Instructional Practices

The Benefits of Small-Group Instruction: In No Small Way

7 Min Read
WF1953215 Shaped 2024 Blog Post Benefits of Small Group Instruction2

Whole-class teaching is an efficient way to ensure that all students get access to the same information at once. But it also invites a lot of problems! Students are unlikely to follow and remember everything being said, plus they may not feel comfortable asking questions in front of all of their peers. One-on-one tutoring is a way to get around those issues and ensure a student gets targeted, focused support. But when other students aren’t present, the social part of learning takes a hit, and students are unable to engage in mathematical discourse. Moreover, how can a classroom teacher possibly tutor everyone one-on-one?

Both whole-class instruction and one-on-one tutoring must happen to some extent in a classroom, but the place where the magic happens—where a light bulb flickers on the most—is in small groups.

What Is Small-Group Instruction?

Small-group instruction, or small-group teaching, refers to classroom instruction where the teacher is teaching a small group of students. It falls in between whole-class instruction, where the teacher addresses the whole class at once, and one-on-one individual instruction, where the teacher is working with a single student. It is distinct from students working in a small group without a teacher.

When implementing small-group instruction in the classroom, the teacher typically pulls between two and six students aside to teach a specific skill or concept. Ideally, this happens in a dedicated part of the classroom as part of a routine that students get accustomed to. While conducting small-group instruction, there should be learning stations set up for students to rotate around. Since they will be working on their own, the stations should focus on review content, not new learning. Ideally, there is a regular station with tablets or a computer lab that takes advantage of digital tools like Waggle, Math 180, or Read 180, which can provide automated, personalized practice.

The Purpose of Small-Group Instruction

Small-group instruction is at the heart of where instruction happens. It enables teachers to focus on a specific concept for which some students are performing below grade level and address the needs of just those students. Small-group instruction also provides an environment conducive to reteaching concepts to specific students who need extra support or pushing students who are ready for more advanced concepts.

Models of multi-tiered systems of support often portray small-group instruction as being part of Tier 2. There is sense to this, after all. Tier 1 instruction is for the whole class, and Tier 3 instruction often requires intensive one-on-one support. So Tier 2 should fall somewhere in between, right? The wrinkle is that Tier 1 instruction is for the whole class, but not necessarily to the whole class at one time. Small-group instruction is effective across all tiers of instruction, serving as a valuable component of both Tier 1 core instruction and Tier 3 intensive intervention. Martha Hougen and Heather Haynes Smith elaborate in a blog on small-group reading instruction strategies: “Students who need more practice and direct instruction on a fundamental skill can be grouped together to focus on a targeted skill,” no matter the grade level of the skill.

Here, a light is shone on the importance of reliable assessment data. Small-group instruction offers a way to personalize learning for students, and it’s most effective when teachers can group students based on different measures of proficiency. Ideally, the data are granular enough to show proficiency across different skills and standards. This concept of grouping students and providing small-group instruction can even extend to grouping students based on mindset (for example, having students complete the Math 180 Mindset Scan, then providing an activity to support students with fixed mindsets about math ability) or background (for example, an activity aimed at students who speak a particular language).

Why Is Small-Group Instruction Important in the Classroom?

When implemented properly, small-group instruction is of high value. In fact, there is an attempt to quantify this value by John Hattie, whose book Visible Learning synthesized thousands of meta-analyses on different learning effects. In his 2023 follow-up Visible Learning: The Sequel, he measures the effect size of small-group learning as 0.46—within the “red zone” of a larger effect size and a bit higher than the average learning effect of 0.42. The more intimate setting offers students more confidence in participating and teachers more flexibility in attending to students’ specific needs. The result is a learning environment that’s more collaborative and responsive.

Additionally, when students learn in small groups, teachers are able to work at a more individualized level. This attention can help teachers plan for subsequent whole-class instruction, too. The observations and attention given during small-group instruction can be used to modify the class’s overall pace of instruction and tailor lessons to address specific students’ misconceptions.

WF1953215 Shaped 2024 Blog Post Benefits of Small Group Instruction

Small-Group Instruction Benefits

Research suggests that small-group instruction results in more learning than students not instructed in small groups. After all, small-group instruction strikes a balance between individual tutoring, which is effective but not scalable, with whole-class instruction, which is efficient but not as effective. There are plenty of evidence-backed benefits that come from small-group instruction. To name a few:

  • Students retain big ideas from their instruction better. (Cooper et al., 2000)
  • More students participate. (Pollock et al., 2011)
  • Students are better able to generalize prior knowledge. (Pai et al., 2014)

Teachers should not incorporate small-group instruction simply to check a box, however. “It is important to consider whether pulled-small-group instruction is appropriate for your particular learning goal,” writes Juli Dixon and colleagues (2019). Small-group instruction should always serve the student's needs, though its application is far-reaching, including intervention, enrichment, and core grade-appropriate tasks.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Small-Group Teaching

Implementing small-group instruction is not possible without tradeoffs. By teaching to a small group, the teacher is not addressing the whole class or providing an intensive one-on-one intervention. Teachers must navigate the pros and cons that come with small-group teaching in their specific classroom setups, ultimately determining how to structure it in their classrooms.

