October 31, 2014

Formulating Small Groups for Success

by Christine Ji, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, MedStar Union Memorial Hospital

Have you ever participated in small learning groups? Were you satisfied with how the group experience turned out? Effective small group activities should be designed to promote positive interactions among students where everyone feels connected, engaged, and included. The potential advantage of small group learning is that students from different backgrounds and experiences come together to exchange ideas and learn from different perspectives.1 Before the 1960s, small group learning was relatively uncommon, and the education system was largely focused on what the individual learned through interaction with the instructor. Unfortunately, this created competition between students and final assessments were usually based on individual effort and accomplishment.  Things have changed and small group learning is now widely accepted. Indeed, some teachers prefer this instructional method for students at all levels.2

Small group learning may increase student accountability for acquiring the content knowledge outside of the classroom and applying it to the group discussions. Students reported that they are able to develop their communication skills and ability to effectively work as a team member.  These are important skills in the real world, particularly in work environments. Students also enjoy active engagement in the classroom setting and this can result in improved course grades.3

Despite the benefits that small group learning can offer, not all small groups work well and not all students have a positive experience.  For teachers, it is difficult to find practical guidance and effective methods to create and organize small groups to maximize the chances of success. Some have described group learning as “sinking or swimming together.”4  When small group work really succeeds it's the result of “participants' striving for mutual benefit so that all members of the group benefit from each other's efforts.” 4 Therefore, planning and managing small group learning activities is an important part of the instructional design process. Small group learning should be reflective of positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, social skills development, and group evaluation.6

When assigned to small groups, students have two main responsibilities: learn the assigned material and make sure that all other members of the group learn the assigned material. Students should work together, striving for individual accomplishments as well as team success. Students can encourage and help each other to reach the group’s goals by exchanging needed resources, providing each other feedback to improve performance, and challenging one another to promote a higher quality of a task completion. Students are held responsible for their own contribution and also for achieving group objectives. By practicing in small groups, students are expected to be better prepared to complete similar work in the future. Furthermore, students get to know and trust one another and need to learn how to resolve conflict. Lastly, students learn about how well they perform and adjust learning strategies to better achieve goals. Through group evaluation, students should strive to maintain good working relationships and share feedback about participation. Students should be taught how to celebrate the success of the group and reinforce the positive behaviors of other students.

In terms of formulating groups, there is no “right” way of assigning students.  However, when students self-select groups, they tend to assimilate with people they already know and may exclude students who don’t fit into any group. On the other hand, when teachers randomly assign groups, it saves time and avoids any discrimination; but there is a risk of imbalances that hinder the group’s performance.5 Although it is more time consuming, selecting groups based on certain criteria such as gender, ethnicity, linguistic ability, personality, prior achievement, levels of competency, and work styles to promote heterogeneity may be a better alternative in terms of encouraging positive learning interactions and individual accountability. With regard to group size, it is important to come up with a number that is small enough to have interactive discussions, but large enough to tolerate an occasional gap in the attendance and allow smaller subsets (of 2 and 3 student) to engage in more  focused activities. Groups can be rearranged at the mid-semester point to allow students to rotate and interact with various people.2

For small groups to succeed, it is important to plan ahead. Arrange the physical environment to maximize group interaction and avoid any pitfalls such as students coming to class unprepared, being reluctant or refusing to participate, or letting one student dominate the discussion. It is important to give student adequate time ahead of class time to prepare and, if they not prepared, to ask why. Teachers should try to understand why some students are not participating. The reasons may be due to their past experiences in other classes. It can be helpful to start out with an easy, engaging question and to discuss the goals and outcomes of small group learning with the class ahead of time. During small group discussions, teachers and facilitator should invite everyone to speak and use structured discussion protocols.4


  1. Steinert Y. Student perceptions of effective small group teaching. Medical Education. 2004; 38:286-93.
  2. Kitchen M. Facilitating small groups: how to encourage student learning. Clin Teach. 2012;   9:3-8.
  3. Ferreri SP, O’Connor SK. Redesign of a large course into a small-group learning course. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013; 77: 1-9.
  4. Jaques D. Teaching small groups. BMJ. 2003; 326: 492-4.
  5. Meo SA. Basic steps in establishing effective small group teaching sessions in medical schools. Pak J Med Sci. 2013; 29: 1071-1076.
  6. Roger T, Johnson DW. An overview of cooperative learning. Campbell University, NC. 2013

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