Active learning in small groups has, at best, a mixed reputation. Instructors voice concerns about unequal levels of participation, students rushing through activities to leave or log off early, difficulties in assessing effort and learning, and the fact that many students arrive in class not having completed the readings and assignments that would facilitate their participation (Ballen et al., 2017). Students complain of anxiety about talking to others, unequal workloads, the potential for looking incompetent in front of their peers and instructors, and a general sense of awkwardness related to not knowing what to do with the time allotted (Hood et al., 2021).
Questioning common practice
These concerns can be substantively mitigated through tweaks in design. The first step involves questioning common practices related to group size, roles, and selection and activity length. Consider changing up the following:
- Group size. Many faculty assume that groups should be limited to three to four students to increase individual student contributions. It is easy to forget that a major goal of group activities is for students to learn from the contributions of their classmates. If you aim to expose your students to a wider range of ideas, a larger group may produce richer results.
- Roles and group selection. Another common assumption is that the instructor needs to preselect group members to ensure that each group contains members with certain characteristics. But allowing students to self-select can result in better group cohesion than forced group assignments, while random selection generates unique forms of intellectual cross-pollination.
- Assigning a role to each student. One role per person is almost always unnecessary. It may even hinder your students as they must spend time and effort defining and differentiating their roles. A notetaker is the only role most groups need for short discussions or projects. You can save the time used for role negotiation by randomly assigning students to the notetaker role or allowing them to “discover” a notetaker using a fun exercise. Notetaker selection activities can be entertaining. For example, the notetaker might be the person with the coolest socks (as determined by the group) or the greatest lifetime number of pet snakes and lizards. Such activities not only find a notetaker but also lighten students’ moods and help them get to know one another.
- Activity length. Instructors often plan short activities on purpose, assuming that students cannot sustain an interaction for an extended period. But meaningful conversations cannot be had in five to 10 minutes, nor can much happen in the way of productive effort. Longer, well-explicated activities allow for deeper learning, and design adjustments can easily address any issues that arise during the activity. You may feel a strange sense of guilt for shifting more and more of the time in your class away from yourself and onto your students, but remember: your goal is your students’ learning, and that can only be achieved through their agency and effort.
Four tips for effective group-based learning
Now let’s look at ways to cultivate effective active learning design for groups. While the logistics of these activities are relatively straightforward in remote settings through the use of breakout rooms, they can also work quite well for larger lecture classes provided that there is moderate weather and adequate, accessible outdoor space near the classroom for students to gather after you send them out of the lecture hall.
Tip 1: Provide clear, detailed, written prompts
Many group activities founder when students have inadequate or vague direction. An active learning prompt should have a similar level of detail to the prompt for a long-ish paper. It should be posted in an accessible (i.e., mobile-friendly) format. You can post it in your LMS or as a collaborative doc link in your Zoom chat; either way, students should know before class starts where they can expect to find their active learning prompts. Here’s what to include:
- A statement of learning goals. You get considerably more student buy-in when you tell them what they’ll be learning ahead of time, what kinds of skills and knowledge they will develop, and why you’ve designed the particular activity as you have.
- A specific and measurable deliverable that shows evidence of sustained effort (but not necessarily completion) throughout the allotted time period.
- Any background information necessary to complete the activity,including information that will help students who haven’t completed the day’s reading to participate in some way.
- Step-by-step instructions that leave no question about what students should be doing.
- Instructions grounded in realistic expectations of students’ capabilities. A nebulous exhortation to “discuss the text” leaves most students confused and frustrated. They don’t know how to have such open-ended conversations at this point in their education. Remember what it was like for you to grapple with your discipline as a novice, and write accordingly.
Tip 2: Create activities that students cannot complete within the allotted time
The time limits that instructors impose on synchronous group activities are designed to keep students on track. They can, however, create performance anxiety and may inadvertently encourage students to rush through to leave class early.
An instructor can achieve outstanding results by giving students activities that are deliberately unfinishable. We have found the design sweet spot to be about 50 percent longer than the class time allotted to the activity. Simply tell your students that there is no way for them to finish the activity—and that you do not expect them to finish it. This works especially well where the goal is evidence of sustained effort rather than perfection in the outcome.
Tip 3: Design for mutual accountability
One of the biggest pitfalls of active learning in groups is the potential for the workload to be unequally divided and for shyer students to refrain from participating. Students need to trust one another to work effectively together, and they need a clear set of actions to take if things go wrong.
- Establish a class culture of mutual accountability by reminding students that it’s not acceptable to ask their group mates whether they can leave early—and that group members should not permit such intellectual mooching on the part of their peers.
- Ask that students let you know privately if someone isn’t participating in activities so that you can (also privately) intervene early in the term.
- Ensure that every student turns something in every single day, even if they are not the notetaker. For instance, while the notetaker submits the group’s notes, the remaining students might submit a list of their group mates’ first and last names.
A simple expectation-setting conversation is an effective way to combat the free rider problem. Students roundly resent unfair distributions of labor; still, they’re hesitant to report free riders without explicit permission or encouragement to do so.
Tip 4: Design for equity and belonging
Poorly designed active learning can leave vulnerable students feeling isolated or at the mercy of deep-seated imposter syndrome. Doing the following can cultivate a sense of community in groups:
- Design activities that invite students to bring individual experience and expertise to bear.
- Use collaborative platforms—such as Google Docs, Jamboard, and Hypothesis—if you want students to be able to see what other groups are coming up with.
- Travel between breakout rooms and in-person groups throughout the class to check in on students and ask them to share their work, questions, and insights with you.
- Be conscious of accessibility by posting the prompt in a mobile-friendly format and sharing it in advance for students who may need early or extended access to participate fully.
While none of these tips alone is a silver bullet, we’ve found that they’re highly effective when used in concert with one another, thus enabling our faculty clients to take advantage of the most valuable features of active learning pedagogies.
Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(4). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-12-0344
Hood, S., Barrickman, N., Djerdjian, N., Farr, M., Magner, S., Roychowdhury, H., Gerrits, R., Lawford, H., Ott, B., Ross, K. & Paige, O. (2021). “I like and prefer to work alone”: Social anxiety, academic self-efficacy, and students’ perceptions of active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-12-0271
Megan McNamara, PhD, is a lecturer in sociology and an instructional designer at UC Santa Cruz and adjunct faculty in sociology at West Valley College and Foothill College.
Aaron Zachmeier is the associate director for instructional design and development at UC Santa Cruz.