Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Small-group Teaching at the University of Leeds
Originator Pauline Kneale
Department School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK
Tel. +44 (0)113 233 3340
Fax +44 (0)113 233 3308

The School of Geography in the University of Leeds has radically altered its approach to small-group teaching. It has integrated different styles and formats of teaching, altered its teaching and assessment practices, and addressed the staff training requirements of this new system.

The key points are these:

'GEOG1080 - Study Skills in Geography;' a Year 1 alternative to tutorials

In 1994 the tutorial system for first-year geography students at the University of Leeds was replaced by the 10-credit module 'GEOG1080 Study Skills in Geography'. With increasing student numbers, and modularisation extending core lecture courses to many elective students, student-centred learning was built into every module with integrated workshops and seminar sessions (Kneale, 1997). 'Study Skills in Geography' is compulsory for single-honours geography students and is an option for those students who have geography as a named part of their degree. The module therefore must stand alone in terms of its geographical content. The module was piloted originally as an Enterprise in Higher Education initiative with a volunteer group of students. Its content has developed each year as new material and techniques are introduced, and others discarded (Kneale, 1995).

The formal objectives of the module are that students will acquire:

  1. effective study skills and be able to apply them to topical geographical issues;
  2. skills in a range of areas including discussion, presentation, writing, and IT including word-processing;
  3. research skills through preparation of material for presentation in tutorial discussion and essays.

The module is run over two semesters with three types of teaching.
Workshops All students (currently 165) in a lecture theatre with one member of staff. Postgraduates help in some sessions to chair and gain feedback from focus/brainstorming groups.
Tutorials 5 students meet with a tutor who may be an academic member of staff, a teaching assistant or senior postgraduate. Each group chooses four topics, from a list of over 20, to research during the year. Students come to the Topic Tutorials to present the results of their research as oral presentations. These are assessed. Essentially the tutorials are the place where students demonstrate that they are developing the skills covered in the workshop sessions.
Practicals Computer laboratory sessions, led and managed by a teaching assistant, supported by four or five postgraduate demonstrators (class sizes of 60 in two laboratories).

Because students have different kinds of sessions in different weeks they have to develop diary and time-management skills to get to the right place each week. Staff involvement is reduced from a weekly meeting to nine meetings per year. In terms of quality control we can be sure that all students will have had the opportunity to demonstrate the skills included in the module.

The Syllabus:

Semester 1
Week 1 Workshop
Introduction to the Module, how it works and assessment. Emphasis on the difference between school and university teaching and learning. Importance of personal learning strategies.
Week 2 Tutorial
First meeting with tutor, to select and discuss how the work for Topics 1 and 2 will be organised. 'Get to know each other' session.
Wks 2-6 Practicals
Three one-hour practicals to be completed in these five weeks. word-processing skills, BIDS, e-mail and e-mail with attachments, WWW, and downloading hard copies of references from library.
Week 3 Workshop
Research resources, libraries and what they can do for you. Introduction to the university and department resources. Worksheet - involves tracking down references across the five main libraries.
Week 4 Workshop
Getting your points across, presentation and discussion skills. Uses the BBC's 'Speak for Yourself' video, followed by discussion. Worksheet.
Week 5 Tutorial
Not in the original module plan but it was felt that some support was needed at this point to encourage the progress in topic preparation, sort out any problems, and cheer up students feeling overwhelmed by university life.
Week 6 Workshop
Effective reading, note taking, thinking and summarising. Uses Rowntree's (1988) SQ3R amongst other techniques. Optional worksheet.
Week 7 Tutorial
'Topic 1'. Student presentation to tutors on first topic. Most tutors ask the group to assess each other so as to help focus on technique as well as content.
Week 8 Workshop
'How to pass modules and stay in bed 'till 12.00 and party all week'. A time-management session. Mix of discussion and planning for the next week (Kneale, 1997).
Week 9 Tutorial
'Topic 2'.
Week 10 Workshop
Memories of revision, effective university examination techniques. An interactive session with example questions and alternative answers. Uses postgraduates to chair focus groups (size = 25) within the lecture theatre, which helps the students' active input.
Week 11 Tutorial
Useful if previous presentations have overrun, also used to review the term, chat about examinations and toast Christmas.
Semester 2
Week 14 Tutorial
Welcome back after examinations; a session where work for Topics 3 and 4 is organised
Week 15 Workshop
Different approaches to research and learning. Uses the Learning Styles questionnaire and check-lists to identify the skills required to manage research for Topic 3. Aims to improve personal confidence in skills acquired and to identify areas where this topic gives an opportunity to practise skills where the student is less confident. Reflective diary of research activity for Topic 3.
Week 16 Workshop
Writing university-style essays. Feedback from the recent examinations; examples of good essay technique, recognising pitfalls, writing good introductions and conclusions.
Week 17 Workshop
Critical thinking; thinking through ideas, when do you think? how might you improve your thinking? what does the university expect of you?
Week 19 Tutorial
'Topic 3' - with diary of research/preparation process.
Week 22 Tutorial
'Topic 4' - with PowerPoint display.
Wks 19-23 Practicals
Three one-hour practicals; further word processing including tables and equations in reports, incorporating Excel, Minitab and PowerPoint output in Word 6 documents.
Week 23 Tutorial
End of session meeting; may be used to complete tutorial reports.


