Simplified 2-MIN. READ

Why Small Group Instruction Matters

By: Jasmine Applewhite 05/21/2024
Learn how small group instruction can boost learning for all your students.
A group of students are sharing and writing ideas on chart paper.

Small group instruction allows me to reach all my students where they are, increase student engagement, build social-emotional skills, and improve collaboration and accountability. Each day, my groups focus on a different challenge, and they love working together.

Small Groups Are Little Communities

With up to 28 students in a classroom, some students are reluctant to ask questions or give their opinions. But when I break them into small groups, those same kids are more willing to speak up and be part of the conversation. For those who normally don’t interact much with others, I can see their personalities start to come out as they build friendships, learn from each other, and gain a sense of pride.

I may group a talker with a non-talker because I know the talker will start the conversation and pull in those non-talkers. I place a high-flyer in each group to act as a peer tutor. As these students perform, other students rise to the occasion, because they think, “If I’m sitting with them, and my group is answering so many questions right, I must be in the smart group.” It’s a catalyst—usually students can think at a higher level; they just lack confidence. In these small groups, I can hear their conversations change. My higher students benefit as well because they often move so fast, they can’t articulate their thinking. Sharing what they know with other students helps them build their discussion skills.

Here are a few steps to take when creating an environment for small group instruction in your classroom:

1. Determine the Need

When forming small groups, your goals can vary depending on your students’ needs and objectives, including:

  • Remediation: Addressing academic weaknesses or gaps in understanding
  • Enrichment: Providing additional challenges for students who excel in a particular subject
  • Cooperative Learning: Encouraging collaboration and teamwork
  • Skills Development: Focusing on specific skills, such as communication, leadership, or time management
  • Project-Based Learning: Engaging students in hands-on, real-world projects
  • Differentiated Instruction: Tailoring instruction to meet the diverse needs of students

2. How to Group Students

Assigning students to small groups can be done in various ways, each with its own advantages and considerations. Here are three common methods:

  • Ability-Based Groups: Group students based on their abilities to tailor instruction to their specific needs—from targeted support for striving students to providing challenges for high-achievers.
  • Flexible Grouping: Allow for dynamic and adaptable group formations based on different criteria depending on the specific activity or lesson.
  • Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Groups: Group students with similar or diverse abilities, backgrounds, or learning styles.

Choosing the appropriate grouping method depends on your learning objectives, the nature of the tasks, and your students’ characteristics. I often use a combination of approaches throughout the school year to provide a well-rounded and inclusive learning experience for all.

3. Determine How Small Group Instruction Will Look in Your Class

  • The number of groups can depend on the size of the class and the specific activity or lesson. Generally, smaller groups (i.e., three to five students) are effective for promoting active participation and individual contributions.
  • Group size may vary based on the learning objectives. Smaller groups can encourage more equitable participation.
  • Arrange desks or tables to facilitate group interaction. Consider a layout that allows your students to easily move between groups for collaborative activities. Flexible seating arrangements can support different group configurations.

4. How to Operate Groups

  • Rotating Groups: When students rotate in small groups, they move from one group to another at specified intervals, and the material stays at the table.
  • Stationary Groups: When students work in stationary small groups, they remain in the same group, and the material is rotated around the room in baskets, folders, or clipboards.
  • Time: The length of small group time can vary. Try having students rotate at different intervals.

5. Set Expectations

  • Rules: Create rules that help small groups flow and aid in classroom management. For example: Cooperate, stay on task, communicate within your group, and “ask three” other people before you.
  • Student Interaction: Encourage students to work together to achieve common goals and share responsibilities. Emphasize the importance of including all group members in discussions and activities. Discourage cliques or exclusive behavior, and promote a sense of belonging.
  • Roles: Consider giving students specific roles in their groups, such as leader, timekeeper, note-taker, material manager, and speaker. This will help keep all students involved and engaged.
  • Procedures: Developing procedures and walking students through them allows students to foster self-reliance. For instance, students should know where to turn in complete work, how the groups will transition, and how they should gather material.

6. Test and Gauge Efficacy

As students complete small group rotations, be sure to monitor and document what they are doing and how well it’s working. As they produce assignments, monitor data to check mastery and completion and make ongoing data-driven adjustments if necessary.

Small group instruction can help you break up the school day and encourage your students to think in new and different ways. It’s an efficient way to make a big impact in a small amount of time. 

Want to hear more from Jasmine about the benefits of small group instruction? Tune into the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast. Want to see what a small group session could look like? Check out Jasmine’s small group example.