Small group tuition is defined as one teacher or tutor working with two to five pupils together in a group. This arrangement enables the teaching 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.
1. Small group tuition has an average impact of four months’ additional progress over the course of a year.
2. Small group tuition is most likely to be effective if it is targeted at pupils’ specific needs. Diagnostic assessment can be used to assess the best way to target support.
3. Providing training to the staff that deliver small group support is likely to increase impact.
The average impact of the small group tuition is four additional months’ progress, on average, over the course of a year.
Evidence shows that small group tuition is effective and, as a rule of thumb, the smaller the group the better. Some studies suggest that greater feedback from the teacher, more sustained the 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.
Although the rule “the smaller the better” there is some variability in impact within the existing evidence. For example, in reading, small group teaching can sometimes be more effective than, for example, paired tuition. It may be that in these cases reading practice can be efficiently organised so that all the pupils 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 pupil 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.
In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), some studies have identified factors that may affect the use of small group tutoring, such as economic, social, cultural, educational, and geographical differences. Positive feedback from parents and teachers in Kenya for example, suggest small group tutoring can help improve learners learning behaviours and general school performance.
The number of students a group must have for learning to be effective is however not established. Some studies from SSA have suggested that small groups should range between 3 to 4 students for effective interaction and greater impact on student achievement.
In addition, the literature from SSA suggests small group tuition could be effective for mathematics and science subjects and is a practice in both public and private school systems.
Impact tends to be greater in primary schools (+4 months) than secondary schools, which has fewer studies overall and a lower impact (+2 months).
Most of the research on small group tuition has been conducted on reading and there is a greater impact, on average (+ 4 months). The studies in mathematics show a slightly smaller positive impact (+ 3 months).
Frequent sessions, three times a week or so, lasting up to an hour over about 10 weeks typically show the greatest impact.
Low attaining pupils particularly benefit from small group tuition.
Small group tuition has an impact by providing additional support that is targeted at pupil needs. The reduction in the ratio of pupils to teacher compared to a regular classroom setting also allows for closer interaction between educators and pupils. When implementing small group tuition, schools should consider how to ensure that these active ingredients have a positive impact through:
- Accurately identifying the pupils that require additional support.
- Understanding the learning gaps of the pupils that receive small group tuition and using this knowledge to select curriculum content appropriately.
- Ensuring teachers are well-prepared for having high quality interactions with pupils, such as delivering well-planned feedback.
- Ensuring that small group tuition is well-linked to classroom content.
Small group tuition may be delivered by teachers, academic mentors or tutors. Interventions are typically delivered over an extended period, often over the course several weeks or terms, to a small group of between two to five pupils.
Small group tuition is likely to be time consuming for both the teacher and learners. Costs of tutoring may be incurred by schools or by families. The overall average costs are likely to be moderate.
Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider using providers with a track record of effectiveness. To increase the impact of small group approaches, school leaders should consider professional development for teachers, academic mentors, and tutors to support high-quality tutoring practices.
The security of the evidence around small group tuition is rated as moderate. 62 studies were identified that met the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The topic lost an additional padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated:
- Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
In SSA, the evidence on the impact of small group tuition is very limited and of low quality. More robust studies in the form of randomized trials and/or systematic reviews should be conducted to ascertain the impact of small group tuition on educational attainment within the region.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.