What are the most effective small groups I can use for different learning objectives?
Take a backward glance at any lesson before you decide which group formations might work best to achieve your learning goals. (Some common group types are listed below.) You might begin by considering the following questions:
Which group formation would enable each student to get actively involved in this lesson?
How does the group formation selected help students develop their weaker areas as well as use their stronger skills and intelligences?
Should students have any say in their group formations for this lesson?
Will the group formations chosen accomplish our lesson objectives? If not, how can we redesign groups to meet these goals?
How can students reflect and keep records of their progress and their peer's contributions for improved group participation?
Also, see our Resources page for research on the most effective group size for collaborative learning.
You may also wish to take a look at your classroom furniture arrangement to make the most of grouping spaces in your class. Most teachers prefer to create grouping arrangements that do not limit their space. Groups should be located so that you can move around and easily interact with each cluster. Once the space has been determined you are ready to choose a group form that best fits your needs.
The following are some possible group configurations:
The group formation defined: Pair-share is the simplest group to arrange. It draws together two students to solve one problem, share ideas or explore a question. Often, this group is useful when large-group instruction includes parts that require discussion, Explanation, or reflection. Pairs come together for a brief time, and each person finds an opportunity to speak, listen, and get feedback on the ideas raised.
Suggested tasks for this group: Use pair-sharing for: peer editing, sharing personal experiences, discussing complex issues raised by materials and media. Share responses to a field trip or museum. Share stories from experiences related to the lesson topic.
Benefits of this formation: Students have more active engagement time when there are fewer people in a group. For students with fewer interpersonal skills, two is a comfortable setting to share without the threats they may perceive in larger groups.
Possible drawbacks: With two members only, students receive fewer perspectives and less diverse insights on complex topics. Chances of developing better solutions increase in groups with a few more members.
Jigsaw (sometimes called novice/expert), for research and peer teaching.
The group formation defined: In jigsaw groups, students research and discuss as part of one group (sometimes called a novice group) and then teach (the group is now called the expert group).
Suggested tasks for this group: This group formation works best when you have four or five parts of one topic to research. For example, you may have four questions that relate to Arctic ravens -- for instance, physical characteristics, habits, mating rituals, and symbolism. Each group researches five significant facts about their questions in the novice group and then teaches the other groups while taking notes on additional questions.
Benefits of this formation: By giving students both responsibility to teach and learn you are giving them opportunity to develop both research and teaching skills. Students gain wonderful review sheets for exams when this task is set up well.
Possible drawbacks: Some students feel time constraints in this task and appear unable to teach the expert group after research time is up. In these cases, students need additional time to research and discuss the issues.
Split-class discussion (to debate a major issue)
The group formation defined: Class split in two. Discussion or debate topics must be clearly selected to engage students. This group formation works best when everyone is involved.
Suggested tasks for this group: Face desks in four rows - two facing the other two. Use a Nerf brain ball or other soft object to throw back and forth -- the speaker holds the ball -- to ensure that each side gets equal discussion opportunities. Ask students to catch the ball once each until all members have spoken, in order to give everybody a chance to participate.
Benefits of this formation: The entire class can hear diverse views on meaningful topics. Students often change their opinions or develop a deeper understanding of a variety of perspectives based on the diverse ideas and insights of others.
Possible drawbacks: Students each speak less since the group takes more time to get around to everybody. Some students find it difficult to speak in front of larger groups and enjoy a smaller circle more. These students learn better and with less stress when they share in smaller groups.
Random groups of three
The group formation defined: Discussion topics in random groups of three members; topics must be broad enough to capture the entire group's interest and focused enough to elicit a significant response.
Suggested tasks for this group: Predict what will happen in a story or play. Respond to a crisis situation and create a group response to resolve the problem.
Benefits of this formation: Students receive feedback from a variety of perspectives. Group members serve as models for one another and hold one another accountable. Three is a good number for extra speaking opportunities, but it is not so big as to risk ignoring some members.
Possible drawbacks: It is easier to leave out students who are shy or quiet in this formation. Occasionally two team up and one feels ostracized.
