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The Golden Rules of Student Small Groups

Jordan Catapano


Teachers increasingly recognize the role that small group work plays in the overall educational experience of a student. Small groups allow young minds to think out loud, discuss and develop ideas together, account for one another’s weaknesses, and to take part in a collaborative process. But truth be told, small groups often work better in theory versus their real-world implementation. For instance, students might:

  • Disagree obstructively.
  • Not stay focused on the assigned task.
  • Not understand or work on the assigned task.
  • Not work collaboratively.
  • Not trust one another.
  • Not equally contribute.
  • Not properly account for the amount of time they have.

The lot of these problems requires teacher trial and error to help iron out how their students can perform best. Here are some of the “golden rules” of setting up more effective work sessions for small groups:

Control Your Small Groups Transition Time

How much time will it take for students to get up from their seats, arrange into their groups, and begin working on the group task? Typically we want this time to be as limited as possible. What methods can you use to speed up this task?

  • Pre-assign groups and designate where they will meet.
  • Print out or prominently display the assigned group tasks.
  • Pre-place any necessary materials right where student groups will be working.
  • Establish a set routine that makes group work easily initiated.

Setup Routines

Since I brought it up, if you want to make group work effective, it may be beneficial to establish a series of routines or expectations that take away the “newness” or novelty of working with a group. Once students learn the pattern, it will make working in groups much more controlled and predictable.

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  • Have an established method of assigning or selecting groups.
  • Have an established location for certain groups to work.
  • Have a specific way the task is communicated to students each time.
  • Have a specific way students produce and submit that task.
  • Have an enforceable standard of work and behavior.

Group Size Matters

What task do you want groups to complete? Ideally, each group will contain the minimum number of members it takes to complete your assigned task. While you want the group as a whole to flourish, you also want each individual to play an active, meaningful role. Too many students mean some will be left out; too few, and the group is burdened with more than they can bear.

Assign Concrete Tasks for Individuals and the Group

No matter what you want students to accomplish, you must give them a very specific, concrete task. There should be a quantifiable, tangible product the group is responsible for as a whole and similarly, precise tasks that each student can claim as their own. For example:

  • Don’t say, “Discuss with one another.” Instead, say, “Write down at least three different conclusions your group comes to about this.”
  • Don’t say, “Share your ideas with one another.” Instead, say, “Listen carefully to your partner and write down a four-sentence summary of what they tell you.”

Group Students with the Right Matches

There are dozens of fun ways to randomly assign students to work in groups. Sometimes random may be the right way to go, but other times might require that your groups are carefully calibrated. Who do your students need to be matched with to achieve the results you want? Remember that students often produce more when they are NOT working with friends—they’re less likely to get distracted with friendly banter. Also differentiation works best when students are pre-assigned to a group that matches their preference or skill level. Other times, the right mix might involve putting students with various skills, preferences, or backgrounds together.

Focus on Small Group Communication

We don’t just implement small groups because they are fun or different—we do it because students need the essential experience of collaborating in this atmosphere together. It is beneficial to go over what makes small groups work effectively with your students. Teach them how to respond and listen to one another and have them reflect on their collective performances.

Walk Around and Participate

We know that students don’t always just do everything they’re supposed to on their own. As the resident experts on the subject matter in the classroom, we also want to take responsibility for participating in groups’ work. Walk around and encourage groups who are working well, redirect behavior, answer questions, or challenge students with more thought-provoking ideas.

When it comes to these working environments, you want to maximize their effectiveness by thinking strategically about outcomes. When you consider these “golden rules” of small groups, you see that their success relies heavily on your ability as an educator to appropriately facilitate their work together. So as you’re setting up your next lesson plan involving small groups, take each of these guidelines into consideration!

What do you do to ensure success with your student small groups? Share your strategies in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website