In-Class Small Group Activities: Our Readers Respond

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels
Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Earlier this year we asked you to share in-class small group activities and your best advice on various details related to designing and managing group work. Here’s a set of activities culled from the submissions, along with recommendations on various aspects of group work.

Priming, refreshing, retrieving, and practicing: Four short activities

From Adriana LaGier, who teaches biology, kinesiology, nursing, and science education majors at Grand View University in Iowa

Students form groups of three with those seated nearby. Adriana explains, “A student’s choice of seating is not random. It has been honed by years of experience.” The groups stay together throughout the course. Adriana notes that with three students, if one is absent the other two can still collaborate. If students prefer not to work in groups, she gives them the option of working alone.

Group activities fall into four categories: priming,which prepares students for learning by discussing a content relevant question; refreshing,which involves reviewing what’s in class notes; retrieving, which entails recalling information but not by looking at notes; and practicing,which means working to solve problems. Groups work for a designated amount of time, generally less than five minutes. The group reports what it produces or decides on a Daily Activity sheet that Adriana does not grade or return but uses to award Daily Activity points that account for 10 percent of the course grade.

“I explain to students that group work is not about group work. Group work gives them in-class time to verbalize key concepts and say difficult science words. The point of the daily activities is to have them speak. If there is no noise, the group work is not doing its job.” Adriana recommends not using too many activities during a class session, not outing a group for socializing, and “not beating myself up if an activity doesn’t work. There is always next time.”

A plan for teaching the material

From Andrew Nurse, who teaches Canadian studies at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick

“My favorite small group assignment began as an improvised solution to a standard problem: students not being prepared for class discussion of assigned readings.” So Andrew divided the day’s topic in chunks, put students in groups, and gave each group a chunk. Their task was to develop a plan for teaching that material as if they were teaching that subject. Group members could use whatever resources they needed.

The assignment “asked a lot of students.” They had to develop a class subject, list key terms and concepts, identify a set of assigned learning materials, decide on an instructional method, and determine an approach to evaluation. For each decision, the group needed to offer a rationale. Over time, Andrew has modified the group activity, making it more intentional but not less demanding. Students spend an entire period on the task. They report back during the next class session.

The assignment allows Andrew to accomplish a number of leaning goals. He concludes by noting the activity’s transparency: “It creates a space that allows me to address questions in relation to how we learn, the significance of assessment, and the role of collaboration in higher education.”

Research talks (in two versions)

From Susan Cozzi, who teaches composition at Daemen University in New York

Students are randomly grouped with a partner or with three others. In the informal version of the activity, each student talks to the other(s) about the topic they’ve chosen for their research paper, and the partner(s) offers feedback. “The goal is for students to voice their topic and share their research goals. I encourage them to ask questions of their partner(s) as a way to get them thinking about the audience for their research.” Susan walks around listening, sometimes asking questions. In their digital journals, students write a short reflection highlighting what they learned from the exchange with peers.

In the more formal version of the activity, students are randomly assigned to a group of three or four. Susan gives each student a worksheet that contains a set of questions each student asks the others in the group. The questions focus on the research topic—what those in the group know about the topic, what they would like to know about it, and what aspects of the topic strike them as interesting. The worksheet is distributed as a Google Doc that students then complete using feedback from their group members.

Susan gives students a heads-up about upcoming group work, making expectations for it clear. “I do find the logistics are hard to deal with if there are more than four students in a group. I also avoid group activities that consume the entire class session because I think students lose interest after a while.”

Partner essays

From Megan Anderson, who teaches English at Limestone University in South Carolina

“I stumbled on this teaching method a few years ago. My plan was to have my freshmen comp students work individually in class on an informal practice essay, but when one student showed up with her arm in a sling, I ended up letting everyone work with a partner. Once I saw how engaged students were, I made partner writing a permanent part of my class.” These in-class essays give students a chance to practice skills before writing their formal, graded essays. “I find partner writing most helpful on those types of writing that students are not familiar with: compare-contrast writing and process analysis writing.”

For the compare-contrast partner writing, students blindly pick an object out of a box (say, an action figure or a bobblehead), then they find a classmate with a different object. The two write a short point-by-point essay that includes an introduction, a clear thesis statement, and three body paragraphs. For the process analysis partner writing, Megan passes out copies of the directions for using a Keurig to make a cup of coffee. Students must figure out the best way to group the steps and how to convince readers that knowing how to make coffee is a valuable skill, even though the writers may not drink coffee.

The activity takes most of the period. Megan looks briefly at the finished essays and provides some feedback addressed mostly at problems that emerged during the writing process.

Develop study activities

From Tanya Martini, who used this activity in a psychology course at Brock University in Ontario

This semester-long assignment requires that second year psych students take a module from the first-year intro course and develop two activities that would help first-year students study the material for an exam. To prepare these activities, students could draw on other content, but most stayed with the text that the first-year students were being tested on. The second-year students created activities like games (Jeopardy, for example), or they used electronic tools that helped the first-year students practice key terms, usually including feedback on wrong answers. The beginning students were supposed to be able to complete the activities in 30 minutes.

Students work in groups of four to five and are given some class time to work on the project, which is graded. The assignment includes a peer review component.

Tanya writes, “I don’t believe that it’s sufficient to put students in groups, give them something to do together, and assume that they will magically learn teamwork skills. I genuinely believe that if instructors want students to learn something about teamwork, then those skills need to be discussed explicitly in class, and they need to be scaffolded. To that end, we spend time in both the large lecture and weekly seminars talking about the difference between group work and teamwork and the broad array of competencies that underlie good teamwork.”

Preparing students for group work

From Heather Martin, who teaches in a business diploma program at Bow Valley College in Calgary

Students are grouped randomly for short group activities early in the course. Heather tries to mix students up so they have the chance to meet a number of the. Students choose their own groups for larger projects, which makes these early introductions valuable. “I find three people is the ideal group size. Beyond three, almost always there’s one person who doesn’t contribute.”

Heather recommends giving students something to prepare before class that they then share in the group. “This allows people to get comfortable with sharing in the group. They’ve had time to think about their contribution.” For example, she might give students a list of controversial topics, such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, or lab-grown meat, and ask them to bring specific examples of industries that will be affected by these trends. Group discussions stay more focused if students must produce something, even if what they produce isn’t graded. For example, after discussing how industries will be affected by trends, the groups debrief by contributing to a whole-class discussion of the topic.

Team-based learning

From Natalie R. Lenard and Michael Dreznick, who teach biology and psychology, respectively, at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Louisiana

In an interdisciplinary, cotaught course on research methods, students collaborate using the team-based learning approach. Using survey data provided by students, Natalie and Michael form diverse groups that mix majors and introverts and extroverts. Students do share common research interests. The groups remain together for the entire course.

Following a collaborative model, students in these groups agree on a broad research project. Each student then develops an individual research proposal within that broad area. Group activities support individual work. Collectively, group members explore research study types, helping each other identify the correct approach for their individual studies. They work on APA formatting and style and inferential statistics given their individual data sets. The groups also regularly present findings to the class, and classmates evaluate these using a rubric.

Natalie and Michael circulate among the groups, offering help when its needed. They work “to prevent students from rushing and submitting mediocre-quality work. We consistently remind them that the activities are designed to make writing their easier as well as improve their quality.” They recommend using peer evaluations “to ensure individual accountability and to prevent free riding.” Students do peer reviews at midterm and at the end of the course. The ones at midterm are not graded. Students are encouraged to use the feedback to make improvements. Final peer reviews count significantly in the course grade.

For additional information on team-based group work, Natalie and Michael recommend the following article:

Haidet, P., Kubitz, K., & McCormack, W. T. (2014). Analysis of the team-based learning literature: TBL comes of age. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3–4), 303–333.


As for some general principles that could be drawn from the group activities reported here, I’ll suggest several. This collection of faculty agrees on group size—keep the groups small. Students without much experience in groups feel more comfortable when they collaborate with fewer people. Moreover, when there are only three group members, it’s hard to stay silent.

Most of these teachers form groups randomly and for short in-class activities. Random group formation is an efficient way to get the groups set up quickly. If students form the groups, they will likely convene with those seated nearby. Random methods can be used to encourage students to meet other students, and even if membership in random groups stays the same, f with other groups so that students benefit from wider interaction.

Even this limited number of activities demonstrates the diversity of what students can do in groups, and the activities illustrate the close connections between task and course content. Collaboratively writing an essay makes sense in an English course; problem solving in a biology course. Several of the activities demonstrate how students learn course content in groups. If a group must figure out how to teach content or what activities might help others study, students confront course content in ways that promote their learning it.

No one likes to complete work in a group and not gain a benefit from doing so. Whether that benefit involves points or grades, feedback on a worksheet, or a report out on group decisions, what matters most is the sense that what happened in the group was important and has meaning and value beyond the group.

Students can learn from each other in groups, even though group work is not a trouble-free instructional method. Nonetheless, as these examples illustrate, experience using a group activity makes revision possible, and improvement results.

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