Group Work in the Classroom: Small-Group Tasks

A group of penguins

To involve students in their own learning, to make course topics come alive, to deepen students’ knowledge about a topic, and to develop particular skills, try assigning tasks to small groups during your class time. Groups thrive most when their task is challenging and closely related to the course content, course objectives, and students’ experiences and interests. Following are some sample tasks that you can adapt to your discipline. For more information about the types of small groups referred to (e.g., Buzz Groups, Snowball), see the Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip “Group Work in the Classroom: Types of Small Groups.”

Getting students involved early in the course

  • Break the ice or build a team atmosphere. If you want significant student participation during your course, spend time at the beginning helping students to get to know and develop trust in one another. Ask students in subgroups to share something about themselves, such as their names; a personal triumph, trial, or trauma; what is foremost on their minds at the moment; one reason they are taking the course. Or, if you’d like them to move around and meet many students, have them develop a list of ten things they would take with them to a desert island, then mill around, looking for others who have at least a couple of similar items on their lists. For more ideas, see Race (2000) and Silberman (1996).
  • Discuss the syllabus. In the first class of the term, before handing out the syllabus, ask subgroups to generate a list of at least eight questions they have about the course (e.g., assignments, topics covered, grading policy). Then hand out the syllabus, and give the groups time to find the answers to their questions. End the activity by answering the questions for which groups found no answer.
  • Develop assessment criteria. Have small groups develop a list of criteria upon which they will be assessed for a specific assignment (e.g., essay) or for a particular component of their course grade (e.g., participation). Conclude the small group activity with a plenary discussion in which the class comes to consensus about which criteria to use. This task could work well with the "snowball/pyramid” type of group.
  • Discuss quotations. Provide a “hatful of quotes” taken from the text or person being studied. Students in each subgroup take a quote, reflect on it for a few minutes, then read it aloud and comment on it. This provides reticent students with something concrete to speak about. Use of quotations works particularly well in a “circle of voices.”

Making course topics and ideas come alive

  • Analyze case studies. Provide case studies for subgroups to read and analyze. You could extend this task by using a jigsaw format. Have each subgroup analyze a different case study or a different aspect of the same case, or analyze it from a different perspective; then shuffle the groups so that in each new group, every member shares the information discussed in his or her original group.
  • Find and share news clippings. Ask some of your students to bring to class a newspaper or magazine clipping, editorial, or cartoon related to a concept discussed in class. Begin your class by asking those who completed the assignment to share in small groups their findings with those who were not assigned the exercise. Move into a whole-class discussion by having volunteers share their examples with the entire class. Draw together the examples by identifying common themes and principles, and reinforce the concepts applied throughout the assignment. Rotate this assignment throughout the term so that all students get a chance to “show and tell.”
  • Create and enact role plays. Ask students to create scenarios related to a topic being discussed. After they have been created, the groups can share their scenarios with another group(s). This task can work well in “buzz groups” or “fishbowl.”
  • Create a television commercial. Students create a thirty-second television commercial that advertises the subject of the class—emphasizing, for example, its value to them (or to the world) and famous people associated with it. Ask them to create a slogan for the commercial. When presenting their ideas, groups can either describe the general concept and then outline or act out the commercial.
  • Debate a topic. Four-member groups debate a controversial topic. Two students take one side of the issue and two take the other. Then they switch roles and argue the opposite side. Finally, all members drop their advocacy and come to a consensus about the topic, or develop a report that synthesizes the best evidence and reasoning on both sides. This can also be done as a “fishbowl.”

 Deepening thinking about a topic

  • Generate questions. At the beginning of a lecture, ask subgroups to make a list of questions based on the course readings done beforehand or on the stated lecture topic. Or at a later point in the lecture, ask students in pairs to come up with questions about what they have heard. Double the group size and give students an opportunity to discuss and answer each other’s questions before they are posed to you and the whole class. Or perhaps you leave the questions unanswered, as suggestions for further research. Another idea is to hand out two index cards to each student at the end of a unit or class. Ask students to complete the following sentences, one on each card: “I still have a question about …” and “I can answer a question about …” Create subgroups and ask each group to select the most pertinent “question to ask” and the most interesting “question to answer” from the cards of their group members. Reconvene as a class and ask the groups to share their questions and answers. For each question raised, ask if another student has an answer before you provide your own.
  • Generate answers. This is the most common task for groups. Give subgroups one or more question(s) to answer about course reading material or lecture content.
  • Create (and write) quizzes. Divide your lecture material into short segments (e.g., three ten­minute segments). Divide students into the same number of groups (e.g., three, one for each segment). Ask the first group to prepare a short quiz on the first segment of your lecture. The quiz should take no more than five minutes to prepare. The other groups can use this time to review their notes. The first team then quizzes the other groups, either as a whole, or in turn, assigning points to a team when a question is answered correctly. Repeat this process with the other groups after your next lecture segment(s). A variation on this is to divide students into small groups and give a practice “visible” multiple-choice quiz. Groups choose an answer within a short time, then you ask for their answers all at the same time; groups indicate their answer with index cards, number of fingers, or some other visible item. You can then discuss the answers as a large group.
  • Compute or strategize solutions. Have small groups work together on computational problems. They can either figure out the exact answer or, if the problem is particularly long or complicated, develop the strategy they would use to find the answer.
  • Review lecture or course material. Ask groups to provide a summary of the class content. Provide questions to guide their work, such as: What were the major topics we have examined? What questions do you still have? Alternately, at the end of the course, invite students to develop a “gallery of learning.” Ask each subgroup to discuss what its members are taking away from the class, such as: new knowledge, new skills, improvement in ___, new or renewed interest in ___, confidence in ___. Have them write these lists on large pieces of paper and post them on the classroom walls. Give students an opportunity to walk around and read the lists. Discuss the results with them, noting the most popular, unusual, and unexpected “learnings.”

Strengthening particular skills

  • Develop listening skills. Divide students into four teams and give the teams these assignments: questioners (ask at least two questions about the material covered); agreers (tell which points they agreed with or found helpful and explain why); nay-sayers (comment on which points they disagreed with or found unhelpful and explain why); and example­givers (give specific examples or applications of the material). Present the lecture, then allow the teams a few minutes to complete their assignments. Call on each team to question, to agree, and so on.
  • Respond to student writing. Have pairs of students respond to each other’s written drafts. Depending on the time you have available, ask them to provide oral or written feedback, informal comments, or answers to specific questions, such as “What is the thesis? What arguments are most/least successful? What do you still want to know about the topic?”

Resources

  • Race, P. (2000). 500 Tips on Group Learning. London: Kogan Page.
  • Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon