When we hear the word “tutoring,” many of us think about 1:1 lessons between a tutor and student. But many tutoring sessions involve small groups, which can be just as effective, if not more so. When is small group tutoring better? Naturally, it all depends on the situation — particularly the needs of the students involved and the subject matter being taught.
But apart from determining when a group lesson is the most viable, another crucial question we should ask is “what size should a group lesson be?” At what point does a small tutoring group become a small classroom, which defeats the purpose of the personalized tutoring concept? Let’s dig in and find out!
In general, small group tutoring sessions can stimulate engagement, with students feeling empowered and motivated by one another. It’s a totally different dynamic than a single student-to-tutor environment. But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and student needs must be taken into consideration before making any decisions.
In the briefing “A Principal’s Guide to Intensive Reading Interventions for Struggling Readers in Reading First Schools,” the author cites small groups as “the most efficient way to increase the intensity of instruction for struggling readers.” The benefits pointed out include targeted attention to student needs plus more opportunities for students to “respond and receive feedback.” The paper concludes that 3 to 5 students are ideal for that given situation.
But there are other circumstances and considerations to keep in mind. Below, we’ve outlined some of the more essential things to consider before putting together a small group tutoring practice.
Keeping classes “fun-sized”
1:1 tutoring lessons can be fun, but throwing a handful of peers in the mix alters the landscape, usually for the better. Having “fun” in a tutoring class might sound like a luxury to some, but savvy tutors know that fun activities are part of an active learning strategy. As noted in a Harvard study, active learning gets students more involved, enhancing their understanding and retention of material. The nontraditional approaches of active learning can definitely be more fun than listening to a lecture. But what’s the best size for a small group tutoring session?
Brainspring reports studies that suggest small groups retain the essential elements of 1:1 lessons when limited to between 3 and 6 students. In comparison, EdResearch for Recovery identifies 3 to 4 students as the preferred target, arguing that “moving beyond this number can quickly become small group instruction, which is less personalized and requires a higher degree of skill to do well.”
Teaching students with disabilities
The maximum number of recommended small group students drops to between 2 and 4 for students coping with learning disabilities. Such special education sessions may require additional planning, enhanced instructional support, and perhaps different materials that take extra time to use.
For teaching students with disabilities, Reading Rockets offers tips based on research from the Office of Special Education Programs. The suggested alternatives include peer tutoring, cross-age tutoring, small learning groups, and combined formats.
“Smaller groups appear to be better,” Reading Rockets observes. “Groups of 3 to 4 students are usually more efficient than larger groups of 5 to 7 students in terms of teacher and student time, lower cost, increased instructional time, increased peer interaction, and improved generalization of skills.”
Staying cognizant of learning styles
Educators at all levels should take into consideration the diverse learning styles of each student. Tutors may not always have the time or resources to deep dive into their pupils’ inherently preferred styles, but should nonetheless be aware of how such differences impact learning.
For instance, the VARK model considers four distinct learning styles — Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. It may be hard to identify in advance of class scheduling which students are more prone to which styles, then find compatible students to add to the group. When in doubt, smaller is better.
Age and maturity levels
Another variable that impacts teaching efficacy is the age and maturity levels of the students in attendance. Younger students may be more apt to distract each other, but then again, teenagers often do so even more!
The ability to focus (or lack thereof), however, is only one of the many factors at play when it comes to age and maturity. As educator Lisette Partelow wrote for U.S.News, “Teaching young students also requires some pretty good detective skills, as students don’t necessarily have the language or awareness to explain their misunderstandings, feelings or behavior.”
In other words, it may be tough to tell when younger students are struggling if they cannot explain what’s going on inside. Tutors need to work with groups that are small enough to allow time for monitoring and gauging how well lessons are sinking in.
Ability to track student progress
Tied to the above is the ability of tutors to actively track student progress over time. Some tutoring sessions are aimed at helping students who’ve fallen behind to catch up. Others are more focused on building advanced competencies to prepare for upcoming challenges. Either way, the tutor’s job involves establishing markers and measuring demonstrable success.
When one student in the group begins to lag, a course adjustment may be required. Tutors can’t merely teach at the pace of their most high-needs students, but they also can’t let a single student falter.
It’s imperative to closely track how each student is doing, and then intervene with 1:1 instruction or extra practice work as needed. By the same token, students who are ahead of the curve shouldn’t feel like they’re being held back. When the disparity between learners is too great, the group as a whole suffers.
Experience of the tutor
EdResearch for Recovery made another excellent point by bringing up the qualifications of the tutors themselves, declaring that “teachers might be better able to tutor up to four students whereas paraprofessionals and volunteers may do better with one or two students at a time.” Seasoned tutors will be more adept at juggling higher numbers, whereas those without experience or training should focus on 1:1 sessions.
Considering affordability factors
Small group tutoring is generally more affordable for the students (or their parents). This is a vital factor, as students around the country continue to struggle in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic’s darkest days. 1:1 tutoring sessions are out of many family’s budgets, so group lessons come to the rescue by enabling tutors to lower prices, helping remove that barrier to access.
Simultaneously, tutors can potentially generate significant additional income for their tutoring business by attracting students who otherwise couldn’t come. However, the key is to ensure groups are small enough to be effective for tutoring, and that they don’t turn into micro classes.
Choosing suitable subject matter
Some academic subject matters are better suited to small group learning than other subjects. However, even subjects like reading, which may seem to require a more 1:1 approach, can be effectively taught in groups.
Teacher Magazine reported that Abracadabra, a small group reading program centered on “key skills of comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness and phonics” incorporates individual and paired practice work as part of the group approach. The article goes on to note that sessions with 1 to 5 students allow for “more time to practice” while tutors “provide more individualized attention to help students overcome difficult problems.”
While there is no consensus about which subjects are more suitable for small group tutoring, students and parents can find small group lessons for virtually any topic. From core subjects like math, science, grammar, and writing to enrichment courses such as music, foreign languages, or public speaking, there are endless flexible options available.
Selecting the best tutoring platform or software
When deciding how large or small a group lesson should be, a final consideration is the software or online platform being used (if any). Basic teleconferencing software can suffice in a pinch, but to truly unleash the power of remote learning, educators and schools receiving government funding for tutoring are wise to invest in a professional tutoring platform like Pearl.
The ability to scale up is a vital consideration, but so is offering breakout sessions. Breakouts are invaluable, especially when a small group needs to temporarily be made even smaller. Tutoring software Pearl comes with several handy, built-in features while also offering custom design opportunities for institutions that have specific requirements not currently available.
If you’d like a demo of tutoring platform Pearl, get in touch with us here.