Using the Class Group

 Small Group Working

This is mainly about using smaller groups within the context of a larger class: some of this does not apply if you are blessed with a small teaching group to start with.

As ever, the rule is: task first, system follows. So what is it you actually want to do?

Use them to promote interaction within the class as a whole

Use small groups for syndicate discussions of questions or cases

Use small groups for substantial project work

Questions of group size are also relevant here.

Use small groups to promote interaction within the class as a whole

The tight deadline is paradoxical: it could be argued that it aborts the process of "forming" etc. So it does, but you don't want to develop allegiances to these small groups. but to the whole.In this case you will want a flexible structure in which the groups change all the time. This is relatively easy to achieve, but remember that every time a really small group (fewer than six, say) changes a member, the group development process starts all over again. It is important, therefore, to give them a clear task, and usually a tight deadline of 10 minutes maximum (five is preferable).

Remember that whatever method you use, you have to do something with the results. If they are not fed back, participants are likely to feel that they have simply been manipulated. See Reporting Back.

Use small groups for syndicate discussions of questions or cases

This is a frequent pattern on training courses, and here there are more complex questions:

Use small groups for substantial project work

The decisions about groupings assume more importance when they are going to work together on something substantial, possibly over almost a whole semester, and perhaps with an assessment linked to the final product. See group-based assessment and problem-based learning.

Apart from the purely social dimension—and this is clearly important in longer-term groups—the major question is around ability levels.

In part the answer depends on the nature of the task, and the roles required within the group. There is a danger that in a mixed-ability group, for example, with clearly-differentiated roles, the least able member will become merely the "gopher".

There is however substantial evidence that helping others is a very effective way to learn, so less-able students can make an important contribution to the learning of their more-able colleagues, as well as benefiting themselves. The limiting factor is the social climate of the group: a group which scapegoats its less-able members is clearly not a good idea. Fortunately group roles cover "maintenance" or social needs of the group as well as task-related ones, and it is often possible for a less-able student to find a niche on that basis.

Power imbalances do require attention, however. Women students do not often do as well as they might in a male-dominated group: men can sustain being in a much smaller minority. Ethnicity and religion may also be factors, and there may be problems in balancing a desire to provide—quite literally—equal opportunities, with a recognition of the reality of cultural conflicts and tensions. This is not a situation in which to be dogmatic.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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