Small Group Teaching in a Large Class: ‘Understanding History’

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Teaching Portal: For Teachers, Teaching Portal: Innovative Modules | 0 comments

In this post Dr Marcus Collins, Senior Lecturer in Cultural History at the University of Loughborough, shares his knowledge and experience of teaching the course ‘Understanding History’, a compulsory module for second-year undergraduates which aims to develop the historiographical and analytical skills necessary to conduct advanced research on a chosen historical field. This module, he explains, has taught him about the promise and potential pitfalls of departing from orthodox teaching methods.


The ‘Understanding History’ module was introduced at Loughborough in 2018 to address several perceived needs:

Disciplinary training: At my university single-honours history students took a minority of history-only modules in their first year. Students’ final-year dissertations also showed them to be better at analysing primary sources than secondary sources. Many second-year history students had not read a monograph from cover to cover.

Pedagogy: My view is that lecturing is a relatively ineffective form of learning, and I’m increasingly sceptical about the capacity of examinations and term papers to assess attainment and encourage attendance. I therefore wanted to design a module which rewarded participation and developed team-working skills.

Community: The iterative process of studying history is a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, students hone their skills and sharpen their minds by writing essay after essay; on the other, this means that they miss out on developing other, equally valuable, capabilities. Students recognise the issue. The module was therefore based on small-group work. A wider community was formed by each small group presenting their findings to the others and by introducing a ‘Research Day’ (see below).

Novelty: I wanted the module to introduce students to different subjects and different experiences than they encountered in other modules. I teach on a small programme which tries its best to cover a lot of time, space and themes, but can’t hope to cater to all students’ interests. This often becomes apparent when students choose dissertation topics unrelated to any of their undergraduate modules.

Practicality: At my university, there was a shift towards ‘smart teaching’, broadly understood as reducing the number of modules while increasing class sizes. I decided to see if I could introduce small-group learning into a large class (see Michaelsen 2002), effectively by running ten seminars concurrently in a single room. My former colleague Jessica Werneke and I shuttled from group to group.


Sample course schedule

At the beginning of the semester, students were allocated to one of ten small groups of eight people apiece, created according to their shared historical interests after completing a 100-question survey. These small groups were asked to choose a topic and to discover how it has been taught and researched, and how they could research and teach it.

Teaching on the module consisted of twelve two-hour sessions plus an eight-hour Research Day (session 4):

  1. Introduction and Forming Groups: The nuts and bolts of the module, followed by a questionnaire on each student’s historical interests and an overview of history as a scholarly discipline.
  2. Your Histories and Choosing Topics: Small groups assess how the approaches outlined in the previous week’s lecture have shaped their own historical education and choose a group topic.
  3. Points of Departure: Each group explores what it knows and doesn’t know about the group topic, what it wants to find out and how it might go about doing so.
  4. Research Day: An all-day event in which staff present their own research and discuss possible dissertation topics with students.
  5. Surveying Syllabi: Each group creates a “Frankenstein’s syllabus” on its topic which incorporates the best ideas from modules taught elsewhere.
  6. Analysing Articles: Each group analyses a pre-assigned article on its topic using a checklist of questions.
  7. Dissecting Monographs: Each member of the group reports summaries of their chosen monograph using the same checklist used for articles.
  8. Critiquing Monographs: Each member of the group reports critiques of their chosen monograph, then together the group compiles a comparative analysis of all the monographs on the topic.
  9. Reading Sources: Hands-on exercises analysing different kinds of primary sources.
  10. Discovering Archives: An overview of physical and virtual archives.
  11. Devising Workshops: The group devises a teaching session based on analysing a primary source about their topic.
  12. Learning Teaching: Groups take turns teaching and being taught the sessions based around primary sources which were devised the previous week.
  13. Conclusion: Progression to the dissertation.



Assessment consisted of participation (20%) and a portfolio of responses (80%) to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ questions for each session. The purpose of doing small weekly assignments was to keep students up to speed with the module and to see how their ideas developed over the course of the semester. The portfolio was marked according to the criteria of engagement, development and judgement.


Reflections on Teaching the Module

The continuous assessment showed that students accomplished much: they left the module better equipped to identify historiographical arguments and to locate themselves within them. They got a chance to pursue their personal interests and to understand how any historical subject can be rigorously studied. The ability to develop expertise on a field and work with others on a common project was much closer to a real-life work scenario than the traditional module.

However, the popularity of the module was not commensurate with its value in developing students’ ability to conduct historical research. Some students had little interest in learning how to do historians’ work; others found themselves choosing topics that were disagreeable to them or else choosing topics with a limited range of sources. Keen students were occasionally dismayed to find that other group members did not share their enthusiasm. Many were primarily focused on what their final grade would be.

These are familiar issues in group work and active learning. In response to the first year of student evaluations, we started each class the following year by explaining that day’s learning objectives and their relationship to past and future sessions, and provided formative feedback to every student.

We now accept the impracticality of doing small-group work in a room of eighty people, so will run two sessions of forty students apiece. In future, students will also choose their own small groups in order to improve small-group dynamics. We have also recalibrated our expectations of how quickly students can climb “Bloom’s pyramid”, which presents a taxonomy for categorizing educational goals.

Active learning isn’t easy. The module continues to be a learning process for me as well as my students.



Lorin W. Anderson and David Krathwohl, (eds.), A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (2001).

Donald A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures? (1972).

Marcus Collins, Jola Groves and Alice Hughes, ‘The Shaping History Project: Final Report’, Sparqs (2011).

Marcus Collins, Deena Ingham, Katie Carpenter, Jenna Townend, Sofia Mali, and Sean Jinks, ‘Passing It On: how postgraduates can help undergraduates to develop final-year dissertations – abstract of ISSOTL talk’, Bucks New University (2015).

Marcus Collins and Peter N. Stearns, Why Study History? (2020).

Peter J. Frederick, ‘Motivating Students by Active Learning in the History Classroom’, AHA Perspectives, Vol. 31 (1993), pp.15-19.

Larry K. Michaelsen, ‘Team-Based Learning in Large Groups’, in Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight and L. Dee Fink, (eds.), Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching (2002), pp.157-72.

Image Credit: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

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