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3 Ways Your Small-Group Instruction May Be Failing


In recent years, small-group instruction has become one of the hottest topics of education. Because blended learning enables small-group instruction, it is extremely important to us. Many people assume that a lower student-to-teacher ratio automatically leads to higher quality instruction, which leads to more effectively meeting students' needs. But is that really the case?

Let's investigate. Small-group instruction can be a fantastic way to effectively differentiate and accelerate student learning, which is why it is a part of all of our blended-learning classrooms, but nothing about instruction taking place in a small group makes it inherently better than instruction taking place in a large group. Here are three common missteps we see with small-group instruction.

  1. Small Group + No Plan ≠ Solid Instruction

In many classrooms, what teachers consider to be "small-group instruction" ends up being a small group question and answer session without the instruction. In these instances, teachers typically roam the classroom without a plan and intervene only when students are stuck. Though there is nothing wrong with teachers answering students' questions, these informal sessions cannot replace instruction.

The teacher is responsible for ensuring all instruction, regardless of the number or students present or length of time provided, be driven by a learning objective, include multiple opportunities for students to be exposed to and interact with the concepts, and have checks for student understanding embedded throughout. A lesson created on the fly will have difficulty meeting these criteria.

  1. Small Group + Over-Scripted Plan ≠ Personal Instruction

On the other end of the spectrum, small-group instruction can also be overly impersonal and feel as if the teacher is talking to a huge group of 100 students rather than six or seven. If the teacher sticks to a script or fails to take advantage of the lower teacher-to-student ratio, there is little point in having instruction that takes place in a small group rather than a large group.

When teachers do have the benefit of working with a small group of students, they have the great advantage of being able to tailor instruction to those particular students' needs. We recommend that teachers use formative assessment data (collected both before and during the lesson) to plan instruction that will help students reach their learning goal, and adjust it along the way. There is a huge difference between having NO plan for instruction and being entirely over-scripted. We hope teachers fall between these two extremes by planning instruction that will meet the needs of each distinct group of students.

  1. Small Group + Tailored Plan ≠ Strong Lesson

Finally, even if a lesson is planned and tailored to the needs of a small group, it may still not be a strong lesson. Teaching is both an art and a science that requires years of practice, careful study, and continuous improvement to master. Even veteran teachers struggle to craft lessons that actually allow students to fully master grade-level standards.

As I alluded to earlier in the post, teachers must use certain practices in order for instruction to be effective, whether they take place in a small group or not. Instruction should (1) have a purpose that is clear to both students and teachers, (2) include a number of different ways for students to interact with, practice, and apply concepts, and (3) include formative assessment at regular intervals throughout (shoutout to our colleague Frankie Jones, as well as Hattie, Schmoker, Saphier, and others cited below for these Core Instructional Practices). Working with a smaller group of students does not change the fact that these three practices are the keys to effective instruction.

With these common missteps in mind, I urge you to ask yourself: is my small-group instruction serving my students? And if the answer is no, what needs to change to ensure you are maximizing the impact of the time you have with your students?

Interested in learning more about the core instructional practices? Sources are cited below.

  • Ainsworth, L., & Viegut, D. (Eds.). (2006). Common formative assessments: How to connect standards-based instruction and assessment. Corwin Press.
  • Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: principles, policy & practice, 5(1), 7-74.
  • Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. ASCD.
  • Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses on achievement. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Saphier, J. (2016). High-expectations teaching: How we persuade students to believe and act on "Smart is something you can get." Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA.
  • Saphier, J., & Gower, R. (1997). The skillful teacher. Carlisle, MA: Research for Better Teaching.
  • Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. ASCD
  • Yeager, D., Henderson, M.D., D'Mello, S., Paunesku, D., Walton, G.M., Spitzer, B.J., & Duckworth, A.L.  (2015). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation.  Journal of personality and social psychology, 107(4), 559.