The form and timing of assessment is:
  • two essays based on material from two topic tutorials
  • four presentations of study topics
  • computer word-processing practicals/workshops

Tutorial topics: Students select from a menu of topics each of which has roughly a three-page briefing. This includes a one-page topic summary, suggested research areas, possible presentation themes, suggestions for group or solo work (some topics lend themselves to a debate format, for example), and suggested essay titles.

The large workshops are awkward to teach. In the first few weeks there is inevitably a group asking why they are not doing straight geography. Some sessions seem obscure at first. Some students vote with their feet and only stay to the workshop if there is an assessed worksheet as part of the session. Others get very involved and really do attempt to change their reading style, start to focus on personal issues like writing styles or thinking processes, and take the time-management ideas seriously. There is considerable support from mature students for this module since it addresses a number of areas where they feel vulnerable.

The presentations video gets rapt audience attention and clearly impacts on students' confidence levels and approach to talking to groups. Much of the information in the discussion handout is common-sense and good manners, but it raises students' confidence levels by making them aware of different forms of discussion - debate, focus groups, brainstorming, role-play exercises, oppositional and consensual discussion, and the different roles of discussants and chairpersons in these situations. It reminds them of some of the stock phrases, 'while I agree with Jim in principle, I also think...', 'that is a good point and...'. There is nothing very advanced here, more like 'ask the easy question to get the group talking', and 'if worried, get the tutorial group together over a coffee and have a quick discussion, and develop an action plan'. The session also aims to ensure that the students are aware that they have a responsibility to keep a discussion going, to ensure everyone gets an opportunity to be heard, and there is good listening going on.

The sessions on essays, note taking and revision have understandable appeal. The session on critical thinking is less obviously accessible. Students feel more reluctance about identifying where they could think more efficiently. Teaching needs to be a mix of serious and light-hearted sections to keep up group morale.

The practicals have variable student response, depending on past skills. In 1994 the World Wide Web practical was new and exciting, and students found locating material difficult and challenging. By 1996 this practical was clearly unnecessary, very few students had not already visited a Web site, and the majority were happily surfing. Consequently in 1997 the WWW information was delivered as a handout so that those who needed guidance on using the Internet had a full guide. In 1997 BIDS, e-mail and attachments to e-mail seem to cause more problems and we force the group to prove they can do these tasks through the practicals. Revisiting Word 6 skills late in the year is beneficial, if only to point out that there are other things they can do. The equations editor is awkward and practice here is valuable, as are constructing and shading tables, and including Excel and other objects in documents. In previous years a computer CV exercise was included, but this has now been moved to Year 2 where it has more relevance. The CV session was replaced by PowerPoint in 1997, where everyone had to create six slides to illustrate their Topic 4 presentation. This was the most fun and from the feedback students thought this was the most rewarding session. It had the bonus of showing all the postgraduates how to make PowerPoint slides and all tutors were given demonstrations of PowerPoint in action.

