Tips for successful small-group learning 

Editor’s Note: Much has happened since we published this blog in June 2016. We’ve updated to include additional resources on how schools are using classroom audio as a tool for small group activities. 

June 22, 2016 

by Carolyn Hollowell 

During a classroom visit with Darcie, a middle school teacher from Alberta, last month, I observed her  working with a student who I learned had been struggling with discipline problems throughout the year. While listening in on a small-group lesson, Darcie noticed the student performed very well and took the opportunity to immediately encourage her for her brilliance. The impact of that encouragement had an instant effect – ones almost as big as the grin on her face. With Darcie’s support, she seemed more confident and was more productive that day.  

Darcie’s story is moving and inspiring at the same time. It underscores the influence teachers can have on the their students. When was the last time someone gave you a chance to begin again despite poor performance? When was the last time someone provided you the encouragement, the incentive to go out and shine?  

As you recall those moments, stop to consider the positive and negative impact group activities can have on students.  During small-group learning sessions, struggling students may feel disconnected to you and the material and  may fall farther behind or act out. Small-group activities require a clear strategy for maintaining student engagement and supporting meaningful learning.  

Here are Darcie’s tips for building successful small-group activities:  

Identify your goal  
Stay focused on what you are trying to accomplish. It shouldn’t be vague, such as “improving student performance,”  but something that is specific and achievable. For instance, if you want your students to demonstrate they understand how to complete the science experiment, that’s an achievable goal. Once you have a direction to go, you can figure out a way to get there. 

Identify the right activity 
Not all activities work well in small-group settings, so it’s important to design both the activity and group structure to help you reach the goal. Consider some of the following when starting out:  
•    Study groups to revise and prepare for exams  
•    Laboratory teams to conduct experiments and share observations for science  
•    Enactment groups to perform a scene from the play for an ELA lesson. 

Revise, reassess, restructure  
Once the students are comfortable with the small-group structures and arrangements, shake things up. Pair students with new students to familiarize them with each other. Continually revise the learning group structures to identify the students with exceptional communication skills or a flair for leadership. Introduce new activities into the mix to find the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. 

Stay connected without intruding  
The most difficult step, when it comes to successful small-group learning activities is to continue to stay connected with all the students. Lightspeed’s Activate System enables teachers to check in on multiple groups remotely, enabling them make sure students are staying on track and redirecting when needed. In other words, it allows you to monitor multiple places at once.   

Activate also provides an important student link, providing a way for them to quickly alert a teacher who may be working with another group if they have questions or need assistance, rather than waiting for the teacher to get to them. From anywhere in the room or outside the room; you can encourage, correct, motivate, discuss and coach them to success. Your role as a guide will determine the direction the group activity will take and, more importantly, the future of your students. 

More resources: 

Learn more about how educators are using classroom audio systems to support small-group learning: 

Case Study: Using the Activate system to formatively assess students in small groups 

Case Study: A school that piloted the Flexcat to save teachers’ voices discovered its most powerful effect was personalizing small-group instruction 
Hearing is believing  
Guide: Activate getting started  

Infographic: Importance of small group learning in development of the 4 C’s 

Video: Instructional audio system helps Park Elementary support collaboration and engagement