Ability groups, interest groups, or friendship groups
The group formation: Ability groups bring together students with similar grades, backgrounds, interests, or abilities. A variation of ability grouping is stratified grouping, in which you bring together students from high, middle, and low achievement groups.
Suggested tasks for this group: Creating plays or skits. Building and constructing projects outside of class in which students must visit one another's homes and work together. Students who know one another or live close to each other can meet more easily than those who live long distances from each other.
Benefits of this formation: Students can work at the pace and level that most fits their abilities in the subject. They find special interest in talking with people who engage at their level about lesson topics. Students are rarely bored when they can move along at a comfortable pace. Peers who know one another or who work at similar levels often motivate one another and enjoy each other's insights.
Possible drawbacks: It is unrealistic to find students who are homogeneous in all areas. Students who are slower get labeled by students in faster or stronger groups. Weaker students cannot develop in homogeneous groups since they cannot rely on accurate peer coaching. And unpopular children may feel excluded if they don't fit into any friendship group.
Diversity groups with mixed interests, abilities, and backgrounds
The group formation defined: Groups with representatives from different backgrounds, cultures, and genders. Generally in these groups you find a wide range of interests, abilities, and experiences.
Suggested tasks for this group: Generally, the diverse group most benefits from exploring geographic sites, historic events, diverse lifestyles, and worldview differences. Before the reading of a New Year's story in class, students might be invited to write "Happy New Year" in their language on the board -- or to create a greeting appropriate to the New Year celebration. Diverse groups provide unique opportunities to value many languages and bring together different customs from a variety of backgrounds to respond to one issue.
Benefits of this formation: Students have repeated opportunities to experience an issue from other perspectives. When well-guided, diversity groups can help students understand one another and celebrate other cultures and lands.
Possible drawbacks: Without clear guidance, or with preconceived notions about a person's background, minority students can feel alienated in diverse groups. It is particularly important for these groups to receive careful guidelines about strategies for respecting one another and listening to each other.
For research on the pros and cons of mixed-ability vs. ability groups, see our Resources page.
The group formation defined: A group of students from different grade and age levels who work together for a combined task that benefits each member.
Suggested tasks for this group: Teens might come together with an elementary class to teach math concepts or help with science experiments. A task that works especially well with this formation is interviews conducted by teens to create a special-interest book for elementary-grade students. Students can also be grouped with older "reading buddies" who help them with reading skills. Mixed ages and abilities work best when the goals are clearly defined and each member understands his or her role in the project.
Benefits of this formation: Teens are less likely to feel pressure to compete against peers when mixed with younger students. And elementary kids feel important when singled out and engaged by an older student for a task they both find meaningful.
Possible drawbacks: Sometimes teens can be a negative influence on younger children; at-risk youngsters with behavioral problems can be difficult for teens to relate to. However, often children with behavior problems, "at-risk" kids, are amongst the sweetest and most thoughtful students. In difficult cases, an adult may be required to monitor behavior and ensure success for both ages.
The group formation defined: Students prepare and then lead a roundtable discussion of the material with parents, teachers, and other students.
Suggested tasks for this group: A major project, set up in your classroom, in which students prepare stations for each of several intelligences (see our workshop on Multiple Intelligences for more about this concept). Then parents and other community members are invited to interact with students and to ask questions about the work. International food might be served for a history topic, music might be played in the background, and so on. Students prepare the environment for their conference and take the lead in engaging others in their work. They might then prepare an interactive newsletter in which they write notes to the adults about the experience and type up notes from community participants.
Benefits of this formation: This group structure gives students an opportunity to teach that is very authentic. They benefit from questions asked by real-life participants and from engaging others in their projects. Students also learn self-confidence and gain the ability to respect others' ideas from this group formation.
Possible drawbacks: If parents attend and one student is left without guests, he or she can feel alienated in this activity. It is important to ensure that adults move throughout the room so that all students are included in the interactions. Teachers might also ask students individually ahead of time who has guests coming and who doesn't. That way, they can help to move additional guests to students without family.
Through cooperative sharing of our experiences with small groups used in our classes, we can learn helpful hints and tips from one another.
Here's another detailed Scenario of an innovative group formation: