5 Ways to Structure Small Groups for Success

So when I started teaching at the college level, I got pretty obsessed with the idea that if I was going to teach folks how to teach, I needed to know something about how to teach. For some reason, that morphed into an obsession with learning all of the different ways to structure groups and activities within a classroom. While I don’t think my college students were quite as into trying out ALLLLLL of the activities I found as I had hoped, I did wind up with a cool round up of instructional activities. Today’s roundup has five different ways to structure small group activities. Note that I got all of these off of the internet years ago and all of these ideas belong to way cooler people than me so check out the embedded links!

5 Ways to Structure Small Groups

Small Group Discussions

Small group (4-6 students) discussions are a staple of classroom teachers. Here are the challenges:

  • How do you ensure that students are talking about what you want them to talk about?
  • How do you ensure that everyone in the group participates?
  • How do you ensure that the discussion leads somewhere and doesn’t just circle the drain?

While there are a lot of different strategies for making small groups work, here are some basic guidelines:

  1.     Make sure that all students can see (and hear) each other. If someone is marginalized from the group physically, they will be marginalized in the conversation too.
  2.     Make your expectations clear. If needed, set group norms about listening, staying focused, no cell phones, etc.
  3.     Let students ask questions.

If students are even remotely confused about the directions for a task or the point of it, they will go off task so let them clear up any confusion BEFORE you begin.

  1.     Let the groups know how they will be held accountable—is someone from the group going to share out? Will you be walking around? Do they have a sheet to complete?
  2.     Make sure they have enough to talk about.

If you ask four middle school students which planet is third from the sun and leave them for five minutes, what do you think will happen? The key to discussions is asking rich questions—and having sub-questions for them to discuss when they are done.


Jigsaws are a popular cooperative learning activity. They are one way to structure group work to ensure that all students contribute something. They also are an easy way to differentiate work—you can assign each set of students a different level of assignments and then everyone has access to work at their level and can contribute something meaningful to the group. Here is how I structure them:

Break the class up to into groups of about four students (You want everyone to be able to share without the activity taking too long).

Then, assign each student in the group a letter (This is where you can differentiate).

Everyone goes and sits with students who are the same letter as them (It is okay if these groups are bigger).

Give each letter group a copy of a reading/video/picture to discuss. Their job is to become the expert on that content. That might mean giving students a structured note sheet to write on or facilitating their discussion (If you want to use less class time for this activity, assign them their differentiated reading as homework).

Once the students in each letter group are experts, send them back to their original group. Their job is to teach the other students about the content that they just studied (If needed, go over norms and have students take notes).

When every expert has shared, have the class come back together to discuss the content.



 Writearound is a cooperative learning strategy. You give a group of students a sentence starter on apiece of paper. They then pass the paper around in the group. Each student has to add a sentence to the paper, building on what is already there. You can use it for creative writing, for summarizing a text, or for fleshing out an idea.


Complex Instruction

We all know that group work often becomes one student doing all of the work. Complex instruction is a way to structure group work to prevent that. Here is how it works:

Divide the class into groups of about four students with mixed skills.

Give each student in the group a role

Roles include a reporter, a recorder, a facilitator, a questioner, a resource monitor

Here are some explanations of each: http://ime.math.arizona.edu/g-teams/For_Fellows/Roles_intermediate_revised.pdf and https://web.stanford.edu/class/ed284/csb/RoleSkit/RoleHint.pdf

Assign a group worthy task

This is the most important element. The task has to be complex enough that it is worthy of the group’s time. To see examples go to https://complexinstruction.stanford.edu/resources

Round Robin Brainstorming

This activity helps build cooperative groups in your classroom while encouraging students to think of creative solutions to problems. Here is how it works:

Divide the class into small groups.

Pose a question to the group.

Give wait time.

One student gives an answer in the group. Then the person next to them answers and so one.

One student in the group writes down all answers. 

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