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September 13 2011
Lightly refreshed June 3 2013

eCoaching Tip 92 Collaborating with Groups of Two or Three – Moving beyond the Discussion Board

Get Started on Teaming with Dyads and Triads

One of the challenges faced by online learners is the lack of connections with other learners.
The getting-acquainted forums in the first few days of a term are good first steps in establishing trust and community.  But then individual readings and discussion postings soon lures learners back into their own mobile caves. Given that learning is basically social, arising from our interaction with people and resources, how can we build more interaction into our online courses?

Research on community-building affirms that sharing goals and experiences builds familiarity, closeness and overall feelings of caring. Yet, how do we shift from the focus on the individual learner to support of groups, teams and the larger course community? In one of our faculty webinars, participants almost universally agreed that both learners and faculty dislike and avoid group work. So, what to do? Is there a way to take a step towards capturing the documented learning power of social interaction?

Here are a few ideas on incorporating very small group work into your courses. These ideas are low-risk steps towards social learning experiences. Try one or two and see how it goes.

Start Casually!

One step towards grouping has a simple name, casual use (Fink, 2004). Casual grouping is, by definition, unstructured and informal. It is a good way to explore group learning as it can be used almost spontaneously — with little or no advance planning. This means that you can insert casual grouping experiences into a course without having designed it into the course from the beginning.

I like to recommend casual grouping early in the term, as a way to follow up on the first week’s introductions. This keeps the momentum for building community going. In the getting-acquainted postings, learners speak to everyone in the class; in casual grouping, learners have a chance to dig a little deeper into getting acquainted with one or two other learners. And these interactions can be accomplishing through emails, texting, or meeting by phone or other social media tools over coffee or tea.

Three  “Casual Grouping” Opportunities  

Courses often begin with seminal readings introducing core concepts, big ideas and new perspectives. Here are a couple of strategies for casual grouping to get the students more involved with each other and with the core ideas in those readings.

Buzz Groups. What are buzz groups? Buzz groups form for a specific purpose and then quickly dissolve. Buzz groups in the first two or three weeks of a course might “meet” for the purpose of exchanging ideas, opinions, or recommendations about a problem, position or principle. After a brief conversation by phone, Skype or email in which learners discuss their reaction, understanding, or puzzlement to a reading and how it might apply or be used by them, they individually post their response to the discussion forum.  Their posting would include describing how their “buzz’” dialogue impacted their understanding or added perspective. Feedback from faculty and their fellow learners can then help to confirm, affirm or question. Buzz groups can also be used for spontaneous problem-solving, collaborative analysis or review of reading assignments, or presentation practice. In intensive short courses, buzz groups can be a particularly valuable avenue for learners to talk and share difficult or complex ideas such as those posed in early philosophy texts.

Peer Consulting Groups.  What are peer consulting groups? These are groups of two or three learners who gather for brainstorming and discussion on a specific course assignment that usually involves evaluation, analysis, or creation of a work. Courses that are designed around a project generally are structured requiring a project proposal in the first third of a course. Learners need to identify and then describe their thinking about their course project in a brief 150 to 400-word proposal.  Peer consulting groups share their proposal ideas and thoughts at an early stage of conception and then again when the proposal is almost ready for submission to the faculty member.

The faculty member then provides input and suggestions on this learner’s project, which has already benefited from the thinking of two or three learners. Peer consulting groups thus support individuals in the early design and conceiving stages.
Peer consulting can also be used for reviews of projects at different project points. This strategy helps learners to think more deeply about projects other than just their own, and gain additional perspective on their own project.  This happens naturally as learners consider a wider audience. Faculty comments then can share ideas and feedback on all the projects to the larger group.

Structured Controversy.  In this teaching strategy, pairs or triads of students are assigned a specific position on a controversial issue, then asked to argue for that position using data and evidence from core readings or other research (Pimple, 2002).  Many variants of this strategy are possible.  Some of the key benefits support critical thinking, as it requires identifying concrete evidence and considering perspectives that might be antithetical to one’s own.

Ways of Pairing or Grouping Learners 

The process for setting up casual groups is best simple and transparent. For example, you can simply start with the first two or three learners in alphabetical order and go from there.  Or you can take the class list and pair the first and third learner; the second and fourth, etc. Another approach is to use learners’ birthday months in sequence and pair or group learners in triads that way; or consider a formula based on geography or first names. Any of these approaches can work. In the case of peer consulting groups, some approach to grouping based on experiences and interest might be appropriate and valuable.

Learning Power of Groups

Small groups provide many benefits. They help build bonds between students. They provide space and opportunity for learners to “talk” through their thinking with someone else. Author Joan Didion is quoted as saying,  "I don't know what I think until I write it down."  The same holds true for many learners: they don’t know what they really think until they are asked to explain — with their own voice — what they know and think – and why. Casual groups give a reason to “talk” through what they might be thinking.

Another benefit of small groups or pairs is that they provide a safe environment to test ideas and to practice expressing ideas.  See if one of these strategies or a variant might increase learning and build community in your course.

Note about the Reference List

Don’t miss the reference by Kenneth Pimple, as it lists a number of different strategies that can be used for casual groupings.  Any of the key articles from Fink and Michaelsen on learning groups and team learning are very useful for grouping strategies overall. Fink’s (2004) article describes the differences between casual use, cooperative learning, and team-based learning. The reference by Ledlow discusses group strategies titled “cooperative learning,” but the ideas support all types of group experiences.


Fink, L. D. (2004). Beyond small groups: Harnessing the extraordinary power of learning teams. In L. Michaelsen, A. Knight & D. Fink (Eds.), Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. Retrieved June 3 2013 from http://www.med.wright.edu/sites/default/files/aa/facdev/_Files/PDFfiles/BeyondSmallGroups.pdf

Jacque, D. (2003). Teaching small groups. British Medical Journal, 326(1), 492-494. Retrieved September 5, 2011 from http://www.bmj.com/content/326/7387/492.1.full.pdf

Ledlow, S. (1999). Cooperative learning in higher education. Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence, Arizona State University. Retrieved June 3 2013 from http://www.hydroville.org/system/files/team_cooperative.pdf
Michaelsen, L. K. (2007). Three Keys to Using Learning Groups Effectively.   Retrieved June 3 2013 from http://www.cte.umd.edu/teaching/newsletter/2002-03/Feb-Mar_2003.pdf.

Michaelsen, L. K., & Black, R. H. (1994). Building learning teams: The key to harnessing the power of small groups In higher education. In J. K. S. Kadel,  (Ed.), Collaborative learning: A sourcebook for higher education, Vol. 2. State College, PA: National Center for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Retrieved June 3 2013 from https://teaching.uncc.edu/articles-books/best-practice-articles/instructional-methods/building-learning-teams

Pimple, K. D. (2002). Using Small Group Assignments in Teaching Research Ethics.   Retrieved June 3 2013 from http://poynter.indiana.edu/files/1013/4851/8317/kdp-groups.pdf

These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by designingforlearning.org.




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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013