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Small Group Discussions

Small group discussions are just one subset of active learning strategies that can be used in the classroom, online, or both (e.g., if you want to start discussions in class and continue them online). Small group discussions are often more effective at facilitating student learning than whole group discussions. For instance, Pollock, Hamann, and Wilson (2011, p. 57) found that compared to whole group discussions, small group discussions a) were "more conducive to critical thinking and higher-order learning," b) fostered more participation and more equal participation for students of different backgrounds, and c) generated higher student reviews regarding engagement.

Typically, small groups range from two to four students in size but can be as large as eight, and discussions can vary from under five minutes to an entire class meeting. Group size and discussion duration change depending on your goals for the activity and the time available. Small group discussions are most effective when closely aligned with one or more learning outcomes.

Facilitating Effective Small Group Discussions

1. Plan the activity

Like all active learning strategies, you should take time to plan small group discussions in the context of your class—i.e., traditional lecture, flipped classroom or online—and what objective you want students to achieve—e.g., general objective, like demonstrate critical thinking or collaborative test preparation; or specific objective, like list real-world applications or solve a problem. If you want to scaffold the process, you can create physical or digital worksheets for the students to complete.

2. Discuss process and expectations with students

You can improve the chances that students will reach your goals if you briefly outline why the activity is important, what you expect them to do, and how the process will work (e.g., amount of time, roles, responsibilities, any deliverables the groups must produce). 

3. Break students into groups

Random: In-class, have students count off from one to four until all students have a number. Online, use group functionality in Camino to create random groups of a specific size.

Calculated: You may decide to group stronger students with students who may be struggling. In this case, you can use test results to help form the groups.

Student choice: You can allow students to form their own groups.

4. Conduct the small group discussions

There are many different ways to help structure students’ small group conversations--here are a few ideas:

Think-Pair-Share: Think - Students write a response to a question, problem, unsolved equation, or prompt. You may also ask them to enter a response using a polling application such as Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter. Pair - Then students turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses. Share – ask some of the pairs to give reports on what they decided together and/or ask students to enter new responses through the polling application.

All questions answered: Break students in groups of four or more, with roles of moderator (facilitator), recorder (notetaker/scribe), timekeeper, and observer (feedback). Each student must share one or more unique questions that he/she has not been able to answer regarding a reading assignment or materials for an upcoming test. To get credit, the entire group must answer every question and follow-up question.

Jigsaw: To facilitate a jigsaw discussion activity, break the class into groups and assign roles (e.g., different stakeholder perspectives in a real-world scenario from your discipline) or responsibilities (e.g., become an expert on one of four textbook chapters). First, students work with peers who have the same role or responsibility to determine together what to share with their groups—e.g., what perspective their role would have about the given scenario or what is important from the textbook chapter. Then, students return to their groups and either engage in discussions or debates based on the real-world scenario or take turns teaching their assigned material to the other students.

5. Discuss the results with the students

It is a good idea to pull everything together after the discussions, if only to make sure the students reached the goals that you set for them. This can be as simple as providing feedback as each group gives a report (e.g., its top three conclusions, questions that remain after discussion) or as complex as synthesizing the small groups' work products, adding critical details the groups missed, or sharing relevance to your discipline or students' futures in the workforce. You can also ask the students to write a reflection, tying what they have learned during the discussion to the learning outcomes, lecture, their career or life goals, etc.

6. Evaluate the discussion

If you want to make sure that the small groups accomplished your goals, you can require a work product for which everyone in the group will get the same grade or a grade for their contributions. You can also ask students to perform simple peer evaluations, such as listing which contributions (and by whom) were most helpful and least helpful; allotting percentages for participation and answering if everyone had a chance to participate; or stating what they liked and what they would change about the activity as a whole.

Online Discussion Forums

Online discussion forums are a great tool for creating community, engaging students, and promoting critical thinking. In fact, discussion forums are a bit of a Swiss army knife--they can become a space for solving problems, a gallery for students to share work, an accountability mechanism for progressing on a project, and so much more. If you’re new to using discussion forums or you’re looking for ways to refine your approach, the following strategies are easy ways to make discussion forums useful, engaging, and manageable.

Think beyond “traditional” discussion:  Sure, discussion forums are a reliable way to have students answer questions and provide their perspectives on course content, but they can be used for many other purposes. For instance, students might be asked to solve a problem and then provide rationale for their solution (there’s a Camino setting which requires students to post before they can see what others wrote). Then, after seeing other’s responses, students could write a follow-up post about whether they agree with their original solution or not. Here are three alternative uses for discussion forums from Ludwika Goodson, co-author of Online Teaching at Its Best and shared in a 2020 webinar:

  • Online office/question parking lot: This discussion forum becomes a space where students can post any questions they have about the course (deadlines, expectations, etc.). Answering questions here rather than through individual emails makes the answers visible to all students, and students can also help each other come up with solutions.
  • Hangout space:  A discussion hangout space is a place where students can discuss non-course related topics, such as their favorite TV shows, music, and free time activities.
  • Study hall:  A study hall can be tied to the major assignments in a course, such as a research project or quiz. Students can use the study hall to share updates on their project, pose questions, or post tips for learning particular pieces of content.

Set expectations:  Let students know when and how you expect them to participate in the discussion. You may want to model a thoughtful discussion post for students and create a rubric that lays out expectations for participation (here’s one example). Also, let students know when and/or how often you plan to participate in the discussions. You don’t need to respond to every students’ individual post; rather, you can identify key themes or respond to several posts at once (e.g., “Mike, Julie, and Wendy raised some important questions about this topic; what other questions do you think are worth considering?”). 

Foster interactive discussions: If your online discussions are feeling a bit lackluster, you may want to check out Seattle University’s Discussion Doctor tool, which provides “diagnoses” for common discussion pitfalls. In addition, consider leveraging some of Camino’s discussion features. Enabling threaded replies on discussion posts allows students to comment on each other’s posts, which may help to make the conversation more dynamic. Remember that discussion forums don’t have to just consist of text. Students can record their comments using an audio or video file, and you can also provide multimedia feedback to student responses.

Simplify your assessment strategy:  Are you drowning in discussion posts? Consider whether there are ways for you to simplify your assessment approach. For instance, rather than scoring each individual post, perhaps you can ask students to submit a self-assessment of their discussion contributions on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Likewise, if students are taking part in small group discussions, they could complete both a self-assessment and an assessment of their peers’ contributions. Another strategy is to simplify your assessment criteria. For instance, you may typically account for grammar/mechanics in students’ written assignments, but if thoughtful contributions are your primary goal for discussions, consider whether assessing grammar/mechanics is really necessary. For more tips on assessing and managing online discussions, check out this article.

References and Additional Resources

Barkley, E.F.; Cross, K.P.; & Major, C.H. (2004). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harvard Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). Facilitating discussions. Instructional Moves.

Howard, J. R. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Howard, J. (May 23, 2019). How to hold a better class discussion. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pollock, P.H.; Hamann, K. & Wilson, B.M. (2011). Learning Through Discussion: Comparing the Benefits of Small-Group and Large-Class Settings. Journal of Political Science Education, 7(1), 48-64.


Page authors:
Dr. Kevin Kelly, Lecturer at San Francisco State University
Dr. Rachel Stumpf, SCU Faculty Development Program Manager

Last updated:
July 21, 2020