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Small-group work is perhaps the most touted recommendation in the world of teaching. It is a foundational method for building inclusive classrooms and lies at the heart of some of the most innovative approaches to teaching currently in vogue, such as active learning and student-centered learning.

In practice, however, small=group activities often fizzle out into unproductive, tangential conversations that take up a whole lot of class time and leave everyone feeling like they could have spent that time actually learning something. The popularity and significance of the approach is commensurate only with how easily it can go wrong.

I present here a simple but effective model for getting small-group work right in the college classroom. The model identifies five common mistakes that derail such work and suggests how to prevent them. Combined, these strategies generate a clear structure that allows students to focus, collaborate and produce their best results.

Mistake No. 1: You don’t have a policy about digital devices. You should prohibit the use of digital devices during small-group work. The fastest way to kill a dynamic conversation or prevent one from getting off the ground is to have a student pull out their phone. Whether they are googling something related to the course or browsing social media, it temps everyone else to do the same and makes them appear uninterested in the discussion. The one exception -- which you should grant -- is if a student needs a device as an accommodation to properly engage in the activity.

Mistake No. 2: You don’t provide a structure for interactions within the group. The problems that happen in large groups can happen in small groups. Dominant personalities control the conversation, and introverted students don’t get a chance to express their views. Providing clear instructions about group size, duration, format and roles will guide student interactions and make them more inclusive. Determine group sizes beforehand. Tell students how long group discussion will last. Explain the format you would like them to follow.

For example, you can ask them to start by having each group member express their view to make sure everyone participates and then move to free-form discussion. Ask each group to assign someone to take notes, someone to moderate and someone to initially share what the group discussed when they transition to class discussion. Roles help make sure everyone feels included in the conversation.

Mistake No. 3: You don’t request a group product. The most common mistake in organizing small-group work is to give students a topic and simply ask them to discuss it. That leaves students confused about what they are supposed to do. Figure something out? Express their views? It also makes the work they do in the group feel less rewarding.

Identify a clear task to focus their discussion and imbue it with a purpose: to answer a set of questions, identify key concepts, compare and contrast two views.

Mistake No. 4: You don’t provide material that is rich but circumscribed. If you ask students to look through 40 pages of reading to identify three concepts, a lot of their time will be spent in silence skimming through those pages individually. Instead, give them material that is short enough for them to quickly read individually yet also substantive enough to generate a conversation -- such as a few interview excerpts, a small set of pages, a short newspaper article.

Mistake No. 5: You monitor the group work too much, too little or in the wrong way. When monitoring the conversations throughout the group activity, look out for three things. First, if a group is working well, with all members chiming in and engaged, refrain from jumping in with a question or a prompt. Doing so runs the risk of strangling the group’s dynamism or having them redirect their attention to you rather than each other. Second, if you notice that specific students are not participating in the conversation, intervene by asking them about their views. Third, help the more extroverted students who may intentionally or unintentionally dominate discussion become better listeners by asking them how their views relate to what others in their group have expressed.

By structuring group work around these recommendations and avoiding the five common pitfalls, you will encourage students to learn from each other and become agents in the process of learning and discovery.

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