Evidence for Learning: Small group tuition

Small group tuition

Moderate impact for low cost based on moderate evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Small group tuition is defined as one teacher, trained teaching assistant or tutor working with two to five students together in a group. This arrangement enables the teaching to focus exclusively on a small number of students, usually in a separate classroom or working area. Intensive tuition in small groups is often provided to support lower achieving students 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.

1. Small group tuition has an average impact of four months’ additional progress over the course of a year.

2. Small group tuition is most likely to be effective if it is targeted at students’ specific needs. Diagnostic assessment can be used to assess the best way to target support.

3. One to one tuition and small group tuition are both effective interventions. However, the cost effectiveness of teaching in small groups indicates that greater use of this approach may be worthwhile.

4. Providing training to the staff that deliver small group support is likely to increase impact.

5. Additional small group support can be effectively targeted at students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and should be considered as part of a school’s strategy.

The average impact of the small group tuition is four additional months’ progress, on average, over the course of a year. 

Evidence shows that small group tuition is effective and, as a rule of thumb, the smaller the group the better. Some studies suggest that greater feedback from the teacher, more sustained the engagement in smaller groups, or work which is more closely matched to students’ needs explains this impact. Once group size increases above six or seven there is a noticeable reduction in effectiveness.

Although the rule the smaller the better” there is some variability in impact within the existing evidence. For example, in reading, small group teaching can sometimes be more effective than either one to one or paired tuition. It may be that in these cases reading practice can be efficiently organised so that all the students stay fully engaged as each take their turn, such as in Guided Reading.

The variability in findings suggests two things. First, the quality of the teaching in small groups may be as, or more important than, the precise group size (there is evidence of the benefits of staff professional development on student outcomes). Second, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of different arrangements, as the specific subject matter being taught and composition of the groups may influence outcomes.

Given the uncertainty and the lower cost, small group tuition may be a sensible approach to trial before considering to one to one tuition.

  • Impact tends to be greater in primary schools (+4 months) than secondary schools, which has fewer studies overall and a lower impact (+2 months).

  • Most of the research on small group tuition has been conducted on reading and there is a greater impact, on average (+ 4 months). The studies in mathematics show a slightly smaller positive impact (+ 3 months).

  • Frequent sessions, three times a week or so, lasting up to an hour over about 10 weeks typically show the greatest impact.

  • Low achieving students particularly benefit from small group tuition.

Studies in England have shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds typically receive additional benefits from small group tuition.

Small group tuition approaches can support students to make effective progress by providing intensive, targeted academic support to those identified as having low prior achievement or at risk of falling behind. The approach allows the teacher to focus on the needs of a small number of students and provide teaching that is closely matched to student understanding. Small group tuition offers an opportunity for greater levels of interaction and feedback compared to whole class teaching which can support students to overcome barriers to learning and increase their access to the curriculum.

Small group tuition has an impact by providing additional support that is targeted at student needs. The reduction in the ratio of students to teacher compared to a regular classroom setting also allows for closer interaction between educators and students. When implementing small group tuition, schools should consider how to ensure that these active ingredients have a positive impact through:

  • Accurately identifying the students that require additional support.
  • Understanding the learning gaps of the students that receive small group tuition and using this knowledge to select curriculum content appropriately.
  • Ensuring teachers are well-prepared for having high quality interactions with students, such as delivering well-planned feedback.
  • Ensuring that small group tuition is well-linked to classroom content.

Small group tuition may be delivered by teachers, trained teaching assistants, academic mentors or tutors. Interventions are typically delivered over an extended period, often over the course several weeks or terms, to a small group of between two to five students.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

    The average cost of small group tuition is low. The costs to schools are largely based on additional salary costs and learning resources and as a result costs decrease as group size increases. The cost of paired tuition is approximated as $350 per student per term (based on two students receiving 30 minutes of tuition, five times a week for 12 weeks) plus any resource or equipment costs, with one to three cheaper still ($233 per student).

    When delivering teacher or TA-led small group tuition, implementation is likely require a large amount of staff time compared with whole class approaches. Given the lower costs, small group tuition may be a sensible approach to trial before considering one to one tuition. See one to one tuition.

    Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider using providers with a track record of effectiveness. To increase the impact of small group approaches, school leaders should consider professional development for teachers, TAs, and tutors to support high-quality tutoring practices.

      The security of the evidence around small group tuition is rated as moderate. 62 studies were identified that met the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The topic lost an additional padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated:

      • Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

      As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

      Evidence strength
      Number of studies62
      Review last updatedJuly 2021