You enter the room with high hopes. Today you are training a small group of seven people.

You envision high quality, one-on-one interaction, and the synergy that sometimes happens in a group this small.

An hour later, you find yourself in small group hell, looking on hopelessly as various members go off on tangents, dominate the discussion, shrink into the woodwork, breeze through the project quickly, or allow a few lucky members to do all the work.

Most trainers have experienced these types of problems when training small groups. Yet studies of group dynamics have shown that, when managed effectively, small groups produce better results than individuals working alone. Small groups are more productive, produce more accurate results, and generate more enthusiasm for the topic.

“Small group learning has many benefits. Participants develop a bond with group mates that may motivate them to sustain collaborative learning activity through complex, challenging assignments,” said Mel Silberman, president of Active Training, a New Jersey-based consulting training firm. Silberman has authored or edited 18 books on training. “Further, participants in small groups are willing to accept greater responsibility for their own development precisely because they have a sense of ownership and social support that is often lacking in instructor-led, whole-class instruction.”

“Virtually any type of IT training can be done in small groups, with the exception of classes where students are first being introduced to complex ideas,” Silberman said.

“It’s an ideal setting for exploring a software package or doing an application problem together,” Silberman said.

Setting the ground rules
Setting positive group guidelines can be a key to success. In Communication for Business and The Professions, authors Patricia Hayes Andrews and John E. Baird, Jr. suggest that groups set the following guidelines for behavior:

  • Every group member must take an active part in the discussion and activities of the group.
    Point out that participating increases an individual’s standing in the group and builds his or her reputation within the organization.
  • Every member needs to be as knowledgeable as possible about the subject matter.
    This allows the groups to consider all sides of a problem.
  • Group members should strive to be group-oriented, open-minded, and to focus on the best solution, not advance a personal agenda.
  • Group members should focus on tasks and not personalities.

Becoming a group
Silberman suggests easing the group into group work by starting with a task that is short and that requires a specific output. Trainers can also have groups break into pairs before expanding to larger configurations. Pairing up group members lets them get to know one another and build trust.

Silberman suggested that trainers should let groups build interdependence by assigning a collaborative task or activity where each member does an assignment individually and then teaches what was learned to the rest of the group. There is less chance that one person will dominate the group when everyone plays a part in the activity.

Ways to collaborate
Silberman offers the following ways for groups to work together:

  • Study group
    Give the group information about the topic and ask them to explain it to one another.
  • Information search
    Assign questions to the group and provide material that contains the answers for the group to use.
  • Group inquiry
    Give the group material to study. Ask them to highlight anything they don’t understand.
  • Jigsaw learning
    Give different material to different members. Ask them to study it and teach it to one another.
  • Learning tournament
    Give the group material to master in preparation for a competition.

With a set of established group guidelines and activities that require across-the-board participation, small group members will begin to establish the team building behaviors and critical thinking processes that will make the training a success.

“As participants become oriented to group learning and show signs of taking responsibility for their own learning, you can begin to give them tasks that are less structured,” Silberman said.
Is group work a regular part of your training? How do you respond to groans from class members when you say, “Ok, now we’re going to break into small groups?” Tell us how small groups work or don’t work for you.