Small-Group and Cooperative Learning

Small Group Learning

Small-group learning is a learning method that can supplement direct instruction, simulations, and other class activities and involves the individuals working together in groups of 3 to 6 and helping each other with critical thinking and application of class learnings to real-word scenarios. This approach is often informal and brief and can happen several times in a class session. Small-group learning, when compared to competitive and individualistic learning, improves academic performance, connections with classmates and instructors, and fosters psychological well-being, according to learning science studies (HarvardKennedy, 2023). This helps students to improve their general personality traits including communication, cooperation, teamwork, and public speaking (Sharon, 2003).

Small Group Learning Methods

The phrase "small group learning methods" can be referred to a broad range of inductive and active student-centered instructional strategies that enable students to work in small groups and use effective communication and social skills to cooperate and collaborate with other group members (Cartney & Rouse, 2006). There are different forms of small group learning methods.

Cooperative learning is a methodical, structured and teacher led small group instruction style in which students collaborate in small learning groups to maximize their learning goals and achieve their shared learning objectives (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). On other hand, collaborative learning is an unstructured form of small-group learning that incorporates a wide range of formal and informal instructional methods in which students work together in small groups and interact together to achieve a common goal (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999). Springer, et al. (1999) described the collaborative learning method as “relatively unstructured process in which the learners, talk about the goals, define problems, come up with procedures, resulting in socially constructed knowledge in small groups” (p. 24). Finally, inquiry-based learning is a small-group instructional approach to knowledge acquisition starts with essential questioning. Students engage in teams to address a problem or inquiry by exploring, and posing pertinent questions, investigating, making discoveries, sharing the findings with their classmates, and creating a scientific report (Chiappetta, 1997).

Importance of Small Group Learning

·      IThere are numerous benefits of incorporating small group learning into your classroom:

Common Mistakes in Small Group Learning

Although small group learning has been proven to be a highly effective approach of learning, there are common errors that teachers should be mindful of. These errors should be corrected to get maximum results in small group learning. Some of these errors include:

History of Small Group Learning

Small group learning has been used for centuries as a means of education and personal development. However, the modern concept of small group learning can be traced back to the late 1800s, with the emergence of the Progressive Education movement in the United States. This movement emphasized student-centered learning, collaboration, and critical thinking.

In the early 1900s, the University of Chicago Laboratory School was established as a model for Progressive Education. John Dewey, a philosopher, and educational reformer played a key role in the development of the Laboratory School and the promotion of small group learning.

During the mid-20th century, small group learning gained wider acceptance as a teaching method, particularly in medical education. The concept of problem-based learning, in which small groups of students work together to solve real-world problems, became popular in medical schools.

In the 1960s and 1970s, small group learning was further developed and studied by educational psychologists, who identified its benefits in terms of increased student engagement, motivation, and retention of information. Small group learning was also found to be effective in promoting critical thinking, communication skills, collaboration, and teamwork. Small group learning is a common approach in education at all levels, from elementary school to graduate school. It is used in a variety of fields, including medicine, law, business, and social sciences. Online platforms and videoconferencing have also made it possible to conduct small group learning remotely, further expanding its reach and accessibility.

In middle and elementary school, small group learning has been used for several years but it became more widely accepted as a method of teaching in recent decades. In the early 20th century, the Progressive Education movement focused on small group learning and student- centered teaching making it a center point in the development of elementary and middle school education (Lynch, 2018). John Dewey played a great role in the promotion of small group learning in middle and elementary school. He was a philosopher, educational reformer, and a key proposer in the movement of Progressive Education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He believed learning should be learner-centered and that students should participate actively in their own learning. He proposed that there should be a connectedness between the learning and the students’ interests, doing this would make learning more meaningful and enjoyable. Dewey believed small group learning was a way to achieve these results. He advocated for small group learning to encourage learners to work collaboratively and cooperatively to solve problems. He believed that small groups would give room for students to learn from each other and develop important social skills such as communication, cooperation, and empathy. He viewed small group learning as a way to prepare students for active participation in a democratic society. This movement was pivotal in the development of progressive schools.

In the 1980s and 1990s, small group learning continued to gain popularity in elementary and middle schools, especially using workshop models. This approach involves learners working in small groups to engage in hands-on-activities and explore topics in depth. This workshop model has been used in reading and writing instructions as well as in science and social studies.

In the 21st century, small group learning has continued to be a common practice in elementary and middle schools, especially in subjects such as Mathematics and Language arts. Teachers use small group activities to differentiate instructions enabling learners to work at their own pace and level of understanding. This promotes collaboration and teamwork which are important skills for success in school and in real world scenarios.

Strategies & Methods for Effective Small Group Learning

Small group learning can be very effective in elementary and middle schools if the right strategies and methods are employed (Williams, 2022)Daryl Williams, a middle school educator, shared some tips on effective strategies for small group learning in his video titled Small Groups Can Work in Middle Classrooms.

