5 Strategies for Optimizing Small Group Instruction

  • Big Ideas Learning Consultants
Students learning in a small group

Whether students are in the classroom or learning from home, small group instruction is one of the most effective methods of differentiating instruction and individualizing support. However, there are a variety of challenges that come with this teaching strategy.

If you're curious about how to facilitate and optimize small group instruction in your classroom, Big Ideas Learning is here to help. In this post, we'll discuss how to help your students leverage their strengths, how to encourage peer-to-peer learning, and how to promote collaboration and engagement with different strategies.


1. Ask Effective Questions

The right questions can give you insights into student understanding, stimulate engaging peer discussion, and encourage students to explore connections between concepts. To make the most out of small group instruction, design a list of effective questions by considering:

    • The learning objective
    • The targeted level of understanding
    • The specificity of what you’re asking
    • Whether or not they’ll generate engaging discussion
    • If they tap into different question strategies (explain, compare, reason, predict, etc.)
    • How open-ended they are

In the comfort of small-group instruction, you'll likely get more in-depth responses than in whole-classroom instruction.

"With small group instruction, you get to see how each student is thinking. It also gives each student a voice," says Renee Navarre, a 5th Grade Teacher.

Through this approach, you'll identify areas of instruction that need to be revisited or retaught. Further, asking the right questions can enhance learning through retrieval practice, in which students are prompted to recall facts and concepts.


2. Give Students a Sense of Agency

Students should be decision-makers in their learning experience. Guide students to make good choices by helping them self-assess their understanding and skill level. Effective self-assessment often requires teachers to show students examples of mastery and ensure they have the proper vocabulary to state how they feel and why they feel that way.

Additionally, you should allow students to receive constructive feedback from their peers. In small groups, students' critiques are easier to monitor, which helps minimize unproductive or even hurtful language.

To further assist students in becoming agents of their own education, teachers should consider integrating metacognitive strategies into their small-group instruction. Metacognitive strategies are techniques that "help students develop an awareness of their thinking processes as they learn." Or put simply: They help students think critically about their own thinking. Metacognitive strategies can help students:

    • Focus on the work at hand
    • Reflect on existing knowledge
    • Consider what they still need to learn
    • Recognize errors in their work
    • Develop practices for effective learning


In small group instruction, you can encourage students to ask each other questions as they work through a concept, “think aloud,” and use a rubric for goal-setting and monitoring.

“Small group instruction allows you to see what students are understanding and not understanding. There are a lot of misconceptions that students have that are hard to catch when you’re in a whole class,” Renee notes.

Metacognitive strategies can help empower students to hone their learning process. By merely bringing awareness to the fact that there is a process, you can help enhance their capacity for self-regulation and self-motivation.


3. Provide Individualized Support for All Learners

Small group instruction can foster opportunities for students who are struggling and those who are excelling. For students who need more support, you can include extra practice, provide instructional scaffolding, create graphic organizers, teach mnemonic devices, and implement multisensory instruction. These strategies can help close the gap between a student’s understanding of the current lesson.

Likewise, students who are excelling need accommodations. Small group instruction provides an excellent time to do just that. To keep these students engaged, use small group instruction to:

    • Create tiered assignments with different levels of difficulty
    • Have “bonus assignments” that connect the topic with real-world applications
    • Redesign assignments with open-ended elements
    • Let students test their understanding through peer-to-peer mentoring and learning


“There is a way to do whole class instruction and small group instruction at the same time,” says Renee. “I have my classroom set up so there are already small groups of students organized by various levels of understanding and the level of support they need.”

Renee groups students that require the most scaffolding and individualized instruction toward the front of the classroom. Those who can work independently are in the middle, and those who are excelling are toward the back. She also always comes prepared with additional questions for students who finish assignments quickly.


4. Create Learning Centers

Centers provide students with opportunities to practice hands-on skills, social skills, and collaborative problem-solving. When using this small group instruction approach, consider how many centers you'll need to fully cover a concept.

Each center should have clear instructions that let students know exactly what they need to accomplish. You’ll also want to establish classroom-wide behavioral expectations and give explicit instructions on how students can collaborate with each other.

As a rule of thumb, it's helpful to keep center groups to five students maximum. If possible, use furniture such as rugs, bookshelves, or room dividers to create a sense of space for each center. Make sure materials stay organized by using baskets or folders at each center.

"My classroom runs on timers," says Renee. "Timing is very important to ensure you're getting to each group and giving small groups enough time to finish assignments."

Finally, you'll want to model each center and let students know how they'll transition between each one. Show them the clean-up process, how you'll alert them when it's time to switch, and where they go after each center.


5. Let Students Teach

Peer-to-peer learning in small groups encourages student collaboration, cooperation, and accountability. To implement this teaching strategy, provide a rubric for students to give each other feedback. You may also want to create a collaborative assignment for two or more students to work on.

The Think-Pair-Share model also works well, where students get to consider their own questions and thoughts and then share them with a partner. It's an excellent way to improve communication skills and increase student engagement.

“I think student conversation is one of the most important parts of small group instruction. They’re listening to each other; they're able to talk without intimidation of speaking in front of the whole classroom. I think in small group instruction, it’s really important that kids are leading the discussion.”

You may also want to consider choosing a student leader who helps facilitate each small group center. Make sure this student is not only academically prepared for the role, but also genuinely cares about their classmates.


What’s the Big Idea?

Small group instruction is essential for learners to deepen their understanding. However, the teacher's proper facilitation is vital to ensuring this strategy maximizes learning. After small group instruction, it's helpful to reflect on what went well, what can be improved, and where multiple students were getting hung up.

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