Cooper et al. (2000) in particular walk through not just the benefits, but explain nuances and misconceptions that address worries that many teachers have before implementing small-group instruction. For instance, teachers are reasonably concerned about reduced content coverage, student resistance, or additional prep time needed. Yet the authors insist that “lecture and small-group work must be framed as both/and endeavors, not either/or ones” (p. 63). That is to say, implementing small-group instruction asks a lot of teachers, but the payoff is worth it.

Advantages of Small-Group Teaching

One big advantage of small-group teaching is that its structure naturally provides more opportunities for differentiated instruction. From students’ perspective, they may be shyer about participating when it means speaking (and potentially being wrong) in front of the whole class. The more intimate setting empowers students to speak up. Small-group instruction provides accountability as well. With the pressures of the teacher present and limited time, students feel extra accountable to their group members.

According to Wieselmann et al. (2019), small-group learning is particularly integral to STEM achievement. Recent educational reforms emphasize “group work, argumentation, and complex problem solving,” all specific, important benefits that come with small-group instruction. These may be soft skills, but they lead to outcomes—like persistence, motivation, and attitude—necessary to succeed in the hard sciences. “The application of knowledge often occurs through small group activities, as groups of students work together to solve real-world problems.”

Disadvantages of Small-Group Teaching

In teaching, of course, there is no “perfect.” Strategies come with concessions. Plus, no two students or teachers are perfectly alike. One common challenge is that students can fail to work cohesively or respectfully (Linnenbrink-Garcia et al., 2011). Merely placing students in a group with a teacher does not guarantee that the students will work well together. The teacher’s task of assembling small groups can be a tough one.

Succeeding in small-group instruction also requires experience or instruction in group work, a point made by John Hattie: “A consistent message from studies of the effectiveness of . . . small-group sessions is that students may need to be taught skills of working in groups” (2023, p. 191). That is, successful small-group instruction relies on successful small groups, and teachers should be open to providing explicit instruction on collaboration and understanding that students may struggle with it.

Implementing Small-Group Instruction in the Classroom

Implementing small-group instruction with rotations is no small task. It requires explicit instruction, modeling, and practice to make it all work, where some students are in a small group with the teacher, while everyone else participates in rotations of independent or collaborative work. It can take a while to come together, and teachers may need to let things get bumpy at times before classroom instruction clicks into place. It is worth the time though; students learn to work independently and in collaboration with others, and teachers get to provide focused help with the potential for great gains.

All in all, small-group instruction is a teacher’s most effective tool. When implemented properly, it can support students across all tiers of instruction, and develop understanding in a way that is targeted to their skills and supported by their peers. For guidance on teaching with small-group instruction, I direct you to our post on implementing small-group instruction in the classroom, written by elementary educator Kayla Dyer.


HMH Into Reading has everything teachers need in one place to facilitate systematic and explicit whole- and small-group reading instruction.

Works Cited

Cooper, J. L., MacGregor, J., Smith, K. A., & Robinson, P. (2000). Implementing Small‐Group Instruction: Insights from Successful Practitioners. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2000(81), 63–76.

Dixon, J. K., Brooks, L. A., & Carli, M. R. (2019). Making Sense of Mathematics for Teaching the Small Group. Solution Tree Press.

Hattie, J. (2023). Visible Learning: The Sequel: A Synthesis of Over 2,100 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.

Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Rogat, T. K., & Koskey, K. L. K. (2011). Affect and engagement during small group instruction. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(1), 13–24.

Pai, H.-H., Sears, D. A., & Maeda, Y. (2015). Effects of Small-Group Learning on Transfer: A Meta-Analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 27(1), 79–102.

Pollock, P. H., Hamann, K., & Wilson, B. M. (2011). Learning Through Discussions: Comparing the Benefits of Small-Group and Large-Class Settings. Journal of Political Science Education, 7(1), 48–64.

Wieselmann, J. R., Dare, E. A., Ring‐Whalen, E. A., & Roehrig, G. H. (2019). “I just do what the boys tell me”: Exploring small group student interactions in an integrated STEM unit. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 57(1), 1–33.

Be the first to read the latest from Shaped.

Related Reading

WF2014219 Option 4

Dr. Joshua P. Starr
Managing Partner, The Center for Model Schools and Author, Equity-Based Leadership

Teacher and student working together hero WF1972889

Jennifer Corujo
Shaped Editor

Superintendent of the Year Joe Gothard

Dr. Joe Gothard, the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year, speaks at a press conference in April introducing him as the new schools chief for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin.

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor