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Teaching Disciplinary Thinking Through Small Group Activities

One way to coach rigorous or disciplinary thinking is the use of well-designed small group tasks (Bean). The best small group activities present students with open-ended questions or problems that require reasoned responses or justified solutions. They can be used in precept, class, or seminar, but also—with some additional planning—in lectures. Below you’ll find suggestions for using small groups successfully.

  • Design the task: Identify an open-ended or ill-structured problem in your discipline or field. This might be an interpretive ambiguity, a scholarly controversy, a real-life debate, or a complex data set. You might ask students to argue with and against a claim about a text; you might ask them to identify and defend a solution to a problem or an explanation of data; you might ask them to generate research questions about a topic in your field.

  • Give clear instructions: Specify what question/problem you want your students to address and how much time they have to do it in (in lectures, this may be only a few minutes). Identify what you want your students to report back to the whole class with—a persuasive claim, a list of possibilities, a written paragraph, or a piece of evidence?

  • Manage the process: Split students into groups randomly or, in lectures, by seating arrangement. In a small room, you may want to circulate among the groups. You may want to designate a reporter from each group, or identify other possible roles for students to play, like time-keeper or moderator.
  • Offer an opportunity for exchange and critique: Ask the groups to report their findings, which will often stimulate further discussion. Praise new or unexpected insights, but also point out weak responses or arguments. Model for your students the kind of arguing strategies that your discipline uses.
  • Make the purpose clear: Let your students know why you’re using small group tasks: will it allow them to explore a critical controversy? Will it allow them to practice using data to draw a conclusion or argue for a particular interpretation? Will it prepare them for an upcoming reading, writing, or laboratory assignment?

Adapted from John Bean, Engaging Ideas, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1996.