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Friendly, but not “friends”: Understanding and describing teacher–student relationship for productive and safe small group work

Althea Gamble Blakey, Stuart Chambers


Introduction: Small group work is increasingly used as an educational tool in the health sciences and can have a potentially broad remit: to develop student knowledge and thinking, cultivate the values necessary for professional practice, but also, in doing so, to protect students from mistreatment. Small group teachers can, thus, find it hard to understand what an effective teacher–student relationship in small group teaching might “look like”. We sought to identify, clarify and describe characteristics essential to an effective teacher–student relationship, aiming to add to literature about the type of relationship that helps a teacher reach educational goals but, specifically, one that fully addresses the potential risks of necessarily close teacher–student contact. 

Method: As part of a larger action research project, we gathered qualitative data from: interviews with six medical teacher participants, observations and video-recordings of their teaching, participants’ personal reflective journals and group discussions about teaching practice. We used a grounded theory approach to analyse our data. 

Results: Over time, participants identified, tested and evaluated two essential characteristics to describe the teacher–student relationship that allowed teachers to meet their desired goals in small group work: 1) friendly and 2) not “friends”. 

Conclusions: This description of “relationship” for small group teaching is easily understood and pragmatic and, thus, potentially transferable across many health science small group teaching contexts.


small group learning; medical education; relationship; mistreatment; bullying

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