By Nicole Tuttle, Department of Chemistry and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching

Suggestions for Using Small Groups in the Classroom

Working in small groups gives students a chance to practice the higher-order thinking skills that instructors love to teach. Students who do small group work generally learn more of the material and retain their knowledge longer than students who don’t (Davis, 1993). Small group work can range from short, informal exercises to formalized problem sets that make up the majority of class. Contrary to popular belief, instructors can incorporate small group work into large lectures as well as seminars and discussion sections. Here we have compiled examples of small group exercises that range from informal to formal and that work well with a variety of class sizes.


Because of the versatility of this activity, it can be used in seminars, discussion sections, and even very large lectures. Pose a question or problem and either give students one minute to think about it or write an answer down. Next, instruct students to discuss their answer with a partner for 2-5 minutes. Finally, call on one or two students to share their answers with the class. This activity can be varied ad infinitum. For example, the initial writing prompt can be longer, and students can have a chance to revise their mini essay after conferring with a partner. Another possibility is to lengthen the “pair” portion so that students can do multiple problems, carry out a translation, or some other activity that requires more time.

Three-step interview

This technique is similar to the think/write-pair-share. Students work in pairs to discuss a question or issue. In the first step, one person in the pair answers/discusses the question first while the other takes notes or asks additional questions. In the second step, the students reverse roles. Last, two pairs join together to make a quartet. The groups describe their answers to each other and discuss.

Form student subgroups

This format is likely to work best in smaller classes. Give students a problem on a single sheet of paper to work on in groups of three or four. The single sheet of paper helps prevent students from working on the problem(s) individually. Once they have finished, either solicit responses from each group, if the class is small enough, or call on one or two groups to present their responses. Ask if the other groups agree.

Problem-based learning

This is a more formal type of small group work that has long been used for training medical and science students. However, it can also work well in other disciplines; for example, students could parse difficult sentences in a language course or carry out a close reading of a passage in a literature course. The defining characteristic of problem-based learning is that material is generally introduced through problems rather than lecture. Students work in small (3-4 people), permanent, cooperative groups to carry out problem-solving activities with limited help from the instructor. Problems are followed by whole-class discussion during which the instructor can correct misconceptions and make connections between the problems and the larger context of the class.

Class Debates

Discussion sections can be an excellent place to stage a debate. Assess student opinions by a show of hands (or previous discussions in class or on chalk), divide the class into groups accordingly, and have them draw up arguments supporting their stance (either their own or the opposite opinion). Give each group a limited amount of time to make their case, requiring as many as possible of them to speak, and give the other group the chance for a rebuttal. Afterwards, open the discussion to talk about the results.

Speed Interviews

The goal of this group activity is for the students to gather as many opinions as possible about an issue.  First divide the class into pairs and distribute a series of questions for them to discuss (one to three questions are recommended). Have the students switch partners every 2 minutes or so and ask the same questions to their new partner.  Switch groups as many times as appropriate and then have the entire class report back and discuss the results.  This type of exercise is particularly useful for small classes, survey activities or icebreakers.

The Inner Circle or Fishbowl

A variation on whole-class discussion is the fishbowl. Divide the class into an inner group, which will be the discussion group, and an outer group, which will be the observers who take notes and give feedback on the quality of the discussion and the group dynamics. This leads to a discussion about discussion culture, increases student awareness of effective communication within a discussion, and enhances a sense of responsibility to contribute.

Buzz groups

This technique works well in both small and large classes. Pick a challenging issue or problem, and then ask students to form small groups to discuss it. After approximately 5-10 minutes of discussion, call on a few of the groups to report their answers. Ask the other groups whether they agree with the reported answers by a show of hands.

Further Resources

  1. Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  3. Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.