Postgraduates enjoy these sessions, new postgraduates are asked to demonstrate the practicals thereby improving their own skills and awareness of the university resources. It has been my practice to ask either the teaching assistant taking the practical classes or a postgraduate to write the handouts for these sessions, and also to undertake annual pre-practical checks to ensure any changes to the university systems are incorporated. This helps to keep the language in the documents student-friendly and accessible.

Probably the factor that gives this module the most 'street cred.' is postgraduates saying 'why didn't we have this at university?' and 'this is really useful, I can use this for...'. Postgraduates need supportive briefings and they get clear guidelines from the core teaching staff as to what is intended and required. When undergraduates see the postgraduates taking sessions seriously they begin to think that there is something in it. Certainly with over 160 students in the workshops, the use of focus groups led by postgraduates helps the level of interaction. In the first sessions the postgraduates feed back the main points which helps get over student shyness at speaking.

Integrating workshops into lecture courses

When the course was modularized the decision was taken that all lecture-based modules in the School of Geography at Leeds would be academically independent, and therefore all tutorial-style support work would be embedded within individual modules. This allows elective students to take 1-4 modules (10-40 credits) of geography without feeling at a disadvantage compared with single-honours students taking 80 or more credits in geography. In some departments sessions of this type would be called seminars. This title was not chosen because a seminar implies a particular type of exercise; staff wanted to include a much wider range of activities in these sessions. We sought to blur the conventional distinctions between tutorials, seminars and workshops, and the latter term is the one we shall use here.

The objective of workshops is to give students the opportunity to interact with relevant materials and to talk about the topics. Workshops provide opportunities for students to ask questions, chase up areas of misunderstanding and to feel more involved as learners. Most sessions involve some form of feed back. Undergraduates commonly prepare overhead transparencies to summarise group discussion and elect a reporter. Presentation and other skills are taught elsewhere in the geography curriculum, encouraging good practice and self-confidence (Kneale, 1995).


The normal pattern for integration is to hold a workshop session for every 3 to 5 lecture classes. A first-year module with 300 students will be broken down into 12 workshops held in the same week as the lecture they replace. The staff-student ratio is roughly 30:1, while in Year 2 we aim for 20:1 or 25:1. The member of staff leading the module takes one workshop, the others are led by postgraduates and teaching assistants. Timetabling is difficult; each week there is a different combination of modules having workshops. Space is mostly found in the Schools' physical geography laboratories. Students sign up for workshops at a time that fits with their other commitments.

Training postgraduates

This is vital. You cannot expect a student who graduated in July to take a class in October without plenty of support. All postgraduates attend workshops in the department on teaching and managing small groups. They are expected to attend relevant university courses, such as 'Presentation Skills', 'Teaching in Laboratories' and 'Small-Group Teaching'. They are expected to attend the lectures for the module in the first year as part of their preparation. Postgraduates are normally assigned to the same module in the next two years, so they build on previous experience. Students' work is marked by postgraduates to guidelines provided by staff. Postgraduates are not asked to generate the teaching materials; this is the responsibility of the staff who fully brief the tutors. Where possible, classes are timetabled so that a new postgraduate can attend a workshop run earlier in the week by a more experienced student before tackling his/her own group. Postgraduates are paid the hourly teaching rate for demonstrating and half that rate for time spent on preparation and marking.

Types of workshop teaching

Pre-workshop work?

In the first year of the new scheme the general format was for work to be done during the hour of the workshop. At the end of the year student and staff feedback suggested that this was not very effective. The students arrived 'cold' to the material and took time to get involved. What is now more common is for the workshop handout to be distributed one or two weeks in advance so that the students come to the sessions with some background preparation. In Year 1 the work is not usually assessed as part of the module, whereas in Year 2 a workshop may count 10 per cent towards a module's final mark.

