Using Classroom Groups Successfully

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Instructor Resources

Small Group Formation and Interaction – Best Practices

Course-level Planning for the Implementation of Small Group Activities:

1. How does a small group activity support course learning and/or relational objectives and outcomes for the course?
2. What non-content goals may also be considered when instituting small group work? (Student self-efficacy, Sense of belonging, Competence)

So you think a small group activity helps you achieve your learning and relational objectives, We think you’ve made a great choice! Now comes the fun part!
Please consider the following when creating small group assignments and activities. Small groups work best when they are developed well from the planning stages:

Fundamental Structure for Positive Group Interactions

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    Clear instructions for small group activities: (specific, detailed, timely)

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Small Group Considerations

Two general forms can be used when instituting small groups. Each has the potential for achieving the educational and relational rewards that can be achieved. However, the creation and development of the groups will differ. Below you will find characteristics and benefits of each form along with ideas for activities for which the small group can participate in.
Reminder: The form of the group should be selected based on your course learning objectives and lesson plan development


1. Very little preparation and group relational development needed.
2. Student may be assigned to a group for short periods of time (less than one class to around 3 weeks).
3. Group tasks likely include an activity that can be completed or solved in a single class meeting.
4. Often lower stakes with less student output.
5. Group activity is often narrowly focused on understanding and application of one or a few concept.
6. Often seen as a way to develop deeper levels of thought because student responses may be challenged and/or developed by hearing the feedback and input from other group members.


1. Students get to know more individuals in the class because group enrollments shift often.
2. Multiple perspectives quickly.
3. Provides platform for quieter students to contribute without the intimidation of the entire class hearing.
4. Affords the opportunity for students to engage simultaneously on similar topics. This engagement can then be leveraged by the instructor for class learning.

Short-term group activities you may want to consider

1. Think-pair-share: Students are given a discussion prompt. Students then work individually to craft a response. This response is then shared with a peer. Consensus is then sought. When achieved, response is shared with class.

2. Fishbowl Activity: Small group is placed in the middle with remaining classmates surrounding and observing (like a fishbowl). Group in the middle is given a prompt or problem to solve. Classmates on the outside observe the interaction and provide feedback on how the group in the fishbowl accomplished their goal.

3. Case Studies: Provide students with a problem from experience and ask students to solve using pertinent course content.

4. Simulations: Students take on specific “real life” roles as they seek to solve a problem

5. Peer Teaching: Students are asked to teach a concept to the class or another audience that may benefit from the learning.

6. Small Group Discussions: Groups are developed and given a topic to discuss. Be sure to provide specific instructions and questions that need to be addressed.

7. Jigsaw Strategy: Breaks problems into smaller parts and divides these parts among the groups. Groups are to report their piece of the solution to the class. The class can then discuss how all pieces fit together.

Long Term Groups


1. Long-term groups work best when group roles and relational development is encouraged – (We very strongly encourage the assignment of this activity to begin group development) Link to Marcia’s student webpage
2. Students assigned to group for longer periods of time (3 weeks – full semester).
3. Group activity normally involves assignment of a larger project or activity.
4. Projects/assignments apply breadth of class content.
5. Long-term groups are often used for short-term group activities as well.
6. If relationships are formed, group has potential for greater analysis/depth of critical thought due to knowing one another for longer periods of time.


1. Student have tendency to create stronger bonds with group members
2. Students have opportunity to learn and develop small group roles
3. Students may develop intangible skills such as leadership, communication, conflict management, etc. due to working with the same group for longer periods of time.
4. More robust projects can be created that link content with application.
5. May provide opportunity to involve multiple stake-holders in group project.

Short-term group activities you may want to consider

1. Service-learning: Educational approach where students learn and apply classroom theories and concepts while volunteering with an agency (usually non-profit or social service group) and engages in reflection activities to deepen their understanding of course content.

2. Problem-based Learning: Groups are given real-world problems as a vehicle to promote learning and application of course concepts and principles.

3. Consulting Activity: Groups are asked to find (or can be assigned) outside organizations that will allow groups to observe and consult the group. Consulting activity is one which applies course concepts and principles in a real-world environment. Consulting, by nature, directs student groups to analyze and evaluate what they are observe.

4. Creative Assignment: Groups are asked to create something in which they are applying concepts and principles from the course.

Resources for Additional Understanding


Brindley, J. E., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).


Messersmith, A. S. (2015). Preparing Students for 21st Century Teamwork: Effective Collaboration in the Online Group Communication Course. Communication Teacher, 29(4), 219–226.