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Getting Small Group Learning Off to a Good Start

"The first few minutes of the lifetime of any group can set precedents and establish the atmosphere in ways that are difficult or impossible to reverse." (Race)

Issues to Consider

  • Small group learning is typically characterized by the following characteristics: small, intentionally formed groups, well-defined group roles, group members work interdependently while each individual group member is held accountable, and the instructor plays a facilitative and/or consultant role to the groups. (Cuseo 2)
  • There is far more research on small group learning than on any other method of instruction.
  • Mixing small group work with more traditional teaching methods ensures that different learning preferences are being accommodated. (Millis and Cottell 13)
  • Students may be uneasy with group work initially, especially if they haven't had much prior experience working in small groups. (Silberman 8)
  • When some students are forced to take more responsibility for their own learning, they go through some or all of the steps associated with grief and trauma, such as shock, resistance, surrender, acceptance, integration and success.
  • Student dissatisfaction with small group work is usually a result of lack of clarity and structure in terms of the group's assignment.

Suggestions for Getting Groups Started

The following are suggestions for getting group work on the right track from the start. If group work starts off on the right foot, it is likely to be successful and students will look forward to other small group activities.

  1. Provide a seating arrangement that allows all group members to see and hear each other.
  2. Initially, start with a short group icebreaker so that group members feel more comfortable working together.
  3. Keep the first few tasks short and simple so the group members don't get frustrated. As they feel more confident, make the group work more challenging.
  4. Set and enforce tight time limits and deadlines for task completion. For longer tasks, give appropriate warnings, such as ten or two-minute warnings. (Nilson 115)
  5. Assign individual roles within groups and rotate roles on a regular basis. Examples of group roles include:
    • Information Seeker - asks for clarification of ideas, facts, etc.
    • Opinion Seeker - asks for agreement or disagreement by group members.
    • Orientor - defines where the group is, summarizes, keeps the group on track.
    • Recorder - takes minutes, writes down the groups suggestions.
    • Gate-Keeper - encourages others to speak and be heard.
    • Group Observer - evaluates the group.
    • Timekeeper - keeps the team abreast of time constraints to help the group stay on task. (Davis 256)
    • Avoid assigning group leaders or spokespersons for the groups. This prevents freeloading and helps hold all group members individually accountable.
  6. Establish ground rules for groups, or better yet, have students establish ground rules within their small groups.
  7. Visit the groups periodically and clarify the task (versus solve their problem) when asked.
  8. To promote interdependence, use the rule of "three before me." In other words, encourage group members to rely on their teammates before the instructor. (Cuseo 24)
  9. According to Millis and Cottell (7), in cooperative learning classes, students should understand and use the following rules: 1) You have a right to ask questions and/or ask your team members for help. 2) You have the responsibility to provide assistance in your group.
  10. Structure group work to promote positive interdependence by assigning each member only a portion of the information, resources or material necessary for the task to be accomplished. (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 12)
  11. Use activities such as Jigsaw and Cooperative Graffiti to promote resource and team sharing.
  12. Assure individual accountability through the use of individual tests, assignments, etc.
  13. To assure individual accountability, randomly call on group members to speak or present to the large group.

Preparing Students for Group Work

Many students are initially resistant or reluctant to participate in group work and need help learning to work collaboratively. The following are suggestions for preparing students to work in small groups.

  1. Share your rationale for using small groups. Mention some of the research that supports small group, cooperative learning. (I.e., it produces positive results in the following areas: academic achievement, relationships, and social and affective development.) (Nilson 114)
  2. On the first day of class, establish an atmosphere where group work is expected. Have the students review the syllabus using a small group approach. (E.g., have students get into small groups and develop four to five questions they have about the class. Then, have them review the syllabus together looking for the answers. In the larger group, answer the questions that were not addressed in the syllabus.)
  3. Keeping in mind that team building activities make students feel ownership for group work, prepare students for group work through team building activities, such as the following:
    • Utilize small group icebreakers (E.g., ask students to find three to five things they have in common, not related to school or work, such as a favorite food or movie.) This activity helps students see that they have more things in common then they expected.
    • Using a T-Chart, have students list the pros and cons of small group work and help them understand the reasons group work can go wrong.
    • Provide students with opportunities to evaluate their effectiveness as individual group members and as a whole group.
    • Have students construct something such as a tower with blocks or straws. Follow this up with a discussion on the skills that went into it and how they relate to team building.
  4. When assigning group work, provide written instructions either via PowerPoint and/or a handout.
  5. Always give groups very specific, structured tasks that require a product.
  6. Connect group work to the real world and particularly the professional workplace. Remind students that most employers want employees who are team players.
  7. Avoid using practices that promote competition such as grading on a curve. This does not mean adjustments shouldn't be made based on the performance of the class as a whole. (I.e., tossed out a question that more than 70% of the class mised and count it as extra credit for students who answered correctly.)
  8. Model how to give constructive feedback and recognize and acknowledge appropriate feedback. (Millis and Cottell 210)
  9. Promote interdependence by having students:
    • exchange phone numbers and/or email addresses
    • brainstorm characteristics of effective teams
    • set ground rules
    • identify strategies for dealing with team members who do not follow established ground rules. (Cuseo 23)


Cuseo, J. Igniting Student Involvement, Peer Interaction, and Teamwork: A Taxonomy of Specific Cooperative Learning Structures and Collaborative Learning Strategies. Stillwater: New Forums, 2002. Print.

Johnson, D.W., Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina: Interaction Book, 1998. Print.

Millis, B., and P. Cottell. Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty. Phoenix: Oryx, 1998. Print.

Nilson, L.B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Bolton: Anker, 1998. Print.

Silberman, M. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon, 1996. Print.

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