Small group activities in class promote active learning

Students confer with classmates to develop a list of questions about the portfolio assignment. Photo by Matthew Christ

Almost every teacher for almost every course has that feeling of having more to include in a class period and in a course than can be accomplished.

The tendency can be to “cover” the material. You as the teacher list and explain the important concepts. You click through the PowerPoint slides.

Perhaps you stop from time to time to ask a question to the class or see if they have questions. But they may not ask any questions, as they are too busy writing down the key points or they sense your urgency to keep moving on.

At the end of the lecture, the students may have notes, but they may not have “gotten” the concepts.

One strategy to promote active learning during class is to assign students to work on a task with classmates. They confer and then you bring them back for class debriefing on the task.

By working with classmates, everyone has to get involved. Some have to get up and change seats to move closer to a classmate. Everyone has to talk, even if to acknowledge that they haven’t read the chapter or haven’t thought about the assigned concept.

When it’s time to come back together as a class and discuss the assigned task, I can expect everyone to be prepared (at some level). So I can call on anyone in addition to letting students volunteer.

A few suggestions for promoting success for small group or partner discussions:

– Assign a specific task. If you ask the students to talk about the main ideas in an assigned textbook chapter, that may be too broad. Be more specific. “What are at least five tips the chapter provided on conducting interviews?”

– Tell them if they will be turning in notes or the list from the discussion. “One of you needs to be the secretary for your discussion. I’ll be collecting your notes. Be sure that everyone’s name is included on the notes.”

– Give a set amount of time for the discussion. I’d suggest giving a shorter time than actually may be needed. The shorter time helps keep the students on task.

– Let them know that time is running out. “You have about a minute to complete your list.”

– When you introduce the assignment, be sure to say how many you want working together. “You need to talk with a parnter and not have more than three in a group. Some of you will have to move to get with a partner.” I explain the assignment first and then explain the grouping.

As the students begin their partner/group work, move around the room to make sure everyone is getting with a classmate. Keep circulating during the discussion time to see if anyone has a question and to check on any groups that seem to be drifting off task. You also can stop to listen to discussions. I always find it interesting to see what the students are discussing about the topic.

Then call them back to the group and debrief from their discussion. Everyone have thought about the topic of discussion. Some will have been more engaged in thinking about that topic than they would have by listening to a teacher’s presentation on the topic. And everyone will be more alert. They’ve talked and they’ve moved — and I hope that they’ve thought.

I find that these discussions often help me realize questions students have about a reading assignment or their observations about an assignment. From that discussion, I wind up addressing issues that I hadn’t planned to discuss. So that helps me in being more effective in my teaching.


  1. Thanks for the thoughts on this – very helpful! I wanted to offer one thought – I think it’s important to circulate without “hovering.” Discussions often change when the teacher is listening in, not necessarily for the better – students may edit their thoughts, or try to say the “right” thing, and it does not always help with their process. When administering a small group activity, I keep scanning the room with my eyes, but generally don’t listen in without joining in a discussion myself.


    1. Joyce,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree that you want to be tuned in during student group discussions but not appear to be evesdropping. By circulating around, you can both make sure that groups are on task and also tell when the groups are finishing up their conversations. You also mentioned joining in on a group discussion. What advice do you have for doing that?


  2. Yes, I think it’s vital to make it clear to the class that we’re still tuned in and not off engaged in something entirely different! As far as joining in on group discussions – sometimes when I’ve been circulating a question will come up in a group and a student will solicit my thoughts, and that’s one way in which I’d join in. (Sometimes they ask me a completely off-topic question, and I redirect them towards the group activity.) Other times, one group might finish long before other groups, so I’ll head over and ask them how it went and what their thoughts were on the activity or assignment.

    I do also like to circulate to check in and make sure each group has had enough time for the discussion – it can get tricky when groups work at very different paces, but I think it’s worth the effort to incorporate these active learning strategies for all of the reasons you mentioned above!


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