Using Small Groups to Achieve Big Training Results
By Lisa Klaban
Recently, a colleague was telling me about a design problem she was having. She needed an instructional method that would align with one of the session objectives, but wanted something that would be engaging and fun. When I suggested using small groups, this was her response:
“Ugh,” she groaned, “small groups are so… ordinary. Everyone uses small groups in their training. I need something else, something that’s really going to make an impact.”
As an advocate of using small groups when designing training for adults, I was shocked at her characterization of this method. Small groups remain one of the most effective instructional methods for providing active, relevant learning experiences. Not only do small groups provide access to the shared experience and knowledge of the learners, but this method allows learners to construct that knowledge in meaningful ways. The end result of this type of experience is almost always an increase in learning.
In an effort to dispel the idea that small groups are “ordinary,” here are three reasons why small groups may be the right solution to your next instructional design dilemma:
1. The Proof is in the Theory
Using small groups is an effective instructional method because it is grounded in adult learning theory.Small groups demonstrate two of the six assumptions of Malcolm Knowles’ theory of androgogy: they allow learners to be involved in and have some control over their learning (self-directedness) while taking advantage of learners’ experiences as a component of the learning process.
Most of us are familiar with small groups in the face-to-face training environment, but they are also frequently used in both synchronous and asynchronous online environments. Use breakout rooms to facilitate small groups in a synchronous online classroom, or organize small group forums in an asynchronous environment to encourage discussion.
3. Think Outside the Box
Certainly, there are best practices when using small groups, but that’s no reason not to venture outside the box and consider new ways to incorporate small groups into a training design. Here are a few ideas to make the most of your small groups:
- “Buzz” groups: Brief, informal small groups that can be used during a large group discussion to clarify ideas, discuss concepts, or ask questions.
- Jigsaw learning: Members of small groups disperse to learn in ‘expert’ groups and then reconvene to share their knowledge with their original group members.
- Peer practice: Small groups used to create a supportive environment to practice new skills. A practical example: In a technical training session, a peer practice group rehearses the steps to create a report with a new software application.
- “Hybrid” small groups: Consider combining small groups with another instructional strategy to maximize the impact of both, like conducting a mind mapping exercise while learners are in small groups.
The next time you’re looking for an instructional method that will make an impact and achieve big training results, think small… small groups that is.
How do you use small groups in your training design? Do you have any best practices for incorporating small groups into training?