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Some of these strategies include:

Improving Small Group Learning

Small group learning has been proven to be a highly effective method of teaching especially in middle and elementary schools. It is therefore expedient that teachers get better and better at implementing this learning approach effectively. Here are some ways teachers can get better at this approach:

  1. Small group time should be used to listen and learn.
    • Instead of teaching right away at the begin of lessons, teachers can take out some time to learn more about the students and what they know. This could be quite challenging as teachers often want to maximize their time and provide direct instructions quickly. However, gathering information about the learners can help teachers improve both their teaching and students’ learning (Miller, 2020).
  2. Small group should not be an ordering process but rather an offering process.
    • Teachers should not order students to complete tasks in their groups but should offer to collaborate with them to leverage them as agents in their own learning process. Teachers should enable students using effective self-assessment practices and learning techniques to take ownership of their learning process.
  3. Always be clear about expectations from teachers and learnersearners.
    • At the start of the small group discussion, teachers should clearly define the expectations and interactions envisaged amongst the learners as well as the teachers. This will help the group to remain focused throughout the learning process.
  4. Students should be treated with respect and consideration.
    • Teachers should treat all learners with respect and consideration and should ensure all groups do the same for every group member. Learners should be made to understand that no opinion is valueless, and everyone’s idea is well valued.
  5. Small groups should have sufficient time and space for expression.
    • Teachers should ensure that learners have enough time and space to gather their thoughts and give contributions to the discussion being shared.

Small Group Learning Activities

There are several small group activities that can be effectively employed from the elementary level all the way up to adult learners. These activities can fun, provide chunking within the lesson, and help to deepen the understanding of the content. Some of these include:

  1. Turn-and-Talk: In this activity, the teacher groups learners in groups of twos or threes, and these small groups are required to share responses to the teacher’s prompts.  The teacher then demands responses from the whole class, calling on different groups.
  2. Think-Pair-Share: Here, learners write, responding to the teacher’s prompt and then share those responses in pairs. The teacher then facilitates report-outs from some pairs.
  3. Peer Instruction: Here, the teacher asks a question or requests an opinion on a topic and then creates a poll for the class. Students then discuss their responses in small groups and then the teacher creates another poll.
  4. Jigsaw: In this activity the teacher divides the class into several small groups, each group working on separate but related tasks. When all members of the group are done with the task, the class is redivided into mixed groups with one member of each of the previous groups in the new group. Each learner in the group teaches the rest of the group what he/she knows, and the group then solves a task that pulls all of the pieces together to form the full picture.
  5. Poster and gallery walk: In this activity, learners work on a lesson together in small groups of two-four and present their ideas on a sheet of paper which they display on the wall around the classroom. A member of the group will talk about their ideas and explain to the class while other groups take turs to look at the poster. Each group take turns to look at each other’s posters and can give feedback on what they learn to further their understanding of other topics.


Structuring a Small Group Learning Session

To achieve the desired learning outcomes, curriculum and lesson design must be well planned and coordinated. In small group learning, planning learning activities is an essential component of course design and everyday teaching (Krathwohl, et al., 2001). The purpose of learning activities should be to assist and engage students in achieving predetermined, agreed-upon learning outcomes. The design and execution of small group instruction should be founded on fundamental ideas such the topic introduction, ground rules, role and task maintenance for the group, activity, briefing, debriefing, and feedback (McKimm & Morris, 2009). The flexible nature of this learning approach implies that the lessons must be structured and planned in a way tailored to meet the individual needs of students, focusing on the development of specific skill sets and knowledge. Bloom’s Taxonomy (mentioned in previous chapters) in below gives a useful structure for designing lesson plans (Krathwohl, et al., 2001). This taxonomy can be used as a tool for detailing objectives of each lesson pan and contains six different categories which are arranged in a hierarchical order for the least to the most complex (Krathwohl, et al., 2001).

Bloom’s Taxonomy (Krathwohl, et al., 2001)

The five steps to consider when designing a small group lesson plan are show in the image below. These steps include:

  1. Profiling Learners: Teachers should consider the learners that would be participating in the small group learning and know them. Their strengths, skills and learning needs should be taken into consideration. The available resources for the learners should also be taken cognizance of.
  2. Defining Outcomes: Teachers should define the envisaged outcomes of each small group learning and details them clearly. These outcomes should be focused and achievable within the available time. Teachers should ask themselves ‘What do I want each group and individuals to do, learn and understand at the end of each lesson? It is important to be clear both in the preparation and conveying of these outcomes to learners. It is also a good practice to leave room for students’ input in the learning outcome (Diggele, Burgess, & Mellis, 2020)
  3. Defining Activities and Strategies: Teachers need to determine the activity and strategy to be used for each small group lesson. Teachers can choose frm the range of small group activities which includes case studies, polls, animations, learning centers an so on. The activities should be defined in such a way that each small group is well organized and have a clear explanation of the learning activities as well as the expectations.
  4. Assessment: Teachers should also plan the assessment methods for each small group learning. Formative assessment is important because it reinforces the lessons and skills learned. Feedback should be given to each group as well as individuals on areas they did well and areas for improvement. For effective assessment activity, learners should be given clear outcomes and an indication of how they performed against these outcomes. They should also be given guidance for improvement. Using effective questioning and assessment help students remain active throughout the learning period.
  5. Summary: Teachers should give room for a summary of lessons when planning small group work. Feedback should also be received from learners.
Five Key steps to designing your lesson

Best Practices in Small Group Learning

There are several best practices that are pivotal to the success of a small group learning. Some of which include:


In conclusion, engaging in small group learning is an effective way of teaching and has immense benefits for both learners and teachers. This approach enables teachers to meet learners at the stage they are and introduce activities and ideas that would be beneficial for the students making knowledge dissemination faster and more effective, Learners learn the act of teamwork and are able to learn faster and participate actively in the learning process.

