First-year students have a lot on their plates. There’s so much to learn, and so much to remember! Fortunately, when it comes to remembering the names of their professors, they’re in luck. After all, they only have to keep track of four or five of them.

The professors themselves, on the other hand, have a lot more remembering to do when it comes to names. There are currently 26 students enrolled in each of my four sections of first-year comp this fall. That’s a hundred and four names and faces I’m going to have to keep straight as I attempt to pursue and develop a meaningful, individual teacher-student relationship with each of them.

That’s one of many reasons I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my students in small groups. With four or five people in a group, I can learn names and faces much more quickly. It still takes me about four or five weeks to get them all straight, but before I started doing group work, the whole semester could pass by and I still would know only about half.

So I put everyone in groups, if not on the first day of class, definitely on the second or third.

We’re not talking occasional, spontaneous groups here. We’re talking standing groups.

Here are some of the other benefits I’ve discovered:

- Small-group configurations give me more time to work with students more or less individually. It simply is not possible for me to give any quality attention to twenty-five individual students in a fifty-five minute class period, but I can sure get to five groups and give all five a fair amount of (almost) one-on-one time.
- College can be a lonely place, especially for freshmen. A standing small-group atmosphere gives students an opportunity to get to know each other over a period of weeks, during which a more comfortable and cooperative relationship develops than is possible with impromptu groups randomly thrown together for a single ten- or twenty-minute exercise. Students exchange email addresses and/or phone numbers, and I also encourage them to create a Facebook group. In a standing group, they feel less alone, and they know someone is going to notice if they miss class.
- Many students are terrified of asking “stupid questions” where the whole class might laugh at them, but they’re considerably less intimidated in a small group setting. Working in a small group gives the “wallflowers” a chance to voice their opinions and ask questions without having to do so in front of the whole class. Often, a shy student will ask a more outspoken group member a question, and the outspoken student, if the group doesn’t know the answer, will promptly throw her hand in the air and ask.
- The best way to learn anything is to teach it, and invariably, the students in a group will wind up helping each other to understand the material. Group work encourages cooperative learning.
- Small group work in the classroom prepares students for cooperative and collaborative projects outside the classroom, whether in a corporate or other work environment or elsewhere. We discuss issues of group dynamics and the students learn, in real time, how to anticipate and try to avoid the difficulties and inconsistencies of group behavior—and to cope more effectively with problems when they do arise.
- Small groups also create a positive type of peer pressure. It might be easy for a student to lie low in a large class and hope she won’t get called on—the odds are generally with her in such a situation—but when she’s working in a small group, she doesn’t have that luxury. Students who have trouble finding time to do out-of-class reading assignments are more likely to find a way to get them done when they know their group is relying on them to come to class prepared.

At the beginning of the semester, when I don’t know anyone yet, the groups are based on my roll sheet. The first five students are Group 1, the next five are Group 2, etc. (Groups of four or five are best.) The students will stay in those groups for the entire first unit (about five weeks). When they turn in the final draft of their first paper and I introduce the next major assignment, I change up all of the groups, making sure nobody is in a group with someone else who was in their Unit 1 group. By the time we get to Unit 3, I know everyone well enough to set up very carefully-choreographed groups for the final project—and by the end of the term, everyone in the class has worked with and gotten to know everyone else.

It’s not so bad being a groupie.