Small groups are an excellent way to bring together a variety of opinions and work on tasks. Students can easily move from a pair into a foursome, too, with the confidence that the person they have already talked with "knows" and understands what they mean. Small groups also allow the use of roles for students to take on within a discussion that can help quieter students have a voice, especially in a classroom with a majority of native speakers of English or in which a few students tend to dominant discussions.
Pairs to foursomes:
This size works well because it is much less intimidating than a whole group discussion and can be achieved by combining pairs that have already started to discuss a topic or perform a task. It is also a good way to balance out students varying ability levels. For example, if you pair a stronger and weaker student together initially, when they join a foursome to do something like peer-critiquing, stronger students can also get feedback from a peer whose language abilities more closely match their own, and students with weaker abilities get both more input and more examples of language for peer-critique.
Small groups with roles:
Students can be divided into groups of 4-6 and assigned roles to both require and encourage participation. Examples of such roles would be:
- Facilitator - keeping the discussion going by asking questions to elicit opinions, receive further explanation, or bring people into the discussion
- Reflector - listening to what someone says and then repeating it to make sure the speaker's points have been understood or are clear
- Summarizer - keeping track of what has been discussed, and when it seems the point has been exhausted, recapping so the discussion can move on or be ended
- Connector - looking for connections to other discussions or concepts from past classes that are relevant to the current discussion
- Reporter - sharing the small group's points of discussion (or final product) with the instructor or whole class
This discussion format involves dividing the class into bigger discussion groups each with an inner and outer ring of participants. As the inner ring discusses a question or some aspect of course material, the outer ring observes and takes notes, summarizes, or can ask questions of the inner group at different points in the discussion. Participants in the outer ring can also be assigned to observe someone in the inner ring to give feedback on their participation (frequency, succinctness, relevance, etc.) afterward. Then, those in the outer ring switch places with those in the inner ring and the process is repeated.
If a class has many strongly verbal students who tend to dominate discussions, this set-up can help those quieter students be heard by putting all the strong students in either the first round or the second round of discussion. If there are students who tend to understand readings and course materials better, it is also helpful to have them in the first round since this gives students who may not have understood the materials as well another chance to clarify their understanding before being called upon to discuss.