by Felisa Tibbitts, Human Rights Education Associates


Definition: Students may be organized to do work in pairs or small groups in the classroom.

The advantage of small group work, is that it promotes maximum participation from all students. In a small group situation, ideally all students are involved in both "thinking and doing."

Small group work also promotes cooperative skills, such as listening and communication skills, problem solving and sharing of tasks.

Research has shown that group work enhances the learning of all group members, regardless of how skilled or unskilled individual members are.

The small group approach is most commonly used with children through the ages of 12, although it has shown to be beneficial for older children as well.

Preparation for group work:

In order to prepare for group work, the teacher will need to do the following:

1. Select the activity
2. Prepare any physical materials for group work ahead of time
3. Anticipate the size and the selection of groups
4. Anticipate how students will be organized within the groups (tasks and roles)
5. Consider the timing of the group work
6. Consider how the small group work will be shared with the entire class and linked with the overall curriculum.

Steps in the classroom:

1. Select the activity

An activity that is best suited for group work may meet the following criteria:

- The activity has multiple tasks that can be shared among group members or a single task, such as generating ideas, that benefit from the participation of all individuals within a group

- The activity involves problem solving and discussion

Examples of activities that may be suited for group work are investigations of materials (newspapers, scientific specimens) and development of ideas or arguments.

Preparation of materials.

The teacher will need to personally collect, or organize students to collect, physical specimens for investigation. For example, if the teacher anticipates doing a lesson on the role of the media, she or he might ask the students to bring into class examples of newspapers and magazines. There should be materials sufficient for each group.

3. Size and selection of group.

Group size normally ranges between 3-5 students. Group size can sometimes go larger, although groups larger than 8 do not ensure that everyone will participate.

Since groups often report their work back to the whole class, teachers also take into account the total number of groups within the class.

Group membership can be determined in different ways. A random selection might be done by "counting off" with students (go around the room systematically having students count 1, 2, 3, etc., with each numbers representing a group) or selecting groups on the basis of birth date.

In a nonrandom selection, groups will be selected based on the teachers' prior knowledge. Usually, groups are selected to maximize diversity within the group, since diversity enhances learning. Such groups often have a balance of girls and boys, and students with differing ability levels. Teachers can also use their best judgment about personality mixes that would enhance the work of the group.

Sometimes groups are organized only for one activity. Other times, teachers use the same small groups for a series of activities, so that students get used to working with one another.

If the tables and chairs cannot be moved for group work, then students can form groups by turning around in seats to face the children behind.

4. Organize students within the group.

A laissez-faire approach to group work would be that the teacher give a general assignment to the group -- like organize a research project on 'qualities of good leaders' -- and the students are left to organize themselves.

A highly structured approach would be that the teacher assigns a specific role to each group member. Depending upon the task, the roles might include 'materials handler', 'scribe', 'reporter to the large group' and so on. A semi-structured approach might be that the teacher recommend certain roles, but leaves it to the group to assign roles.

A more structured approach, with rotation of tasks within a group, is often used with younger children. A less structured approach can be used with students with experience in group work or for simple tasks that do not require that students take on different roles.

5. Time the group work.

The teacher should anticipate student questions about timing, the task results, sharing with the whole group, and so on. After giving clear instructions to the students, the teacher should be available to answer questions, but not interfere with the groups' activities.

It is common in many classrooms that a small group activity constitutes 20 minutes of a 40 minute-period, with 10 minutes allowed for sharing small group work with the whole class.

6. Share small group work with the whole class.

Usually the results of the small group work are shared with the class. This sharing can be oral (reporting out), visual (written or graphic representation), or both.

It is highly interesting to contrast the results of group work.


Human Rights Education Associates

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