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In this issue of CDTL Brief on Research and Classroom Practices, NUS colleagues discuss ways of student engagement across various disciplines in the University.

August 2009, Vol. 12 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Small Group Teaching—Get and Give 100% the ‘Old-fashioned’ Way: Perspectives from the Pathology Classroom
Dr Nga Min En
Department of Pathology


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 principles:

• What to teach: Create a solid lesson outline

• How to teach it well: Encourage class participation

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 topic summary.

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 revision.

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 here.

Use mind maps. Delve successively deeper into each arm of the map while keeping the big picture in mind.

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 them.

How to teach it well: Encourage class participation

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 this?

Listen. Ask them how they are doing and show genuine concern.

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 up!


Encourage laughter, which captures their attention and builds rapport. Laugh not at the students but with them.

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 could experience.


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Inside this issue
Action Research in Teaching
Major Challenges Instructors Face in Teaching Undergraduate Contemporary Life Sciences
Small Group Teaching—Get and Give 100% the ‘Old-fashioned’ Way: Perspectives from the Pathology Classroom
Two Strategies to Facilitate Active Learning in Large Classes
Using Short Stories as an Instructional Tool for Teaching Human Anatomy in the Classroom
Customising Continuous Assessment Exercises