What is it?
Small group tuition is defined as one teacher or professional educator working with two to five students together in a group. This arrangement enables the teacher to focus exclusively on a small number of learners, usually in a separate classroom or working area. Intensive tuition in small groups is often provided to support lower attaining learners 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.
How effective is it?
Overall, evidence shows that small group tuition is effective and, as a rule of thumb, the smaller the group the better. Tuition in groups of two has a slightly higher impact than in groups of three, but a slightly lower impact than one to one tuition. Some studies suggest that greater feedback from the teacher, more sustained engagement in smaller groups, or work which is more closely matched to learners’ needs explains this impact. Once group size increases above six or seven there is a noticeable reduction in effectiveness.
However, although the above pattern is broadly consistent, 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.
Despite being commonly used in Australian schools, there is limited evidence from Australia which investigates the causal impact of small group tuition, as working in small groups often occurs concurrently with other interventions, such as phonics. An evaluation of a small group phonics intervention conducted in 2008 by RMIT University found that the phonological awareness and spelling of participating students improved, relative to a matched comparison group.
How secure is the evidence?
The evidence mainly relates to low-attaining students receiving additional support to catch up with their peers. More research has been undertaken into paired tuition than other kinds of small group tuition, so the evidence for small group teaching across varying sizes of groups and at different levels of intensity is not conclusive and mainly comes from single studies. There are very few studies where group size has been varied systematically to explore the effects beyond one to two and one to three, so more research would be useful in this area. Overall, the evidence is limited.
To date, the majority of the evidence comes from the USA. However, in recent years a growing number of rigorous UK studies have been conducted. In a 2014 evaluation Year 6 and 7 students made an additional three months’ progress with Switch-on Reading, a structured program involving small group tuition. In addition, an intensive coaching program that involved one to one and small group tuition had an average impact of five additional months' progress.
A 2011 evaluation of Every Child Counts also found that the program had a positive impact when delivered on a one to one basis or with groups of two or three, with all group sizes making similar amounts of progress.
What are the costs?
Overall, costs are estimated as moderate. Costs decrease as group size increases because the majority of the costs are for staff time. 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).
What should I consider?
Small group tuition is most likely to be effective if it is targeted at students’ specific needs. How will you assess students' needs accurately before adopting a new approach?
One to one tuition and small group tuition are both effective interventions. However, the cost effectiveness of one to two and one to three indicates that greater use of these approaches may be worthwhile. Have you considered trying one to two or one to three as an initial option?
Training and support are likely to increase the effectiveness of small group tuition. Have those delivering the small group tuition been trained in the program they are using?