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Practical Tips for Using Small Groups in your High School Science Classes

using small groups

If using small groups is not a part of your pedagogical toolbox, I urge you to read this post first all about the benefits of using small groups as well as four quick-start tips if you’ve never before!

But if you ARE consistently using small groups in your high school science classes and are looking for practical support to do it better, I am so glad you found this post! I am sharing 5 tips to make using small groups easier in your secondary science classes.

Tip #1 for Using Small Groups: Start early to build a collaborative culture from day 1.

using small groups

Let’s start at the beginning. The most important thing you can practically do is to start using small groups from the very first day of school (if at all possible, depending on when you read this). The earlier you start to cultivate a collaborative learning environment, the faster it will become an integral part of the DNA of your classroom culture.

Set up your room so that it promotes collaboration by pairing up your desks or lab tables. Have students do partner work (at a minimum) on the very first day! Set the tone that in this class, we learn TOGETHER!

Tip #2 for Using Small Groups: Set clear protocols and consequences for small group behavior.

using small groups

Now in order to use small groups effectively and not just provide a time for students to have a gossip swap, you HAVE to set clear protocols for how you expect them to behave during their collaborative work time. Clearly define consequences for not following these established protocols. Educate and ENFORCE these with your students! They won’t know how to behave unless we train them, and they won’t take us seriously if we don’t stay consistent with them.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, other than to not do it at all. So make a list of expectations you have when they are working together (Ex. utmost integrity/no cheating, everyone’s voice is heard, all conversation is RELEVANT!) and define consequences that will motivate them. For example, if I heard off-topic conversation, I would shout, “IRRELEVANT!” and take a board point away. This motivated the ENTIRE class to stay on task.

Another option is to pull someone out of the group and have them work on their own – but you can do some trial and error to see what your students respond best to! The key is just to actually monitor them so that they DON’T get off task and to ensure that they feel held accountable for learning in the small group setting. Speaking of accountability…

Tip #3 for Using Small Groups: Use a timer for accountability.

using small groups

One of the QUICKEST ways using small groups will become INEFFECTIVE is if you give them too much time. When students have TOO much time to work, they get off task. I’m not saying you need to RUSH them, but I am saying that a sense of urgency is a GOOD thing for keeping them on task.

I maintain this sense of urgency by using a timer. It can be as simple as a timer on your phone or it can be something more fun that you project on your board like one of these. The key is that YOU as the teacher are the authority and YOU decide how long you expect something to take. If you see students are on task and still need more time, you can give them more time!

But oftentimes I find we OVERESTIMATE rather than UNDERESTIMATE how long something will take, so instead of getting right to work, our students get off task. Let’s set them up for success by establishing some boundaries, like a timeframe, to hold them accountable!

Tip #4 for Using Small Groups: Use popsicle sticks for diversifying groups.

using small groups

At the beginning of the year, I write the name of every student in my class on a popsicle stick. I keep these in plastic bags divided by class at the front of my room. Any time I ask a question, I draw names. When we are reviewing, I draw names. And especially any time I need to make small groups, I draw names!

This allows for the students to mix and mingle with a variety of classmates on a regular basis. I pretty much never let them choose their own groups because I never want someone to feel “unchosen”. This eliminates that variable.

I also like to switch their assigned seats often (usually at the start of a new unit) so that their “next door neighbor” for think/pair/shares is consistently someone different.

Best of all, I feel like the popsicle-stick-name-draw removes a ton of drama from the group selection process. Students can readily witness that you aren’t forcing them to always work with XYZ, but they can see that you draw names and assign groups purely by chance and not on purpose. I always called this the “fate of the bag” – which my students loved. When someone would try to complain about having to work with someone else, the class would shout, “It’s the fate of the bag!”

Tip #5 for Using Small Groups: Always build in time for all small group work to be done IN CLASS.

using small groups

Last but not least, when using small groups I think it is crucial that time is ALWAYS built into the class period for small group work to be done. I NEVER assign group work to be done outside of my classroom. Why?

  1. Anything that happens outside of my class loses some of its integrity because students can cheat so much more easily (this is one of the main reasons I don’t assign homework anymore.)
  2. It eliminates a lot of the relational stress of group work that some of your students feel, as it feels safer to work in a group in the classroom with the teacher there monitoring.
  3. It prevents one person in the group from having to do all of the work.
  4. It allows you to monitor the group work for conflicts.

I think this makes SUCH a difference. A lot of students hate group work BECAUSE OF the negative experiences they have had attempting to do group work outside of the classroom. It is too hard! I never EVER assign any work that is for a group unless it is done in my room when I can monitor. I can’t emphasize this enough!!

I hope these 5 tips help you to use small groups in your classroom this year!

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