One way to change the pace in your classroom is to do a small group activity. But what type of small group should you use? It depends on the size of your class, the length of time you have available, the physical features of the classroom, and the nature of the group task. Here are several options you could try. Consult the Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip “Group Work in the Classroom: Small-Group Tasks” for task ideas.
- Class size: any
- Time frame: 3-10 minutes
- Setting: no limitations
- Purpose: generate ideas/answers, re-stimulate student interest, gauge student understanding
Description: These groups involve students engaging in short, informal discussions, often in response to a particular sentence starter or question. At a transitional moment in the class, have students turn to 1-3 neighbours to discuss any difficulties in understanding, answer a prepared question, define or give examples of key concepts, or speculate on what will happen next in the class. The best discussions are those in which students make judgments regarding the relative merits, relevance, or usefulness of an aspect of the lecture (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999). Sample questions include, “What’s the most contentious statement you’ve heard so far in the lecture today?” or “What’s the most unsupported assertion you’ve heard in the lecture today?” Reconvene as a class and have a general discussion in which students share ideas or questions that arose within their subgroups.
Comments: This method is very flexible: it is easy to implement in any size of class and in most classrooms, even the most formally arranged lecture hall. Consider how to regain the attention of a large group: turning the lights off and on is one simple yet effective method.
- Class size: any
- Time frame: 5-10 minutes
- Setting: no limitations
- Purpose: generate ideas, increase students’ confidence in their answers, encourage broad participation in plenary session
Description: This strategy has three steps. First, students think individually about a particular question or scenario. Then they pair up to discuss and compare their ideas. Finally, they are given the chance to share their ideas in a large class discussion.
Comments: Think-pair-sharing forces all students to attempt an initial response to the question, which they can then clarify and expand as they collaborate. It also gives them a chance to validate their ideas in a small group before mentioning them to the large group, which may help shy students feel more confident participating.
Circle of Voices
- Class size: any
- Time frame: 10-20 minutes
- Setting: moveable chairs preferable
- Purpose: generate ideas, develop listening skills, have all students participate, equalize learning environment
Description: This method involves students taking turns to speak. Students form circles of four or five. Give students a topic, and allow them a few minutes to organize their thoughts about it. Then the discussion begins, with each student having up to three minutes (or choose a different length) of uninterrupted time to speak. During this time, no one else is allowed to say anything. After everyone has spoken once, open the floor within the subgroup for general discussion. Specify that students should only build on what someone else has said, not on their own ideas; also, at this point, they should not introduce new ideas (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999).
Comments: Some shy students might feel uncomfortable having to speak. Lessen their fear by making the topic specific and relevant or by giving each person a relevant quote to speak about. A variation to this method, which encourages students to listen more carefully to each other, involves requiring each person to begin by paraphrasing the comments of the previous student or by showing how his or her remarks relate to those of the previous student. For this variation, students will need less preparation time before the “circle” begins, but they may need more time between speakers.
- Class size: 15-30
- Time frame: 10 or more minutes
- Setting: a fair bit of space, moveable seating helpful (they could stand) Purpose: introduce students to many of their peers, generate ideas
Description: This strategy involves students discussing issues with many of their fellow classmates in turn. Beforehand, prepare discussion questions. In class, students form trios, with the groups arranged in a large circle or square formation. Give the students a question and suggest that each person take a turn answering. After a suitable time period, ask the trios to assign a 0, 1, or 2 to each of its members. Then direct the #1s to rotate one trio clockwise, the #2s to rotate two trios clockwise, and the #0s to remain in the same place; the result will be completely new trios. Now introduce a new, slightly more difficult question. Rotate trios and introduce new questions as many times as you would like (Silberman, 1996).
Comments: This type of group can be arranged with pairs or foursomes and works well with most subject matter, including computational questions. It would be difficult to implement in a large class, however.
- Class size: 12-50
- Time frame: 15-20 minutes, depending on how many times the groups “snowball”
- Setting: moveable seating required
- Purpose: generate well-vetted ideas, narrow a topic, develop decision-making skills
Description: This method involves progressive doubling: students first work alone, then in pairs, then in fours, and so on. In most cases, after working in fours, students come together for a plenary session in which their conclusions or solutions are pooled. Provide a sequence of increasingly complex tasks so that students do not become bored with repeated discussion at multiple stages. For example, have students record a few questions that relate to the class topic. In pairs, students try to answer one another’s questions. Pairs join together to make fours and identify, depending on the topic, either unanswered questions or areas of controversy or relevant principles based on their previous discussions. Back in the large class group, one representative from each group reports the group’s conclusions (Habeshaw et al, 1984; Jaques, 2000).
Comments: This method takes time to unfold, so should be used only when the concepts under discussion warrant the time. Also, depending on the amount of time allotted, students may feel that certain nuances of their discussions are lost.
