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.

2. Flexibility

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?




  • Excellent article. Thank you for reminding me of why small groups are effective. The three reasons are clear and concise. I especially enjoyed reason three, thinking outside the box and it’s suggestions on small group discussions and dynamics. Thank you for the additional insight.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more Lisa. I prefer small group learning and there are many way to deliver this type of learning that is far from ordinary. As you mentioned already, there is Jigsaw, one of my favorites, and then there is, revolving roleplays where each group member takes a turn player a role, information searches, and I even like working in pairs. Pairs can work well in a number of ways. They can be given a topic to present to the larger group and even present in a point/counterpoint format for an out-of-the-box experience. Even in online learning I prefer small groups over whole class forums. The intimacy of the small groups allows for deeper discussions and I feel like I learn a great deal more than in the large groups that have so many discussions going on at once.

  • I used to think the same thing; small groups were ordinary, or boring. However, I realize that it’s really about how the group works together and how the team is operating. A strong team leader can facilitate healthy discussion and dialogue that can really make an impact. Also there are so many great, creative ideas that can come from small teams.

  • I agree with Lisa’s assessment of small groups. Yes, small groups might be considered “ordinary” by some, but they are one of the best instructional methods around. Small group activities are perfect for sharing ideas, playing games, and devising plans of action. There are many different ways small groups can be utilized in training, so they won’t become boring and repetitive.

    I’ve used small group activities many times, and always had positive feedback from the participants. It takes some time to prepare group activities to make sure that they are meaningful and truly reinforce the objectives that they set out to meet. Personally, I’d never consider them just “ordinary.”

  • I agree Lisa! The information you provided here is relevant and reinforces my beliefs as it applies to using small group learning. I recently participated in a “Jigsaw Learning’ small group activity where each member shared their knowledge to facilitate learning and for me it was a rewarding experience.

  • I do use small groups often in my training. As a trainer/developer I often thought it did not make that big of an impact. I have gathered feedback from the participants and have received positive feedback. Often times as developers/trainers/facilitators we do not think that the small group activities are useful but the participants often walk away with a great experience.

    I have tried to have a variety of the small group activities. Some examples are role playing,providing them questions to discuss or providing them a scenario to work though. The key is to make sure that there is some type of debrief after the activity so they can reflect on what they learned while in the small groups.

    Peg O.

  • I think the use of small groups can be an advantage. Group interaction promotes ideas. Within a small group, this can help drill down best processes or methods more quickly. In addition, smaller groups may eliminate groupthink. With only a few people, there is not much of a need to feel that team members must agree with each other or strive to be the voice that is always heard.

  • Lisa, I am sharing your opinion about small groups. They are so much easier to work with then large groups. Communication between small group team members is more effective. It is also easier to work with everyone’s schedule and there is less negativity involved. More people can shine in the small group because they are not lost in the crowd.

  • Hi Lisa,
    I agree with your article on using small groups to make a big impact. I like how you provided unique examples with specific situations for using the small groups as an advantage. I actually think using small groups helps to alleviate the problem of leaving some of the learners who are more quiet, behind. People who are more quiet are much more likely to not be heard in a large group class setting versus a small group. I really enjoyed the way you put the article together–great information in every part!

  • I, too, am not a fan of small group training ~
    ~ I do utilize it
    * as it affords the instructor the opportunity to float the room and guage the input of others
    ~ my hesitation with it is the theory of “cream rising to the top”
    the strong personalities often take charge ~
    ~ often leaving the shy, or inhibitated out of the engaging portion of learning

    • Rhonda, you make an interesting point. To help overcome the “cream rising to the top” and making sure even the shyest of leathers are engaged, I might suggest assigning roles to group participants to give everyone an opportunity to get in on the action. Example: one person could be the discussion facilitator, one could be the recorder, one could be the summarized, etc.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Barbara Lattimore

    I totally agree with your information on small group learning. My experience has been similar to yours, small groups generate new ideas, form netwroking groups and are self-directed. As a trainer/designer, snall groups give me an opportunity to move around and facilitate each group. I am always amazed at the process small groups use to maximize the learning objectives.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Barbara! Small groups certainly take the focus off the instructor and make the learning more learner focused.

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