Pairs or groups or whole class?


By Leo Jones, the Student – Centered Classroom, Cambridge University Press

When should students work together in pairs? When should they be in groups or work together as a whole class? How many students should there be in a small group? Do pairs always have to be two students working together?

In a pair, the atmosphere tends to more protective and private than in a group. Students often feel less inhibited in a pair, and they can talk about more personal feelings or experiences than they would even in a small group. Pairs seem to be more conducive to cooperation and collaboration, while groups tend to be more conducive to (friendly) disagreement and discussion. A lively discussion often depends on an exchange of different ideas and a certain amount of conflict – if everyone agrees with everyone, there may not be much of a discussion!

Talkative students who are full of ideas may work better in groups of three. Less talkative students may do better in groups of four or five, but it may be difficult for students in a larger group to get close enough to one another to converse comfortably. Usually the maximum comfortable size for a group is five, and the ideal size is three.

The size of groups directly influences the amount of possible “talking time” each student has: In a pair, each student can talk for about half the time; in a group of three, for about a third of the time; in a group of four, for about a quarter of the time, and so on. But in a larger group, some students will participate less because they are less confident, or have less to say.

In a pair, of course, there’ll usually be two students, except when an odd number of students are divided into pairs and there will have to be at least one group of three. But there are situations where “pairs of three” are preferable to pairs of two. If a particular class contains students who are reticent or lacking in confidence, a pair of three can often stimulate a better exchange of ideas than two students would on their own. Another option is to have two students doing the talking while a third listens and takes notes to give feedback later.

Sometimes, to build confidence, we may want to start students off in even numbers of pairs and combine the pairs into groups later. Students prepare and rehearse their ideas in pairs, then share them in a group.

Besides the times when teacher-led activities are taking place (preparation, follow-up, Q&A, etc.), there may be times when the whole class may want to be involved together. This may be after a group discussion, like mentioning the most interesting or amusing points that were made. In a large class this could go on and on, so we would only ask a few groups to report! Or it could simply be the continuation of a discussion as whole class for a few minutes. Self-assured students are more likely to contribute when the whole class is listening.

  • Put talkative students in groups of three and less talkative students in groups of four or five.
  • Stimulate a better exchange of ideas by putting shy students in groups of three rather than in pairs.
  • Sometimes have two students talk while a third listens and takes notes, then have the third provide feedback at the end of the conversation.


Editor: Michael R. Clarke

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