George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

Strategies for Improving Small Group Instruction

Tips for giving direct instruction to small groups, whether students are in the classroom or learning at home.

July 13, 2020
Teenage boy participating in a group discussion via video chat during distance learning
Michele D'Ottavio / Alamy Stock Photo

Providing instruction to small groups of students is a tried-and-true way to differentiate and support students. Even in distance learning, it’s important to know where students are in their learning, and working with them in small groups is one way to see that. So how do we plan small group instruction to maximize learning? We know we need to use data—whether from observations or a quiz or other formative assessment—to inform these groupings. We also know these groupings are dynamic and should change based on timely data and feedback we gather.

While small group instruction is nothing new, it’s important to examine how we engage in it and consider new ideas for implementing it. We need to ensure that we provide small group instruction that leverages students’ funds of knowledge rather than using a deficit approach. We should also guide students to look to each other for help rather than relying on the teacher as the sole source of learning.

Improving Small Group Instruction

Use small group time to listen and learn: When teachers set students up for small group instruction, they don’t have to jump right into teaching—they can instead use some time to learn more about their students and what they know. This can be challenging, as we often feel pressure to provide direct instruction quickly. But while gathering information isn’t instruction per se, it is part of the instructional process because it helps teachers improve their teaching and students’ learning.

A teacher might create an activity for students to engage in and then observe what they do, asking probing questions to learn how they’re engaging in the task. This can in turn lead to better planning and instruction. It’s also an opportunity to assess and clearly identify what students have already learned. In a virtual, synchronous session, a teacher could put them into a breakout room or do this in the main room.

For example, a teacher working online gave students a math task on order of operations after giving direct instruction. She then put students into breakout rooms and visited each group to observe and look for patterns and errors. And an early elementary teacher who wanted to learn how students were learning about the concept of community and collaboration gave students choice in the activity and grouped them accordingly. She then observed, and in some cases videotaped the learning to see how students were able to learn and what strengths and ideas students brought to demonstrate their learning.

Offer rather than order: Students should not simply be told that they will be receiving small group instruction; instead, the teacher should collaborate with students to leverage them as agents in their learning. Using effective self-assessment practices and reflective metacognitive strategies, students can take ownership in determining whether they need small group support.

I’ve seen an example of this working out well in a sixth-grade English lesson. Students had just finished looking at feedback on drafts of their argumentative paragraphs. The teacher announced that he would be offering a mini-lesson on evidence at the center table, and that any student could sign up for 15-minute lessons. Some students chose not to sign up and instead continued work on their next paragraph, while the ones who felt they could benefit from the lesson came to learn from the teacher. Sometimes students don’t make the right choice, and those occasions can be teachable moments to help a student reflect.

In distance learning, a teacher can use office hours as a structure, or give a schedule of virtual sessions based on different topics during a single day. These lessons might be 30 to 45 minutes long, with breaks in between, and students can choose the one they need.

Extension of learning: In our efforts to support our struggling learners, it’s easy to not pay attention to those learners who are excelling. In addition to offering small group instruction for gaps in learning, consider offering challenges to students. Students need to see small group instruction as a dynamic space of learning that works both for addressing gaps and for pushing their thinking. This can help erase issues of labeling and stigmatizing students—small group instruction is appropriate for every student.

Choice in method: Remember that students can receive small group instruction in many ways. Direct instruction from the teacher is needed at times, but providing centers and other options to learn can help create more engaging lessons.

In a high school math classroom, I saw a teacher offer not only a mini-lesson at the front of the room but also a recorded lesson on the computer. And a teacher in a pre-K classroom offered variations on the same topic that students could pick from: One station was watching a video, another was doing a hands-on activity, and another was listening to the teacher read a story.

In distance learning, the teacher might create a schedule of small group instruction sessions on a topic, using different tasks or methods in each session. One activity might be watching and discussing a video, while another might be a performance task or challenge.

Student-driven lessons: In a similar vein, teachers can offer choice by asking students to provide lessons. As a teacher, it can be funny to experience a situation where students really understand an idea when a peer explains it after they were unable to get it from the teacher. But our students have amazing skills and funds of knowledge that can be leveraged, and students do love learning from their peers. Consider drawing on students and having them offer their expertise to other students in smaller groups. Teachers can work with students to offer these mini-lessons in synchronous sessions online, or ask students to record them to share later.

Ultimately, small group instruction, like instruction in general, is reciprocal—a two-way street: “What can I help my students learn?” and “What can I learn from my students?” In our rush to help students, we may miss the opportunity to learn from them to do our jobs as teachers in an even more effective way. In addition to addressing gaps in learning, it’s about looking for opportunities to empower students to take agency in their learning and celebrate their funds of knowledge.

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