Workshop styles

There are a wide range of activities in these sessions; this Section describes a few of the formats.

  1. Pre-workshop handout with 4-6 questions to be answered in advance of the class, and 3-4 topics for discussion in class. Work might involve chasing up some library information and other sources as well as reviewing lecture notes. In a human geography session they might be asked to 'consider your own personal views on...' or 'outline three different views that may be taken on this issue'. At the workshop the answers are collected in at the start of the class, assessed and returned later. This ensures that everyone does something in advance, and those who do not, can be picked up and warned about their non-contribution. The workshop would normally split into discussion groups of 4-6 people, each pooling views, ideas and opinions and preparing OHT summaries as a basis for presentation to the whole class in the second half of the session.
  2. Use the first 20 minutes to answer 3 or 4 short-answer questions under examination conditions. Then distribute model answers to everyone and ask them to self-assess their own answers or do this working in pairs. Usually a chatty session, it does not count for the module, so stress is low and learning is often high. Good towards the end of a semester to review understanding of key points.
  3. A file, folder or handout of a variety of materials, background literature, tables of data, and a set of questions to answer is distributed in advance. The workshop is used to allow students to discuss ideas and issues in small groups. The answers to the questions must be handed in, individually, a couple of days later. Variations on this theme include joint answers (between two students) which halves the marking, or from a small group which reduces marking further.
  4. Role-play versions of 3 (above) require students in pairs or larger groups to discuss an issue from different, specified, viewpoints and then write this up from their own angle with critical evaluation.
  5. Workshops with no staff or postgraduates. In Year 2 some exercises are set to be done in the students' own time and handed in by a given date for assessment. There is no lecture in the week of the workshop, but a demonstrator will be assigned as a reference point for anyone who is stuck. Typical exercises in this format might involve simple computer modelling or asking students to apply first-year statistical tests - probably forgotten the week after the first-year practical - to real data and to interpret the results. The exercise also reminds a student of Minitab or Excel skills. The responses are marked by postgraduates to clear guidelines.
  6. An individual or group could be asked to undertake a search in the library or via BIDS, CD-ROM or Global Book Bank in order to report on the availability of literature and data for a specified topic. This is good training for dissertation work. The bonus is that the students then read some of the material. This work may be undertaken independently or the results may be discussed in a workshop.
  7. 'White space' handout approach. This technique is perhaps more often used within a lecture session to break up the note-taking activity but is also effective in small-group work. Essentially there is a structured handout with gaps to fill in as the session progresses. These can be short answers to questions, flow charts to complete, or equations and graphs to sort out and apply.
  8. Student assessment. Checking on the level of understanding so far can be achieved via traditional tests, but the speed of response with classes of over 200 students makes the marking unattractive. Multiple-choice questions (MCQ) monitored by computer-marked cards give feedback to students within 24 hours. This is a labour-saving and economical way of letting both staff and students assess what is known at any point in a module. The application of this methodology in a Year 1 module on soils and weather is described by Hogg (1997). While this type of test does take time to set up, if the MCQ papers are collected after the test, then they can be used the next year with minimal additional time input.
  9. Pre-examination revision workshops. It is normal practice to use the last session of the module as a revision workshop. Typical formats involve discussing past questions, creating outline answers and analysing model answers. The stress of examinations within the next two weeks makes these sessions popular and it gives students the opportunity to ask specific questions. While postgraduates will not always know the answers to more specialised questions, they certainly know someone who does and can route an answer to that student quickly.


Kneale, P. (1995) Encouraging student responsibility for learning through developing skills, profiling and records of achievement, in: A. Jenkins & A. Ward (Eds.) Developing Skill-based Curricula: case studies of good practice in geography, pp.121-132 (Birmingham: Staff and Educational Development Association).

Kneale, P. (1997) Maximising play time: time management for geography students, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21(2), pp.291-299.


Small-group teaching
Study skills

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

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