Most educators intrinsically understand the potential value of small group work to enhance student learning; however, many teachers struggle with designing lessons that maximize learning in small groups. As a result, most teachers end up utilizing small group work sparingly or not at all. Implementing useful strategies for small group/small table study sessions can be the difference between a class period of authentic learning, and a class period of wasted time. Furthermore, effective strategies utilizing small table study groups can be a cornerstone for helping students become active learners.
Traditional teaching practices often revolve around trying to keep students as silent as possible while teachers attempt to disseminate information to the whole class at the same time. In other words, teaching is reduced to an (A)→(B) model: a one-way transfer of knowledge from (A) the teacher to (B) the student. Subsequent opportunities for students to process and manipulate the information they just received in class are often limited to brief question and answer sessions with the teacher at the end of the lecture. This antiquated method of teaching and learning is still the most ubiquitous in high school classrooms.
Experienced high school teachers already know that their students, more than at any other time in history, are social by nature. Outside of school, their time is dominated by social media, and centers around communicating with small groups. The most successful learning activities for students are the ones that mirror activities they already engage in outside of school. Implementing effective small table study sessions can help harness students’ social energy, and channel it towards authentic learning. If given the opportunity, most students would choose to participate in a consequence-free, learning-centered social environment with their peers rather than listen to a teacher drone out a lecture for an entire class period day after day.
Participating in small table study groups is one of the best ways for students to learn to engage in the process of metacognition, which is where authentic learning occurs. By working with a small table study group, students begin to actively consider their learning goals, plan accordingly, and monitor their own learning as they carry out their plans within their groups. Small table study groups allow students to process information they have read from a textbook or heard form a teacher to a greater extent than the typical Q&A sessions at the end of a lecture. An overarching goal of every teacher should be to help students transition from passive to active learners, and small table group study can be an effective catalyst for that transition.
For small table study group activities to be effective, they must include two fundamental principles. First, small table group study sessions must be conducted in a consequence-free environment for sharing thoughts and ideas. Creating this type of environment within a classroom should be the first priority of a teacher as the school year begins. Secondly, and just as importantly, every student in the study group must be provided with a specific role to play. The least successful study sessions come from groups that have “stragglers”—students with undefined roles who end up wasting their own and everybody else’s time. Designing effective small group study activities while keeping both of these ideas in mind is a challenge for a teacher to plan, but can transcend the conventional and less effective (A)→(B) model of teaching.
All good teachers understand the importance of “buy-in” from students when it comes to effective instruction and learning. Harnessing their social energies with small table study group work is a valuable way to make learning a more transparent, enjoyable, and ultimately more effective process for all students.