 minutes, five times a week. Students who participated in the intervention made significantly greater gains on a number of literacy indicators. Importantly, however, the small-group intervention also used empirically supported teaching strategies (e.g., phonics).

Similarly, Buckingham, Wheldall and Beaman-Wheldall (2014) also found a literacy intervention run in small groups to be associated with greater gains than standard English instruction. Fourteen students participated in the study and were separated into one experimental’ and one control’ group. In the first phase of the study, seven students received the intervention while the others remained in class. The results showed that those who underwent the intervention scored significantly higher on literacy assessments than previously, with these gains significantly greater than those of matched controls. In the second phase, those who had been the original controls undertook the intervention, while the other students participated in regular class. Again, the intervention was associated with a significant improvement in literacy skills. However, at the end of the year, students who had undertaken the intervention first scored significantly higher on literacy tests than the second group, indicating the importance of early interventions.

Woods-McConney, Wosnitza and Donetta (2011) examined how 130 Years 6 – 7 students felt about working in small groups. Students tended to show positive attitudes toward small group work and associated it with higher levels of enjoyment in comparison to individual learning exercises. The authors highlight that group work in science projects is a better reflection of the science world and gives students the opportunity to develop other abilities (e.g., social skills) in addition to enhancing students learning and enjoyment.

Buckingham, J., Wheldall, K., & Beaman-Wheldall, R. (2014). Evaluation of a Two-Phase Implementation of a Tier‑2 (Small Group) Reading Intervention for Young Low-Progress Readers. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 38(02), 169 – 185.

Hempenstall, K. (2008). Corrective Reading: An Evidence‐​Based Remedial Reading Intervention. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 32(1), 23 – 54.

Woods-McConney, A., Wosnitza, M., & Donetta, K. (2011). Keep it positive: Using student goals and appraisals to inform small group work in science. Teaching Science: The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association, 57(3), 20 – 24.

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Small group tuition; small group tutorial; small group lessons; small group instruction; small group dyad; paired teaching.