Enhancing Small Group Teaching in Plant Sciences: A Research and Development Project in Higher Education

Carmichael, P.; Irvine, N.; Jordan, Katy; Johnstone, K.; Tracy, F. and Truscott, H. (2006). Enhancing Small Group Teaching in Plant Sciences: A Research and Development Project in Higher Education. In: British Educational Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference, 6-9 Sep 2006, University of Warwick, Education-line.


The Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge uses a range of learning and teaching environments including lectures, practical laboratories and small group tutorials'. Under the auspices of the Cambridge-MIT Institute's Pedagogy Programme, a two-year research and development project concerned with the development of small-group teaching is being undertaken. The research element of this project endeavours to illuminate current practice and identify areas in which evidence-based development might take place. The development element will include professional development activities and the production of curriculum resources including appropriate online material. This is a multi-method study including a series of student questionnaires; focus groups of students; semi-structured interviews with staff members; and the collection of video of small group teaching. In this paper we report selected findings from the 'student data' of the first year of this project.

The questionnaire, conducted with two cohorts of students (2nd and 3rd year Undergraduates), used a double-scale questionnaire in which students were asked to report both on the prevalence of a range of teaching and learning practices and on how valuable these were in supporting their learning. This type of questionnaire instrument is particularly appropriate because the data it generates is suggestive of areas for changes in practice. The gaps between 'practices' and 'values' (across both cohorts) suggested that students valued activities which improved their understanding of how elements of the course were interrelated; which related course content to 'authentic' examples; and those in which teachers made explicit the characteristics of 'high quality' student work. Small group teaching, in the view of most students, was best used to extend and explore concepts introduced in lectures rather than simply reinforcing them or assessing student understanding.

Data gathered through focus group activities illuminated the questionnaire data, providing detailed accounts of how students managed their own learning, and the roles played in this by lectures, small group teaching and other resources. Students identified the processes of planning and writing essays as key learning activities during which they integrated diverse course content and reflected on problematic knowledge. Questionnaire and focus group data suggested that students had less clear views regarding the value of collaborative learning, peer-assessment or activities such as making presentations to other students. When students talked in positive terms about these activities, they often referred to the learning benefits of preparation for the tasks rather than of the collaborative activities themselves. These views may provide indications of potential barriers to changes in learning and teaching environments, and suggest that any such changes may have to be carefully justified to students in terms of benefits to their own learning. Many of our findings are broadly in accord with other work on teaching and learning in Higher Education settings (such as the 'Oxford Learning Context Project' and the 'Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses' Project) in that 'deep learning' and 'authenticity' in learning activities are valued by students, and that the introduction of specific formative practices (such as sharing notions of 'quality') would be welcomed. At the same time, amongst the students in our sample, a view of learning as an individual process of 'learning-as-acquisition' predominates over a view that it is a social process of 'learning-as-participation', and this will inform the planning of the 'development' aspect of the project. We conclude with a discussion of how the approach we have used might be more widely applied both within and beyond the Cambridge-MIT partnership. We also identify potential affordances of, and barriers to, the development of research-informed teaching in Higher Education.

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  • Item ORO ID
  • 51718
  • Item Type
  • Conference or Workshop Item
  • Project Funding Details
  • Funded Project NameProject IDFunding Body
    Cambridge-MIT InstituteNot SetNot Set
  • Academic Unit or School
  • Institute of Educational Technology (IET)
  • Depositing User
  • Katy Jordan