By Emily Remus, Department of History and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

Small group work can significantly enhance student learning by transforming students from passive recipients of knowledge into active participants in the learning process. Research suggests that students who engage in small group activities, inside or outside of the classroom, achieve a deeper understanding of the material and demonstrate better retention than students who do not participate in such activities. Small group work also aids in vesting students with a sense of ownership over their own learning and provides students with opportunities to hone critical communication and social skills.

Below, we outline four steps to successfully implement small group work in your classroom.   

Step 1: Set and Communicate Learning Goals

Consider what students will gain by working together in small groups. What key skills do you expect them to practice? What new concepts, terms, or problems do you expect them to engage with?  In short, think carefully about your learning goals for this particular exercise.

Once you have defined clear goals, communicate them to your students. Research has shown that if the purpose of an activity or assignment is not clear to students, they will be more inclined to view the activity as “busy work.”

Step 2: Set and Communicate Parameters

Determine how many students will be in each group and how the groups will be formulated. Keep the groups small. (Ideally, no more than five people should be in any one group.) Assign students to heterogeneous groups by either devising the groupings in advance, having students count off, or inviting students to form their own groups with a directive, such as “find three people with whom you have never before worked.”

Define the time limit and immediate outcome that you expect from the activity. Will students have ten minutes to answer an assigned question? Fifteen minutes to produce an oral report? Communicate these expectations to your students and then remind students of those expectations by writing them on the board or providing a handout.   

Step 3: Implement

Circulate among the groups during the activity. In that way, you can answer any questions that arise, ensure that students stay on task and, most significantly, assess student learning. What concepts are students still struggling to master? What skills do students need more practice with? Is the activity helping students to work towards your identified learning goals?

Remind students of the time limit, and adjust if students appear to need more time to complete their assignments.   

Step 4: Debrief and Assess

When time has elapsed, bring the groups back together to share their work. At this point, you might consider calling on some of the quieter students as a low-stakes way of incorporating more voices into the large group discussion.

Provide feedback to each group as they share their findings. Identify points of convergence and divergence across groups, and highlight major themes, patterns, and problems.

To conclude, reiterate to students why they undertook this particular activity and what you expected them to take away from it. Take a moment to reflect privately on whether or not students achieved the learning goals you identified. If not, consider how you might adjust and improve in future.

Further reading:

  1. Davis, Barbara Gross. “Learning in Groups.” Tools For Teaching. Second Edition. San Francisco: Wiley, 2009.
  2. Frey, Nancy, Douglas Fisher, and Sandi Everlove. "Productive Group work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding." Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2009.
  3. Taylor, Ann. “Top 10 Reasons Students Dislike Working in Small Groups…and Why Do It Anyway.” Bicochemistry and Molecular Biology Education. 39.3 (May 2011): 219-220.
  4. Yazedjian, Ani and Brittany Boyle Kolkhorst.  “Implementing Small-Group Activities in Large Lecture Classes.” College Teaching 55.4 (Fall 2007): 164-169.