Managing Small Group Learning
Described below are some suggestions for managing learning
in small groups. Teachers who are using more active learning
models in their classrooms and teachers who are preparing for
teaching in extended periods of learning (block schedules) often
find these tips useful.
Strategy # 1: Be purposeful
There are a variety of small group learning structures that
contribute to increased student learning and productive use of
classroom time. Here are some specific examples of small groups
- Study groups - review previously taught material
in preparation for a teacher made test or quiz.
- Drill teams/drill partners - serve as coaches
and trainers to each other to learn new material.
- Problem solving teams - propose, build, and test
a solution to a problem by making drawings, models, and
- Laboratory teams - carry out experiments and
inquiries by sharing observations, procedures,
conclusions, and materials.
- Research teams - conduct investigations by
sharing ideas, information, and responsibilities.
- Expert panels - groups of students who have
become expert in some aspect of a class study or unit.
- Enactment groups - teams of students who
prepare, rehearse, and present an "enactment"
of a significant literary, historical, or scientific
event to the rest of the class or an audience beyond the
- Shop/lab/studio helpers - student leader teams,
pairs, or trios of students who serve as work group
supervisors in a course for younger students.
- Interdisciplinary investigation team - sometimes
called area studies teams, these groups of students are
assembled by interest or skills required to complete a
study of a community resource.
- Debate team - students who research a
controversial issue and marshal arguments for and against
a particular position.
- Jigsaw team - each student has something that he
or she reads and teaches to the others in the group.
- Student Teams Achievement Divisions - the
teacher presents (teaches) new information, which the
students review (study) in teams, followed by a test and
recognition (certificate) of team performance.
- Teams/Games/Tournament structures - the teacher
presents (teaches) new information, which students review
(study) in teams, followed by a game (tournament) in
which students are matched by ability and bring points
back to their study team. This is followed by recognition
(certificate) of team performance.
Strategy # 2: Prepare students for success.
Teachers using small group learning structures teach the
skills of teamwork as if it were the content of the class. They
drill the skills of teamwork using simpler tasks and build to
more complex assignments.
- Change group composition frequently so that students of
different backgrounds, academic achievement levels, and
social skills learn to work together. This capacity is
build to familiarity, insights, and trust.
- Organize the work so that each team member contributes to
the achievement of the team goals.
- Use teacher observations, tests, checklists, and
individual assignments to measure each student's
- Promote group responsibility by holding groups
accountable for completing specific tasks or project
steps during work sessions.
- Teach, model, and assess the social skills you expect
teams to demonstrate: Listening, taking turns,
encouraging, and supporting each other, staying on task,
cleaning up the work area, etc.
- Pick the right sized task. It must be challenging enough
to keep students interested, but easy enough for students
to achieve success (with effort) in the time allotted.
- Include a very specific assignment or menu of options for
teams to work on. "Every meeting results in a
product" - a list to create, a diagram to draw, an
outline to display, a form to fill out.
- Anticipate that not every group will finish at the same
time. Have a classroom poster or handout with a list of
"what to do if you finish early" items on it.
- Teach teams how to assess how well they work together.
Encourage "team reflection" as part of every
Strategy # 3: Keep flexible and be vigilant.
- Use flexible grouping strategies.
- Teacher-determined groups
- Student-determined groups
- Teacher and student-determined groups
- Chance determined groups
- Skill/interest determined groups
- Analyze task criteria. What are the learning objectives?
What content, skills or attitudes should students be able
- Study the classroom environment. Small group work may
require different arrangements of chairs, desks, and
tables in classrooms. Teachers often devise systems and
procedures for storing and retrieving papers, materials,
and tools. Classroom noise levels may increase.
- Provide time for practice and rehearsal. Students need to
practice and demonstrate new skills and knowledge. Small
group learning can motivate students to work on the
repetitive tasks needed to master a skill or concept.
- Introduce tools for critical and creative thinking.
Creative thinking and problem solving tools can be
provided by the teacher acting as team advisor or coach,
or may be integrated in a work session warm-up at the
beginning of a class.
- Coach students to success. The teacher's role during
small group work is to serve as monitor, supervisor, and
coach. Sometimes the coach must blow the whistle and
redirect the group, so it can complete the assignment.
When to intervene:
- The group is off task
- The group has difficulty starting or completing
- The group experiences interpersonal conflict
- The group cannot organize to get the work done
- Evaluate progress. Individual student progress is
measured by individual performances and products. Group
progress is measured by group performances and products.
What standards must small groups achieve? What criteria
will you use to determine that the task has been
successfully completed? What rubric or rating scale will
let you assess individual or group proficiency in
executing the desired skill or demonstrating the required
- Encourage self-assessment. Two important outcomes of
alternative approaches in student assessment are better
understanding of self and increased responsibility for
one's own learning. The teacher provides opportunities
for both individuals and groups to use self-assessment
tools, to reflect on progress over time, and to set new
goals for performance.
Ideas to Consider in Developing Assignments for Small Group
- Introduce the unit or project to the whole class at once,
so everyone knows what different groups will be working
on and can get a big picture view of how various
components of the unit or project fit together.
- Require students to construct something - a model, a
prototype, sketch or drawing. The construction should
give you insights into how students perceive concepts,
time, history, or relationships.
- Offer both required tasks and student choices. Give
students more latitude in choosing the topic to
investigate and the format for reporting/demonstrating
- Have students to learn from first-hand experience part of
the time. Have them survey parents, students, faculty, or
community members in order to generate new data for their
small group research.
- Expect students to conduct library research on a current
political, literary, scientific, or sociological debate
in which they :
- Use at least three sources for their research
(e.g., books, personal interviews, articles,
newspaper reports, etc.)
- Construct an argument for or against the issue
citing their sources as support.
- Present the argument to an audience beyond the
- Present the argument using visual aids, a
pamphlet prepared for the public, oral
presentation, a slide show, etc. Encourage
- Have students keep a journal or daily learning log in
which they write responses to specific prompts that you
- Plan a culminating activity (trip to a museum, visit to a
tidepool or mountain top) or field investigation (urban
planning, weeds in a lawn, water quality at a local pond)
which explores community/regional resources.
- Assign small group tasks which require students to read,
write, reflect, listen, speak, construct, or perform
during some period of their group work.
- Require students to present, report, or demonstrate what
they have learned at the end of the unit. Provide a range
of options for students to choose from, but ensure that
students try each option at least once during the school
year. Options could include a media demonstration,
videotape, written report, oral report, a performance
such as a song, dance or skit, hands on demonstration,
model or prototype, project, display, design or drawing.
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For more information about what might address the
needs and interests of your school, district, or organization
contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call (978) 582-4217