How many chemistry students does it take to…make group learning effective?

How many chemistry students does it take to…make group learning effective?

Group work overview

How many chemistry students does it take to…make group learning effective?

The answer is four.  Or maybe five. 

At least that is how it is done in the Chem 31BC problem-solving class at Stanford.  The class, designed as an optional supplement to the Chem 31B large lecture course, consists of 30-40 students and is run by the instructor, Dr. Jen Schwartz Poehlmann, and one TA.  In the session I observed, the students gathered around tables in groups of four or five to work on problem sets in preparation for an upcoming exam.  The instructor and TA circulated among the groups, giving pointers and clarifying concepts.  (The companion courses 31AC, 31BC, and 33C all use the same model.)

If one particular issue kept cropping up, the instructor would pull everyone together as a class and give a more detailed explanation at the board.  She also used this strategy to bring all groups up to speed when some were progressing more slowly than others through the problem set. 

Throughout the class, I observed that each of the groups was actively engaged in working through the problems and trying to better understand the material presented.

Successful group work

Structured group learning in the classroom can be a very effective technique to help students develop their problem solving skills—skills that everyone agrees should be an essential product of higher education.  It also helps them learn to work in groups and, unlike take-home problem sets, can speed up learning by allowing them to receive immediate feedback on problems they find challenging or don’t understand well.

One of the biggest challenges in this type of classroom is getting the students to actually work in groups.  Some students seem to naturally work well in groups, while others, if not checked, will prefer to isolate themselves and work on their own, even when sitting around a table with other group members. 

You can use a variety of techniques to encourage better intra-group work.  Jigsaw problems can be effective, although they require careful planning. Students within a group can be given individual time to work on separate problems and then each can be asked to explain his or her problem to the whole group.  Students can also be assigned different roles within the group (critic, note-taker, group leader, etc.) to promote group cooperation.  Even small things, like only giving one set of instructions or problems to each group can help facilitate better group participation. 

Deliberate design of the activity to facilitate group work, plus early intervention and encouragement from the instructors, are both key to keeping groups actively engaged.  Many TAs are often too timid about asking students to back-up and explain their solutions to one another, but once you have asked them to do this a couple times they begin to see the value in it and pick up the habit.  Also, activities need to be slightly more difficult than you might design for an individual student, so that there is a need to discuss things among a group. 

“Mock labs”

“Mock labs” can be another way to use these group learning sessions to teach the students to think through problems like scientists.  Students are given a list of equipment and reagents and asked to work together to describe how they would design a specific experiment.  The instructor can then give them the “results” of their experiment and ask them to work together to develop a model to explain their results. They may then be asked to design a follow-up experiment to test their model.  This type of group work requires a fair bit of planning, but can enable the students to employ their scientific thinking skills.

“Think first”

Here’s a quick activity Schwartz Poehlmann has found particularly helpful in facilitating groups, and it’s easy to implement:

  1. For groups of 4 students, structure questions so that there are 4 parts (a-d) of similar weight, or 4 multiple choice questions surrounding a topic.  Assign each student a letter. Then allow the group 5-6 minutes of quiet time so each student can work through the full set of questions (this gives individuals a first chance to think about the material before stronger students can jump in).
  2. After this individual time, have each student in the group take a turn explaining their answer to the assigned part.  In this way, each student has a chance to practice explaining a concept out loud.  It also gives opportunity for others to disagree or ask for clarification. 

Does it work?

Do these group learning sessions work for Chem 31?  On a qualitative level the answer is a resounding YES.  Student reports are very positive, making statements such as “I would not have been able to do well in Chem 31 were I not in 31BC!”  On a quantitative level,Schwarz Poehlmann has recently completed research that shows that students improve both in class performance and in retention for later courses.


Bob Rawle, Ph.D, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and a visiting scholar in Chemistry at Stanford.

See Also

Sample Small Group Exercises

Cooperative Techniques (Carleton College)

How to Create Physicists This teaching team got students asking their own questions and designing their own research to learn to think like scientists.