Small-group teaching is particularly suited for complex skills such as communication. Existing work has identified the basic elements of small-group teaching, but few descriptions of higher-order teaching practices exist in the medical literature. Thus the authors developed an empirically driven and theoretically grounded model for small-group communication-skills teaching. Between 2002 and 2005, teaching observations were collected over 100 hours of direct contact time between four expert facilitators and 120 medical oncology fellows participating in Oncotalk, a semiannual, four-day retreat focused on end-of-life communication skills. The authors conducted small-group teaching observations, semistructured interviews with faculty participants, video or audio recording with transcript review, and evaluation of results by faculty participants.
Teaching skills observed during the retreats included a linked set of reflective, process-oriented teaching practices: identifying a learning edge, proposing and testing hypotheses, and calibrating learner self-assessments. Based on observations and debriefings with facilitators, the authors developed a conceptual model of teaching that illustrates an iterative loop of teaching practices aimed at enhancing learners’ engagement and self-efficacy. Through longitudinal, empirical observations, this project identified a set of specific teaching skills for small-group settings with applicability to other clinical teaching settings. This study extends current theory and teaching practice prescriptions by describing specific teaching practices required for effective teaching. These reflective teaching practices, while developed for communication skills training, may be useful for teaching other challenging topics such as ethics and professionalism.