Making the Most of Small Groups

Students’ interactions with us and with each other are essential parts of the invigorating learning environments we work so hard to cultivate. Especially during the pandemic, when many people are feeling isolated, students benefit when we provide opportunities for them to connect. If we’re teaching remotely, these interactions need more planning and communication, but allowing students to talk with one another and work together is still possible, and it’s all the more crucial for forming a classroom community and facilitating deep learning.

Collaborative learning online ranges from informal small-group conversations to highly structured team-based learning . We can form groups on Canvas or other apps, and we can use breakout rooms in Zoom. Students can discuss ideas together, study together, solve problems together, give one another feedback, analyze case studies, share their research, do collaborative projects, and work together in many other ways. We can even invite them to attend office hours or conferences with us in small groups, and early in the semester, that can be a great way to get to know them.

In addition to helping them connect, working together is valuable for students’ learning. Students need opportunities to talk through their thinking—to explain their reasoning, justify their approaches, elaborate, ask questions, critique, etc. Working in small groups gives them structured time to think aloud with others, and to provide each other with immediate feedback. And when we design effective activities, this work gives them great opportunities to practice applying the skills we want them to learn.

If you’re new to designing and facilitating small-group activities, you may be wondering about the best practices for forming groups. If you’re using Zoom, the simplest method is to randomly assign students to breakout rooms . Canvas can also randomly assign groups, and each group will have its own Canvas page where you can put discussion boards and so on. You may have important reasons for forming (or adjusting) the groups yourself: making sure each group has students of various skill levels; ensuring that students from a minoritized social group—like women in engineering—are not alone on otherwise all-majority (in this case, all-male) teams; or putting together students who are working on collaborative projects, like group papers or presentations. If you want pre-selected groups to work together during your scheduled class time, you can follow these instructions to pre-assign students to breakout rooms on Zoom.

Once you’ve designed activities for groups of students to do together, and made decisions about how to form the groups, you’ll also need to consider how to help students work well together and accomplish the learning you intend for them to do. Whether they’re working together online or in person, students need to begin by having a conversation about how best to communicate and collaborate with their peers. They also need clear instructions, ideally delivered in more than one way. For example, you can (verbally) tell students what they need to do and why you’re asking them to do it, and then you can also provide step-by-step instructions in writing on Canvas. Or you can make a short video about what students need to do and what successful work will involve, and you can also post step-by-step instructions in the chat on Zoom.

Whatever students are doing, it helps if you make the instructions extremely transparent (clear and explicit) and intentionally redundant. Because they often feel shy or awkward when they first start working together, it’s helpful to ask them to introduce themselves as the first step in the written instructions. Next, they may need to choose (or you could pre-assign) roles, like a timekeeper, a note taker, a person who will share what the team came up with, and so on. Then, they need to know what task, or series of tasks, they should accomplish together, and how much time they’ll have to do so.

It can be challenging to estimate how much time students will need to do an activity; it’s also easy to lose track of time while students are working in the groups, especially if you’re popping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms (to help them along or answer questions), so we do recommend setting a timer for yourself (e.g., on your phone). When you call students back from the breakout rooms, they’ll have 60 seconds to rejoin the larger group, and you can give them other time-related updates as well (e.g., “It’s time to switch to giving feedback on the next person’s work, if you haven’t already.”). You can send these messages as broadcasts to all of the breakout rooms.

If you do have pre-assigned groups that will be working together for a period of time, another helpful step to add to group activity instructions is for group members to share whatever contact information they are comfortable sharing with one another. This will allow them to continue to work together outside of class—if they must, or if they wish—including that they may choose to form study groups that help them to persist and succeed in the course.

Given the ubiquity of connectivity challenges (from thunderstorms to coverage dead zones), it is inevitable that students (and maybe even we) will sometimes pop in and out of view during class time, including during group work. If a student loses their internet connection while in a Zoom breakout room, they’ll reappear back in the main Zoom room when they reconnect, and you’ll need to move them back into their breakout room. It will be useful to work with students to come up with contingency plans for various technical or connectivity issues that might arise (if X happens, let’s do Y). In general, flexibility and compassion will need to be the guiding philosophies for our teaching this fall.

If you’d like support in designing or facilitating collaborative learning in a course in any modality, please contact us at You can also attend one of our upcoming Open Clinics: On Monday, August 17, from 1:00-3:00, and Tuesday through Friday, August 18-21, from 10:00-12:00 and 2:00-4:00, we’ll be available to work with you on any issue related to teaching. You can drop in at any time during the clinic. Here’s the Zoom link. We look forward to working with you!