Small group teaching is a great opportunity to
interact with students, exchange ideas and impart
knowledge. With large student cohorts being the
norm in the medical faculty (>250 students), we
often face a new group each time. Thus, it becomes
a challenge to establish a quick rapport and impart
sound concepts over an hour long session. Although
advances in instructional technology have
significantly widened the repertoire of available
teaching tools, in this article I will highlight some
“old-fashioned”, low-tech methods requiring only a
willing tutor and the whiteboard, that have served
me well over the years.
In tackling the dual challenges of consolidating
concepts and building rapport, I follow two basic
• What to teach: Create a solid lesson outline
• How to teach it well: Encourage class
What to teach: Create a solid lesson outline
Step 1: Revise
Lesson content is entirely dependent on the tutor—
we must know our stuff. Spending a quick half hour
reading a basic text for a fact-heavy topic enables
one to select the important parts and plan a quick
Step 2: Prepare a topic summary
Begin the lesson with a 10-minute topic summary.
Despite having attended the lecture recently,
students may not have assimilated the facts or even
fully understood the topic. The topic summary
will help them crystalise their ideas about the
fundamental concepts they learnt, and they can
build on this framework when they do their own
To do this, simplify and contextualise the facts. In
short, go for ‘the big picture’. The following are
some ways to simplify the facts:
Break the topic into simple, logical parts that
the students can work out for themselves. For
example, when I teach them about neoplasia
(tumours), I ask them questions such as, “What
is a simple and clinically useful way to classify
neoplasms?” Students usually reply “Benign vs
malignant.” One can continue the lesson from
Use mind maps. Delve successively deeper into
each arm of the map while keeping the big picture
Avoid providing too much detail.
To contextualise the facts, one should:
Keep it interesting and relevant.
Demonstrate how the topic relates to real life.
For instance, how does one teach students
the dry, isolated topic of cell adaptation?
One way is to use the example of an athlete
with huge muscles (hypertrophy) to spur their
imagination, whereupon they can extrapolate
the changes expected at a cellular level.
Help students draw direct links to their own
experiences. For example, when I teach them
about inflammation, I ask them to recall their
experience of getting a mosquito bite—why
does it swell, become red and painful? Get
them excited about real life occurrences as
they try to work out the basic science behind
How to teach it well: Encourage class
Class participation is based on the degree of rapport
established between students and the tutor. Again,
I employ two simple tools: empathy and humour.
Students can sense indifference in a tutor. We
need to empathise with their situation, whether it
is information overload, insecurity or fear of being
embarrassed in front their peers. When they realise
we understand their psyche, it makes us appear
approachable and non-threatening. How do we do
Listen. Ask them how they are doing and show
Reassure. State firmly that there is no such
thing as a “stupid” question or answer. Tell
them it is better to make a mistake now than
when they treat actual patients, where serious
consequences may arise if they misdiagnose.
If that does not work, ask them if they would rather get it wrong during a tutorial or the
exam, which should convince them to speak
Encourage laughter, which captures their attention
and builds rapport. Laugh not at the students but
Another useful tip is to get one student to call on
another to answer the next question. This may elicit
some ‘killer’ stares which always gets a good laugh
and breaks the tension.
With a little imagination, it is easy to find humorous
examples to illustrate teaching points.
In conclusion, in teaching as with everything
else, the more we give, the more we get in return.
Applying these simple tools maximises the positive
interaction between tutor and student. A responsive,
actively thinking and questioning small group is
one of the greatest pleasures a passionate tutor