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Benefits of Using Small Groups in your High School Science Classes

using small groups

How many students are on your roster this year? What is your average class size? 30? 20? Or do you teach at a small private or charter school and have more like 10 in your classes?

At my first teaching job, the majority of my classes were in the 25-30 students range. That is a LOT of teenagers for just one ME. It was virtually impossible to serve all of those students all on my own. (I truly don’t know how you all with 35+ do it – anything over 28 honestly feels like a safety hazard to me!!) It led me to use small groups on a daily basis in my classes honestly as a survival technique.

I am SO glad though that this was my first teaching experience. When I moved to a small private school after this job and my average class size was more around 10-15, I was like – “wow, this is easy!” 🤣 But despite the fact that the number of students I was managing was cut by more than half, I found myself still utilizing a lot of the same pedagogical strategies that I used in my classes with 30 students – like using small groups.

So I am here to share with you the benefits of using small groups for both you AND your students – whether your average class size is 8 students or 35. Using small groups can make a huge difference!

Benefits of using small groups for your students:

using small groups

First I want to start by saying that using small groups is not JUST for you as the teacher to help you manage all of the people in your class period. There are SO many ways that our students benefit from us using small groups!

First and foremost, using small groups builds a culture of community in your classroom. If we want our students to feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes (two big parts of the learning process) then we NEED to create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable doing these things. One of the ways we can do that is by using small groups. Consistently setting our students up to have to work within the context of community will break down those invisible walls between them.

This is incredibly important because as we build community, we also strengthen our students’ interpersonal skills. Our students live in a world where they can go a full day without ever speaking to another human face-to-face. Thanks to texts and DMs on social media, they can go WEEKS without ever talking to someone on the phone.

Now more than ever before, our students NEED us to train them in how to have interpersonal skills. Outside of our walls, most of them don’t get practice holding a conversation, relating to others, and LISTENING to what their peers are saying. Using small groups is such a great way to offer them opportunities to practice oral communication, active listening, and working together with others – all key skills that most will need to have to be successful later in life, regardless of what their futures hold career-wise.

Last but most certainly not least, using small groups benefits our students because it allows them to grow in empathy as they work alongside people who are different from them. Unless our students join a cult of other people with their exact belief systems and live completely off the grid with said cult, they are going to be confronted DAILY by people who are different from them – for better or for worse.

We can care for our students by giving them practice with this challenging part of life by creating opportunities for them. Life is alllll about learning to communicate and relate to people who are different from you. Let’s help prepare them for that! The more exposure they have to people not like themselves, the more we can help to broaden their perspectives and increase the compassion that they have for others. And couldn’t the world we currently live in do good with a little bit more compassion for others?

Benefits of using small groups for you as the teacher:

using small groups

Using small groups is SO important for what it offers our students, but it also helps YOU to be a better teacher. Why? Because it allows you an opportunity to make your classroom more student-centered.

So many of us were raised by a generation of educators who told us information and we absorbed it. That was learning and school for us. But education has changed SO MUCH in the last 20+ years, mainly due to the fact that we don’t need to learn information because we have Google at our fingertips every second. (Remember in math class growing up having to do long division and your teacher saying, “You won’t always have a calculator on you!!!” Yeah…about that…)

It makes sense that we naturally default to centering our classrooms around US because that’s what was modeled for us. But students learn so much better when the classroom is centered around them (and there are so many fun ways to utilize student-centered activities in your classroom!!) One of the ways we can set them up to do that and to learn independently from us, is by using small groups!

Best of all, when students are working in small groups it frees YOU up to serve individual students and majorly decreases your load. Consider a class of 30 students working independently. That’s 30 individual students to check in on, and 30 different hands raising and asking you questions.

Now consider breaking that class of 30 into small groups of 3 to work on a lab. Now you only have 10 groups to check in with, and only 10 potential hands raising to ask you questions. Using small groups makes it SO much easier for us as teachers to differentiate our instruction for a variety of our learners’ needs, and gives us the capacity to serve our students so much better.

Getting started using small groups:

using small groups

It may feel intimidating to start using small groups if this is something you haven’t done much of in the past. Don’t worry! Here are 4 tips you can implement TODAY:

(1) The first thing I urge you to do is consider how your classroom is physically arranged. Are all your desks spaced out individually? This doesn’t naturally lend itself to a collaborative classroom community.

In the years I had desks, I always had them set up in pairs. In later years I had lab tables where two students always sat together, but I also loved to put two tables together (I called them “learning pods” but now the word “pod” only makes me think of “Love is Blind” so I am trying to avoid that reference – ha!!) and have my students set up to work in fours.

When your classroom is ALREADY set up for students to work in a collaborative manner, it sets the tone that in THIS class, we learn TOGETHER. What a beautiful picture for your classroom community!!

(2) Once you have rearranged your room, I think the simplest way to start using small groups and transition your classroom culture is by starting small with think/pair/shares. On a DAILY basis ask students questions, have them think about them on their own, then pair with a “next door neighbor” (what I call the person sitting next to them) and share their thoughts.

From there, I think it is best to have students start working in small groups for station activities (like this one) or labs (like this one) BEFORE having them attempt a full-on project in a group (like this one). A project that spans the course of several days can be a lot more overwhelming for students than just a quick 5-minute think/pair/share, or even a 45-minute lab activity. Again, start small, and work your way up to the bigger collaborative efforts!

(3) Don’t just stick with working in pairs. I think it is important to utilize a variety of group sizes, depending on the instructional strategy/resource you are using. In one class period, you can have them work in pairs and also groups of 3 or 4! Learning how to work one-on-one and in a larger group is so important for our students! Plus I think getting them used to consistently “mixing and mingling”, if you will, will help to ingrain it as a part of your classroom culture.

(4) Last but not least, set the tone that you MONITOR whenever you are using small groups. Sending the students off to work in 2s or 3s is not just a way for them to talk about what they are wearing to the homecoming dance or an opportunity for you to sit at your desk and catch up on that stack of lab reports you need to grade (speaking of lab reports, you can read here if you want to know how I managed to never have a stack of lab reports on my desk).

When you start from the VERY BEGINNING actively monitoring students working in their small groups, they learn that this isn’t a time to have side conversations. It helps to hold them accountable to stay on task and it makes the entire experience a much more meaningful learning process. This also helps to benefit students with social anxieties – they feel safer knowing you are walking around and listening to what is going on.

If you are looking for a way to create a more collaborative classroom culture and/or better manage the large group of students on your roster, I encourage you to start using small groups TODAY!

Looking for more help with using small groups? Check out this post with 5 practical tips for using small groups in your secondary science classes!

Looking for more suggestions for how to manage large class sizes? Check out this post here!

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