- Class size: 10-50
- Time frame: 20 or more minutes
- Setting: moveable seating required, a lot of space preferable
- Purpose: learn concepts in-depth, develop teamwork, have students teaching students
Description: This strategy involves students becoming “experts” on one aspect of a topic, then sharing their expertise with others. Divide a topic into a few constitutive parts (“puzzle pieces”). Form subgroups of 3-5 and assign each subgroup a different “piece” of the topic (or, if the class is large, assign two or more subgroups to each subtopic). Each group’s task is to develop expertise on its particular subtopic by brainstorming, developing ideas, and if time permits, researching. Once students have become experts on a particular subtopic, shuffle the groups so that the members of each new group have a different area of expertise. Students then take turns sharing their expertise with the other group members, thereby creating a completed “puzzle” of knowledge about the main topic (see Silberman, 1996). A convenient way to assign different areas of expertise is to distribute handouts of different colours. For the first stage of the group work, groups are composed of students with the same colour of handout; for the second stage, each member of the newly formed groups must have a different colour of handout.
Comments: The jigsaw helps to avoid tiresome plenary sessions, because most of the information is shared in small groups. This method can be expanded by having students develop expertise about their subtopics first through independent research outside of class. Then, when they meet with those who have the same subtopic, they can clarify and expand on their expertise before moving to a new group. One potential drawback is that students hear only one group’s expertise on a particular topic and don’t benefit as much from the insight of the whole class; to address this issue, you could collect a written record of each group’s work and create a master document—a truly complete puzzle—on the topic.
- Class size: 10-50
- Time frame: 15 or more minutes
- Setting: moveable seating and a lot of space preferable; if necessary, have inner group stand/sit at front of lecture hall and the outer group sit in regular lecture hall seats
- Purpose: observe group interaction, provide real illustrations for concepts, provide opportunity for analysis
Description: This method involves one group observing another group. The first group forms a circle and either discusses an issue or topic, does a role play, or performs a brief drama. The second group forms a circle around the inner group. Depending on the inner group’s task and the context of your course, the outer group can look for themes, patterns, soundness of argument, etc., in the inner group’s discussion, analyze the inner group’s functioning as a group, or simply watch and comment on the role play. Debrief with both groups at the end in a plenary to capture their experiences. See Jaques (2000) for several variations on this technique.
Comments: Be aware that the outer group members can become bored if their task is not challenging enough. You could have groups switch places and roles to help with this. Also note that the inner group could feel inhibited by the observers; mitigate this concern by asking for volunteers to participate in the inner circle or by specifying that each student will have a chance to be both inner and outer group members. Although this method is easiest to implement in small classes, you could also expand it so that multiple “fishbowls” are occurring at once.
- Class size: any
- Time frame: any
- Setting: no limitations
- Purpose: foster relationships among students, increase confidence in participating
Description: For this type of group, students are divided into groups at the beginning of the term. When you want to incorporate small group discussion or teamwork into your class, you direct the students to get into these term-long learning groups. Groups of four work well, because each foursome can be subdivided into pairs, depending on the activity.
Comments: Students get to know a small number of their classmates well over the course of the term, and may come to see their team mates as study partners even outside the classroom. Using learning teams eliminates the time it takes to organize students into groups each time you wish to use group work. However, because students will be working with each other over an extended time period, be very careful about how you assign them to groups. Have students submit data cards about themselves at the beginning of term, possibly even completing a short personality inventory. You might want to ask them also to suggest the names of two or three classmates with whom they would and would not like to work.
- Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
- Habeshaw, S., Habeshaw, T., & Gibbs, G. (1984). 53 Interesting Things to Do in Your Seminars & Tutorials. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.
- Jaques, D. (2000). Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Improving Group Work, 3rd ed. London: Kogan Page.
- Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No.4. Washington, D.C.: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.
- Race, P. (2000). 500 Tips on Group Learning. London: Kogan Page.
- Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
By Barbara Blackburn
Group work is one of the most effective ways to help students learn. It can increase student motivation and is an important life skill.
When I was teaching, some of my students didn’t like to work in groups. They complained every day until I brought in a newspaper article that said the number one reason people were fired from their jobs was that they couldn’t get along with their coworkers. That was an eye-opener for my students.
Several years ago, I was in a classroom in which the teacher bragged to me that her students worked in groups all the time. When I asked her students, they told me that the desks are placed in groups, but they just read the book silently and answer questions individually. After thinking for a minute, one student said, “We can ask each other for help if we need to.”
That’s not really group work. Effective group activities provide opportunities for your students to work together, either with a partner, a small group, or the entire class, to accomplish a task. In these instances, everyone has a specific role, and there are clear individual and shared responsibilities.
