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Updated: How do you do socially-distanced in-person small-group teaching?

Updated: How do you do socially-distanced in-person small-group teaching?

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As colleagues plan for hybrid teaching across the University, one challenge that has been identified by many people is how to do effective socially-distanced in-person small-group teaching. In response to this question, we have gathered together some ideas and possible solutions to this challenge.

As of 27th August when this blog was first drafted (updated: 11th September) detailed University guidance to support staff when planning and taking part in in-person activities with students is in development and will be published on the web at—What-You-Need-to-Know.aspx before the start of the semester.  Current guidance is that staff and students will be expected to maintain the 2m distancing requirement, use of printed material is being discouraged and face coverings are expected.

Please refer to the current guidance at when planning sessions. We recognise that guidance is likely to change and be updated throughout the semester and have therefore grouped ideas to reflect some of the possible changes.

Even if you think some of these ideas might not work as they are described, you may be able to adapt them to work in your context. We’d love to add more ideas and approaches to the blog so please contact us if you have material we can add to the blog and share with colleagues.

Ideas involving 2 metre social distancing, masks on, and technology

  • Ask them to work online as a group before the class to discuss something in detail. Then in the in-person class they feedback to the whole group, and the tutorial is a whole group discussion. This could similarly work as a debate format with assigned roles before the class.
  • Ask groups to go outside for a socially distanced walk to discuss something, then they can take off their masks potentially.
  • Use technology in place of post-its and do mind mapping, whiteboards or Padlets virtually. For the discussion element they won’t be able to talk to each other much, so the activity has to be very visually based.
  • Go back to tutorials being largely individual discussions or whole group discussions, and maybe speaking to the person next to you, but not in small groups.
  • Get techy and use headphones and microphones. Then use the usual break out groups online to facilitate those discussions as you would online. Then they feed back to the whole class in person.

By Emily Wollen, Academic Developer Institute for Academic Development.

Ideas involving 2 metre social distancing, masks on, and no shared physical materials

Work in pairs more frequently than in small groups of 3-4 or more.

It will probably be easier to speak with one other person when socially distanced than a group of say 4. There will probably be quite a bit of noise as people will need to speak up in order to hear each other without the usual visual cues. Perhaps then, people could swap who they work in a pair with to gain new perspectives and share more ideas.

Small group work using online space as well as in-person communication

A group of 4 students who are ideally sat in a square 2m apart from each other, can all be given an online group space e.g. in Learn, Collaborate or using Padlet to work in and contribute to. They could be working and talking online on their phones/tablets/laptops (assumes students bring a device) and supplement this discussion by talking to each other in-person in their small group, even if talking across the small group is challenging in any way. This would require some planning to ensure students sit in particular seats to match the online group allocation.

Ideas involving 2 metre social distancing, masks off, and sharing of materials is allowed

Post it notes and flip chart use in a small group

A small group of 4 students sat in a square socially-distanced, can be asked a question or posed a problem by the teacher. The students use post it notes individually to respond to the question or problem. They can then stick the post it notes on ‘their corner’ of a large flip chart sheet on the floor between the chairs. Then students could rotate the flip chart paper around to see what others have written (then hand sanitise), and then focus on trying to discuss what the top key points are to feedback from the main group.

Flash cards to aid communication

In small groups of 3 or 4, we could give students some blank card and dark felt tip pens to write down key ideas and hold them up to show their peers if they are struggling to hear each other in a group. Card will be easier to write on if they haven’t got desks and is easier to hold up.

Represent ideas in a diagram or picture

The challenges of hearing each other in a small group could be used as the basis to set a fun exercise to get each member of the group to create a diagram or picture of their idea, solution to a problem or understanding of a concept on A4 card in dark felt tip. Then get each member of a small group of 4 students to hold up their diagram and explain it to the rest of the group. If some of the spoken word is hard to hear, at least students get some level of understanding from seeing the diagram. Particularly problematic technical terms or words people struggle to hear can be written on the card alongside the diagram.

We hope these ideas are helpful, but we are really keen to hear further examples and ideas so we can expand the ideas for the benefit of colleagues across the University. If you have an idea to help with socially-distanced in-person small-group work, please get in touch.

By Catherine Bovill, Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement – Institute for Academic Development & Jon Turner Director Institute for Academic Development. 


    1. Catherine Bovill

      Hi George,
      Thanks for your response. You are absolutely right that currently face coverings are expected and some of these examples might not therefore be appropriate at the moment.

      We included all of these examples in order to: 1) include a wider range of examples, which might become relevant as and when the rules on social distancing and mask wearing change; 2) provide different ideas that might be adaptable in some way; and 3) to inspire others to share ideas for how to do socially-distanced, in-person, small-group work.

      We would welcome new ideas and examples if you or your colleagues have any suggestions. Thanks again for your feedback.
      best wishes

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