“The number one reason people lose their first real job is not a lack of technical skills, it is because they can’t get along with other people.”
-UK National Job Service
“Communication skills and working in a team were listed as abilities that were missing in newly graduated students.”
-National Alliance of Business

Nationally & locally, employers are desperate for NCSC college graduates to improve their ability to communicate & work effectively with colleagues (NCSC Program Advisory Committees Meeting Survey) . BUT ad hoc Small Group Activities can fall flat or create a confused mess– leaving you as the instructor gunshy to attempt any further group adventures and leave students seeing small group activities as “a waste” or “a distraction” from proper passive lecture napping.


“Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one’s own ideas and responding to others’ reactions improves thinking and deepens understanding.”
Chickering & Gamson (1987), “7 Best Practices of Undergrad Education”

There are several keys to effective small group activities- designing the group activities to incorporate the established best practices can create a powerful and engaging engine for student retention and success:

  1. “4S”s
    4s TBL qs
    A group activity that meets these 4 proven criteria (Michaelsen 2004) can create an engaging and in-depth exploration of applying course content. these can motivate and  efficiently highlight any gaps to provoke discussion on outliers as well as show relevance and value of the material while building teamwork.
    Significant Problem =
    A challenging problem that is meaningful
    Same Problem =
    Entire class deals with same problem at the same time. (but good to allow individuals to think on a problem and bring initial thoughts/notes to class)
    Specific Choice =
    Groups able to express solution in a direct, easily expressed way (A, B,C, D; Yes or No; specific location on map etc.). Should not be an in-depth written product to express group’s answer.
    Simultaneous Reporting =
    Group choices are revealed (not the recording of choices by groups) to the whole class at the same time.
  2. Accountability
    While the 4S approach above offers solid basic public accountability, having some form of accountability instrument beyond this is wise. Peer evals or scoring sheets ( “divide up 10 points among your group based on their contributions”) for each student to the team/ group mates can incentivize all to pull their weight and prevent so-called “Social loafing.”
  3. Stability/Persistence
    To develop fully functioning powerful learning groups, it takes persistence for healthy norms and dynamic to be established. As such, keeping static groups throughout the term for all groupwork will help build trust and allow teammate lessons learned to be best leveraged.
  4. Not a Gimmick
    There should be some clearly identified and articulated role the group activity will do in helping students reach the learning objectives. Whether that is to force application, develop critical thinking/analysis of the topic, reflect on the topic etc.   It should be integrated with other elements of the course to build on what has gone before and to activate and follow-up with the next activity/ assessment etc.


Find one particular topic in the course that would allow for a rich relevant discussion that could be applied in many reasonable directions. Develop a key significant problem around this and develop clear directions and a prompt for the students.

Note that you may need to incorporate recording some baseline lecture material for students to go through outside of class to free up time for the group activity.


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