Structures for Effective Group Work
First, determine how you want to organize your groups. Do you want students to work in pairs, groups of four, or some other organization? Will your students stay in the same group for a long period of time? I find that balance is important. For example, students need to learn to work together over time.
Shannon Knowles explains that in a setting such as a science lab, “I try not to change groups. My kids realized if they complained about other group members, I’d change the groups, so now I explain as they get older, in the real world, you have to work with someone you don’t like, so I don’t change as often now.”
However, I also think students should work with a variety of people, and they should not be limited to working with the same students all the time. In my classroom, I used groups of four for some activities and pairs for other activities. I switched my students around often enough that they rarely complained about other group members. They knew that I expected them to learn to work with everyone and that they would be grouped with someone else later.
Selection of Group Members
Next, decide how the groups will be formed. Will students be allowed to choose their groups? In my classroom, I allowed students to self-select their groups on rare occasions. Most of the time, I assigned groups in order to manage bullying and negative peer influences.
This is up to you, as you know your students. There are times you will want to assign groups based on skill levels or interests; just be sure you don’t label students by always assigning them to certain groups.
Roles for Group Members
A critical step is structuring your group activity. Create an activity that requires each student to contribute to the task. It’s important to assign roles for your students, although you may want students within a group to choose their roles.
The roles may change depending on your assignment. For example, if students are working on a lab experiment, you will need a safety monitor and a materials manager. However, if your project is developing a Web page, you might prefer a webmaster and a layout editor. Here are some sample roles to consider for different kinds of tasks.
Sample Roles and Responsibilities
Facilitator—Leader of the group; facilitates action
Recorder—Records comments and/or work
Reporter—Reports on progress to the entire group
Materials Manager—Collects and distributes materials
Timekeeper—Keeps the group working within time limits
Technology Manager—Coordinates technology use
Summarizer—Summarizes work and may report to the entire class
Fact checker—Checks work from group; researches facts
Reflector—reflects on comments from group, asks probing questions
Designer—Designs the project
Creator—Creates or builds the design
I encourage you to rotate the roles within the team for different assignments so that one or two students do not dominate the group activities. You should also take time to teach students about their roles and responsibilities. As Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski reminds us, it takes time and intentionality to transform a set of individuals into an effective team.
Rules for Group Work
In addition to your standard classroom rules, you may need a couple of simple rules that are specific to group activities.
I found that I needed to discuss my expectations for the noise level of the classroom. I wanted my students to talk to each other. But they needed to talk to their group members, not the entire class.
You might come up with a catchy way to describe an appropriate noise level, such as “Bees Buzz.” Bees buzz when they are being productive (making honey), but they don’t shout. I was in another classroom in which the teacher talked about using your “12-inch voice.” Her students knew that meant that people within a foot (within the group) should be able hear you, but not those outside the group.
I also used a rule called “ask three before me.” This one works when your students are in groups of four. It simply means that a student should ask his or her group members for help before asking the teacher. This encourages students to look to each other for support instead of always looking to the teacher first.
It’s up to you to decide what rules you need in your classroom. Be sure that your students understand your expectations, and monitor the groups continuously to ensure that all students have an opportunity to participate.
Finally, you may want to use talking chips, a strategy in which you give each student three chips or tokens. Each time a student speaks, he or she must turn in his or her chip (in a bag in the center of the group). When each student is out of chips, they are not allowed to talk until all other students have turned in their chips.
Effective Groups Strategies
In addition to traditional pair-shares or small group discussions, you may want to try some different techniques. Here are three that many teachers, including myself, have used successfully.
One method I used was jigsaw, in which students are placed in small groups, assigned a topic, move with other students assigned the same topic, research the information, then return to their original group as an expert to teach the material. Instead of me lecturing the whole time, students taught the material. In addition to being more engaging, students took ownership for their learning.
Traveling Heads Together
An adaptation of the jigsaw method, here each student is placed in a group of six, then is given a number, one through six. After the teacher gives the task, all of the number threes move together, etc. Numbered groups complete their task or part of the assignment, then move back to their home groups, just as in the jigsaw method. However, instead of simply presenting information, they must also explain the processes used to develop their information.
Circle of Writers
This activity can be used with groups of four, or with partners. Each group member will write something, then pass the paper to the next person. For example, in a science class, I might ask students to write a definition of a mammal. After they finish, they pass the paper to the next person in each group. I then ask students to write two characteristics of a mammal. Once again, they pass the papers. Then, I might ask them to give three examples of mammals. I can continue prompting for information and having students respond for one or two cycles through the group. Then, students return papers to the original owner for review and discussion.
Elements of Group Success
These group projects are effective when teachers create meaningful activities, design structures that ensure individual and group success, provide instruction to support the process, and make learning fun. And students will respond in a positive way!
Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 15 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word. A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. Her latest book, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success, was published in July 2015.