Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Small-group Teaching at Lancaster University
Originator 1Gordon Clark and 2Terry Wareham
Department 1Department of Geography
2Higher Education Development Centre
Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YW, UK
Tel. 1+44 (0)1524 593740
2+44 (0)1524 592081
Fax 1+44 (0)1524 847099
2+44 (0)1524 593712

The Department of Geography at Lancaster University has adopted eight measures with the aim of improving its small-group teaching in Part 1 (the first year of the undergraduate degree).

The key points are these:

  1. a library of tutorials;
  2. each tutor incorporates core elements into his/her tutorial programme;
  3. each tutor runs a group project during the year;
  4. a standardised marking sheet for all essays;
  5. the staff who run the lecture programme in Part 1 have provided tutorials and practicals on themes related to their lectures;
  6. there is departmental mentoring for new tutors;
  7. formal training in how to be a tutor is available for new tutors in the Faculty;
  8. a more extensive system of training is under development by the Staff Development Office of the University.

(i) A library of tutorials has been established

Staff and postgraduate tutors are encouraged both to contribute successful tutorials to this collection and to use or modify existing tutorials for their own groups of students. New tutorials are still being added to the collection. The collection is divided into sections with separate groups of tutorials for 'the first tutorial meeting', skills training and topics related to the parallel lecture course (these being provided by the appropriate lecturers). There is also a suggested tutorial syllabus which can be used as the basis for planning the series of tutorials through the semester or year. Each tutorial is complete with rationale, aims, handouts, details on how to run it, reading material and other resources, and briefing notes for tutors less familiar with the subject matter. The tutorials can be used immediately or in a modified form to suit individual tutors' expertise. The collection is particularly appreciated by those new to tutoring. A side benefit is that there has been an informal convergence of the tutorial programmes used by tutors without the difficulties of devising and imposing a single rigid syllabus. A more fully defined tutorial syllabus operates at Salford (Hindle, 1997) and Ballantyne (1997) suggests a similar development at St Andrews.

(ii) Each tutor has to incorporate a number of core elements into his/her tutorial programme

These core elements include skills training, oral presentation, pastoral care, academic feedback, a field visit and group work. It is up to each tutor to combine these as they wish and to decide (based on their own skills) in which academic context they will explore these elements. Again, these are guidelines rather than a standardised syllabus for the 12-15 people each year who act as first-year tutors.

(iii) Each tutor must run a group project during the year

To complement the individual work involved in essays, a small-group project is done by each tutorial group; the department recognises that the skills benefits of group work are very important. The topic for the project is selected by the staff member depending on their interests, skills and practical resourcing considerations. Similarly, a field visit is a formal part of the syllabus and can be combined with the project. A collection of field projects is being built up which can be used by tutors if they wish. The tutorial structure is ideal for small-group research projects and field projects. Issues of resourcing and safety need to be addressed and may prove to be constraints on field visits particularly.

(iv) A standardised marking sheet has been instituted for all essays

This sheet requires not only the usual textual comments on the essay overall, but also an assessment on a five-point scale of specific aspects of the essay such as its structure, argument, style and referencing. Comments on essays will be most students' main source of formal academic feedback on their performance, and it was felt that a standardised marking sheet would improve the quality of feedback for all students. Again, new tutors find it valuable as a guide on how to mark their first sets of tutorial essays. There is a very useful and much fuller guide to marking and commenting on essays in Forster et al. (1995, Chapter 6 by Hounsell).

(v) The staff who run the lecture programme in Part 1 have provided tutorials and practicals on themes related to their lectures

These are available for all tutors and they have to incorporate a given number of these academic themed tutorials in their tutorial syllabus. This improves the integration of the tutorials within the overall course framework so that the different teaching elements reinforce each other. It also helps to train all the tutors in the various approaches and types of material which comprise the current Part 1 lecture course.

(vi) The department operates a system of mentoring for new tutors

About half the first-year tutors are postgraduates for whom the tutoring fee is a valuable source of extra income. However, most of them have never taught before and some have not yet had any formal training in how to run tutorials. Each postgraduate is assigned a mentor who is an experienced member of the teaching staff. The pairings are such that new physical geography tutors are mentored by human geographers and vice versa. The system is described in more detail in the database (Geography Department, Lancaster, 1997). Suffice it to say that the system is easy to operate, much appreciated by the new tutors, and is flexible enough to be able to respond to tutors' needs as they occur.

(vii) Formal training in how to be a tutor is available for new tutors on a voluntary basis within the Faculty of Social Sciences

This course - run by Dr Mary Smyth of the Department of Psychology - comprises five two-hour workshops on how to be a tutor. These are held at the start of the first term of each session. The course is open to new tutors across the Faculty and is voluntary. The session focuses on the following themes:

This is similar to the training for all new postgraduate tutors run by the Staff Development Unit at the University of Birmingham. However, the latter is a much shorter course (it lasts only half a day) but it is compulsory for all new tutors. This course focuses on the do's and don'ts of tutoring and helpful guidance on issues like giving feedback, encouraging participation, listening and questioning.

(viii) A newer, more formal and much more extensive system of training is under development by the Staff Development Office at Lancaster University in conjunction with the Department of Continuing Education

This programme has been designed to fit within the limited time available for postgraduate tutors to devote to improving their teaching. It consists of a three-day intensive course before the beginning of session which covers a range of issues to do with teaching and learning, including areas in which postgraduates may well not actually participate immediately (e.g. lecturing or course design) but which it is important for them to understand from the point of view of the lecturer. This is followed by a series of weekly three-hour workshops from which they can select an appropriate programme to meet their needs. These workshops cover a range of topics which are of interest and relevance to the participants' situations, including:

At the same time, of course, the tutors are doing their tutorial or demonstrating work and this is counted as part of the contact hours of the programme, since the aim of the programme is to encourage tutors to become reflective practitioners. Each tutor will also have support and mentoring from within their home department. One element of this is that they will be observed by a colleague, be given feedback and helped in the reflective process.

At the end of the term there is a one-day session for review and future planning. If participants wish to be accredited for their work on the programme, they can submit a 5,000-word piece of writing reflecting on their experience and demonstrating their development, not only in practical terms, but also through researching and discussing the issues that have arisen. Successful completion of this stage gives the participants a Statement of Training.

Two further stages to the programme give access to a postgraduate diploma and MA in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, although for many postgraduates these stages will be attempted only following completion of their PhD thesis.


Foster, F., Hounsell, D. & Thomson, S. (Eds) (1995) Tutoring and Demonstrating: a handbook (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment).


Group projects
Marking sheets
Small group teaching

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Small-group teaching in Geography"

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