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Small group activities

These activities can help structure small group learning in person and online.

These suggested activities can help to enhance small group learning in your classroom or in online breakout rooms.

Think-Pair-Share

This simple activity protocol gives structure to paired discussion. It can enhance learning by encouraging students to think carefully, explain their ideas to a peer, listen actively, and synthesize what they discussed.

  1. Propose a question and allow students to think independently and quietly for some time.
  2. Have students form pairs  where they discuss the question. Encoruage them to take turns and explain their thinking to one another
  3. Reconvene the whole group and ask all or some students to share what they discussed in their pair. 

Instructors sometimes skip the think step of this model, but it is important to let students who need silence to process information have that time to think before others start talking.

Help students to decide who speaks first and who will share back to the group by using an equitable prompt such as selecting the person: whose first name is closest to the end of the alphabet, whose birthday is coming up the soonest, whose hometown is closest to campus, and so on.

Furthermore, asking students to explain a concept to another student (i.e., reciprocal teaching) while in pairs, helps them learn the material better. Finally, students can compare their responses to those shared by other pairs during the last step and receive feedback from other students and the instructor. 

Jigsaw

In this activity, a large content piece is divided into smaller topics and groups each focus on learning one topic to later explain to others. This activity leverages reciprocal learning to deepen learning and 

  1. Identify a learning module that can be broken into parts (e.g., students need to read four different research papers about a similar topic).
  2. Form small groups and have each group focus on one of the parts (e.g., each group reads one of the four papers). This can be completed asynchronously.
  3. During class, allow the groups to discuss their part with the goal of being able to explain it to other classmates.
  4. Reform the groups so that each new group has one member that focused on a different part. Each group member now explains their part to the new group.
  5. Provide the new groups with a problem to solve that requires the integration of the different parts. 

This model works best for material that sensibly breaks into complementary or dependent parts. For example, some students may have key information that other students need and vice versa. Otherwise, students may find little motivation to learn the other parts from their classmates.

You may also give students instructions on what to include in their explanations to each other. For example, advise students to include at least three supporting points on their topic, or to report on why this topic is relevant or applicable to other topics being studied.

Round robin

This activity asks every student to briefly share their response to a given question.

  1. Pose an open-ended question to all students
  2. Give them some time to think independently
  3. Decide the order of sharing in breakout rooms or small groups
  4. Create breakout rooms and instruct students to allow each person to briefly share their response to the question. 

Be explicit about how much you want students to share (e.g., one word, one sentence, or for one minute). Compared to Think-Pair-Share, groups are usually larger but the responses are generally shorter. In other words, Think-Pair-Share might allow students to delve deeper, but Round Robin allows them to hear more perspectives. 

Two-stage “exam”

Students complete exam-like questions, such as multiple choice or short answer questions twice, first individually, then in small groups. This allows students to discuss their answers and thinking. Two-stage exams provide multiple opportunities to identify misunderstandings, offer feedback, and make clarifications.

  1. Students complete an exam (or exam-like questions) individually, keep a copy of their responses, and submit another copy to the instructor. This can be completed asynchronously.
  2. Students are put into small groups, complete the same or similar exam, and submit their answers together. This can be completed synchronously in the classroom or breakout rooms, or groups can meet independently and complete the second stage by a certain deadline. 

It is not necessary that these “exams” be graded or worth a significant portion of a student’s grade. This could be used simply as a learning activity. If you do decide to grade this activity, it is recommended that the individual portion count for 85-90% of the grade and the group portion count for the rest, only if it is higher than the student’s individual score. In other words, if the student’s individual score is higher than their group score, their grade will be based solely on their individual score. The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative provides this more detailed description of two-stage exams (PDF).

One of the added benefits of an in-person two-stage exam is the immediate feedback that students can receive. The IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) uses multiple-choice questions on scratch cards. These cards have a star hidden beneath the correct answer choice for each question, letting students know immediately if their group’s answer was correct or if they need to discuss which answer they should try next. You can create a digital version of IF-AT cards using Stanford Qualtrics. Contact ctl-stanford@stanford.edu if you need assistance creating an online version for your course.

Small group discussions 

For a variety of methods to structure small group discussions such as Snowballing, Strategic Questioning, and Writing Discussion, we recommend Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill's The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking which is available through Stanford Libraries.

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