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Minimizing the perils of small group discussion

Small group discussion or working in small groups has been shown to improve students’ understanding, retention of material, and problem-solving abilities.  However, most of us do not instinctively know how to work well with others in the academic setting.  In order to be successful, group work must be carefully structured and the student must receive support in order to be successful.

Here are some helpful hints to make your group work successful.

  • Group size: Ideal group size is from 4-6.  However, groups can be as small at 3 or as large at 10.
  • Teaching philosophy: Make sure students understand why you are using group work. Since students are not used to working in groups in higher education, you will need to convince them why group learning is useful. You may need to explain your choice in the syllabus, during the first day of class, and several times throughout the semester.
  • Group member selection: If you are planning to have students work with the same group throughout the semester, select group members carefully. Strive for a heterogeneous group by selecting students from different majors (if applicable), races and genders.  However, during their freshmen years, students “at risk” should be placed together.  For example, if your freshman class consists of two females and ten males, it is better to have one group with two females and four males and another with six males rather than two groups, each with one female and five males.
  • Icebreakers:  Make sure the students know each other before they begin a group activity.  Consider some type of an icebreaker.
  • Student experience: Determine if your students have had experience working in groups.  If students haven’t had a great deal of experience with groups, you must provide them with support in order to make the experience successful.  For example, you may ask student to write a brief weekly report on the status of their group’s functioning.  Or, you may ask them to write a weekly list of tasks and who is responsible for the task. 
  • Scaffolding the group work:  If students don’t have a lot of experience with group work, give them very clear instruction and directions.  Consider giving them leading questions to answer or tasks to complete rather than a vague, open-ended assignment.  After the students have completed the assignment, summarize the activity and its outcomes so the students understand the process and what they have learned. 
  • Self and peer evaluation:  Consider having student write a confidential mid-term and final self and peer evaluation.  The evaluation should ask specific questions about group skills.  For example, students can be asked to comment on timeliness, ability to complete assigned work, ability to contribute to group projects, and respect for others.  
  • Assigning roles:  Some faculty members have had success with assigning students different roles within the group and switching those roles on a regular basis.  Group roles include secretary, time keeper, leader, clarifier, and devil’s advocate.
  • Reflection on group work:  Students may have concerns about the amount of learning that can take place using group work.  To help them understand how effective group learning is, have them write a reflection on what they have learned.  For example, have them discuss what they have learned, how it applies to their major or their career and life outside the classroom, and what have they learned about their own capabilities.

Need more information?  Try these references:

  • Allen, D. E., Duch, B. J., & Groh, S. E. (2001). Strategies for using groups.  In B. J. Duch, S. E. Groh, & D. E. Allen (Eds.), The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.
  • Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2001). Effective strategies for cooperative learning. Journal of Cooperation and Collaboration in College Teaching, 10, 69-75. Available online at http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/CLStrategies(JCCCT).pdf
  • Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2, 9-34.
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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