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Small-Group Work

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights


Small-group activities enable participants to learn cooperation skills. These activities can also help participants learn to resolve differences among themselves.


1.   Introducing group work

Start group work slowly. Assign two participants to be part of a small group. You may wish to add a staff assistant or volunteer. Each member has a specific assignment for the group work. The staff assistant should facilitate group interaction but not direct it. The teacher should monitor the progress of the small groups. Sample participant roles in small groups can include:

  • facilitator
  • recorder
  • reporter
  • questioner
  • observer
  • time keeper
  • summarizer

Be sure to provide extra assistance to those participants who have trouble functioning in small groups. As participants master working in this very small group, move to a three person group or three participants and one adult, if you desire. Eliminate the adult when you think the group can function on its own and gradually add more participants. Avoid having more than five people in a small group.

Help participants become conscious of the skills necessary for small group work. Do not expect them to work well in groups without help. One way for students to examine individual behavior within the group is by assigning participant “observers” to monitor group progress of the assigned task. The report of the “observers” provides the group members with an opportunity to focus on how they handled an issue.

“Observers” should look for specific behaviors targeted by the instructor and identify how group members dealt with problems they encountered. For example, an “observer” could be examining the group for their mastery of communication skills. When reporting to the group, observers should present their observations as descriptively and objectively as possible.

2.   Group size

As the size of the group increases, the range of ability, expertise, and skills increases. The likelihood of having someone who has special knowledge that will be helpful to the group task is greater. However, the opportunity for misbehavior also increases.

The larger the group, the more skillful the participants must be in giving everyone an opportunity to speak. Few participants in your program will already have well- developed group skills. Therefore, the skills must be carefully taught and practiced over a long period of time.

The shorter the time available to complete the lesson, the smaller the group should be. Smaller groups are more effective because they take less time to get organized, operate more quickly, and provide a better opportunity for each participant to contribute.

Characteristics of small group interaction:
  • Groups of two: Although there is a high exchange of information and less disagreement, groups of two can be full of tension, emotion, and, very often, deadlock. In case of disagreement, there is no ally for either participant. 
  • Groups of three: In this arrangement, the two stronger individuals may dominate the weakest member. Triads are, nonetheless, the most stable group structure with occasional shifting coalitions. Disagreement is easier to settle since there is never a tie.
  • Groups of five: This group represents the most satisfying learning group size. The 2:3 division provides minority members with support. It is large enough for stimulation, yet small enough for participation and personal recognition.
  • Groups of odd or even numbers: Disagreement is harder to settle in groups with an even number of members than in those with odd numbers of members. Odd numbers in a group can break the deadlock or make for a majority opinion.

3.   Assigning participants to groups

It is recommended that teachers place high, medium, and low achieving participants within the same group. More creative thinking and greater perspectives for discussion seem to occur in heterogeneous groups.

In order to build constructive relationships between male and female participants and participants from different cultural backgrounds, each group should include gender and cultural heterogeneity, if possible.

There are many useful ways teachers may assign participants to learning groups. The easiest way is to assign participants randomly by having them count off. The ones should go together, the twos should go together, and so forth. However, at the beginning of small group work, it is better for you to create groups based on the dynamics of your class.

Some teachers keep learning groups together for an entire program. It is helpful to allow groups to remain together long enough for them to be stable and successful.  Breaking up groups that are having trouble functioning effectively is often counterproductive because the participants do not learn the skills they need to resolve problems in collaboration. Instead, explain that small group work will help participants develop the skills necessary to communicate and cooperate. You may consider adding an adult to the group to facilitate communication amoung group members.

Common problems:

Typical problems that groups face and that teachers and observers should look for include

  • Respect for the rights and opinions of others. Does everyone in the group get a fair hearing?
  • Willingness to compromise and to cooperate. Are there members of the group whose minds are made up and who will “lose” if they change their position and “win” if their position becomes accepted?
  • Support of others. Do the members of the group support other individuals with positions similar to theirs?
  • Willingness to listen. Does it appear that the members of the group are more interested in talking than in listening to what others have to say? Are their responses intended to clarify what the previous speaker has said?
  • Conflict. When it appears that one or more people have different positions and these positions conflict, does the group avoid dealing with the conflict? Do they tend to operate as if they agree? Do they bring the issues on which they disagree out into the open for discussion?

(Adapted from the LRE/JJ Manual, NDTP, 1993; Circles of Learning by Johnson and Johnson; and from Children and Their World; Teaching Elementary Social Studies by Welton and Mellan)

tips for small-group work
  1. Make sure the participants have the knowledge and skills necessary to do the work. If they don’t it will become apparent quickly as they won’t stick to the task at hand.
  2. Make the instructions to the group very clear. It is unlikely that the group will be able to follow more than one or two instructions at a time (even clear ones!).
  3. Allow enough time to complete the assigned task in the small group. Think creatively about ways to occupy groups that finish before other groups.
  4. Form groups of two to five participants. Start with only two or three participants per group. Five is the optimal upper limit for small group discussion.
  5. In striking a balance between independent and cooperative learning, don’t force the issue. Use small groups only for tasks calling for cooperative work, not independent work around a small table.
  6. Make small group work a norm in your classroom, not a radical, once‑in‑a‑lifetime departure from “lecture and recite.”
  7. Think about how your reward/evaluation strategies affect the use of small groups. Be sure to provide rewards for group efforts.
  8. Be explicit in dealing with management issues within the groups. If someone must report back to the class on the group’s work, be sure there is a fair process for selecting the reporter.
  9. Be prepared for the increased noise level that occurs during cooperative learning activities.
  10. In forming groups, don’t stigmatize participants. Heterogeneous groups are usually desirable.
  11. Circulate and observe/evaluate what is occurring in the groups. When you stop to visit a group, don’t take it over. Think about your role in such a situation.
  12. Be sure participants sit in a circle: knee to knee and eyeball to eyeball. Each member must be able to see the others easily.  This increases open communication amoung group members.
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