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is an instructional approach to learning that involves small group of learners working together on a common task. This could include working on a variety of tasks from simple math problems to larger tasks like proposing solutions to real world problems (Lewis, 2019). This instructional approach to learning involves the grouping of students into heterogeneous groups with each group consisting of learners having different skills, abilities, interests, and backgrounds. Each learner takes responsibility for their own learning and is encouraged to support other members of their group to learn. Different strategies can be employed in this learning approach ranging from group discussions, peer teaching, problem solving activities, role playing and more to facilitate collaboration and maximize learning.

When implemented well, cooperative learning can enhance academic achievement, increase student engagement, and improve positive social and interpersonal skills (Chen, 2018). Students who are placed in groups who cooperate well and have positive engagement with each other can solve problems together more effectively (Heleen & Arnold, 2018).  This approach reinforces student motivation by giving them more freedom which is a great motivator for their learning achievement by giving them a positive attitude to learn (Chen, 2018).

Cooperative learning happens in structured, formal tasks that are tackled as a group. The tasks and lessons are designed and facilitated by teachers who oversee the progress of the groups. In this learner-centered approach, the teacher serves as facilitator. This approach is advantageous for both teachers and learners as it improves the learners’ self-confidence, interactive abilities, and collaborative skills, therefore positively impacting the atmosphere of the classroom. Cooperative learning motivates student to form wholesome bonds with their classmates. Hence, it is thought that incorporating cooperative learning into the classroom promotes greater student-to-student engagement.

Spencer Kagan, a psychologist and educational researcher, has done considerable work in the development of cooperative learning. He began applying the principles of cooperative learning as a professor at the UC Riverside. He proposed a principle called PIES consisting of four elements namely:

  1. Positive interdependence: This principle accounts for a direct correlation between the gains of the individual members of the group and the gains of the entire group. In other words, I succeed if you succeed. 
  2. Individual accountability: This means that each group member is accountable for doing their share of the tasks and learning the material.
  3. Equal participation: This component means that each learner gets equal input and responsiblity.
  4. Simultaneous interaction: This principle considers that different students interact in different ways during the learning period.  

History of Cooperative Learning

Social theorists like Allport, Watson, Shaw, and Mead started developing cooperative learning theory prior to World War II after discovering that group work was more successful and efficient that working alone in quantity, quality, and overall production (Gilles & Adrian, 2003). However, it was in 1937 that researchers May and Doob discovered that those who collaborate and work together to accomplish common goals were more successful in achieving results than those who tried to accomplish the same goals on their own (May & Doob, 1937). They also discovered that independent achievers were more likely to exhibit competitive behaviors (May & Doob, 1937). In the 1930s and 1940s, philosophers and psychologists like John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsh also played their role in influencing the cooperative learning theory practiced today (Sharan, 2010). John Dewey believed it was crucial for students to acquire information and social skills that they could apply in a democratic society as well as outside of the classroom. According to this approach, rather than being passive information consumers, students should be actively engaged in the learning process by debating questions and solutions in groups. He emphasized the importance of social learning and proposed that students learn better when they work together, Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch developed theories on group dynamics and intergroup relations which laid a foundation for cooperative learning. Lewin’s believed in establishing relationships between group members to achieve learning goals successfully. Deutsh believed in social independence, proposing that each learner has the responsibility of contributing to the knowledge of the group. Researchers started looking at the merits of cooperative learning in the classroom in the 1950s and 1960s. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson's work has a significant impact on this field. Aronson created the jigsaw classroom, a cooperative learning method in which pupils learn in small groups before passing on what they have learned to their classmates. Cooperative learning gained popularity as a successful teaching approach in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, the work of educational psychologist Robert Slavin was crucial. The "cooperative learning model," created by Slavin, is a paradigm for cooperative learning that consists of five essential components: positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face connection, social skills, and group processing. The cooperative learning theory has seen significant contributions from David and Roger Johnson. In 1975, they found that cooperative learning increased the variety of thinking processes used by group members and fostered mutual like, greater communication, high acceptance, and support. Learners that were more competitive lacked in interpersonal relationships, trust, and emotional investment in their classmates (Johnson & Johnson, Learning together and alone, cooperation, competition and individualization, 1975). They published the 5 elements essential for effective group learning as positive independence, individual accountability, face-to-face interaction, social skills, and processing. These elements would help learners develop social, personal, and cognitive skills. Since then, cooperative learning has been widely employed in classrooms around the world and it has produced immerse benefits including improvement in academics, social skills and an increased motivation to learn.

Types of Cooperative Learning

Some types of cooperative learning include:

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