6 Ways to Form Small Groups for Training Sessions

By Elaine Biech

Small groups are critical to a well-designed training program. They are one of the best ways of promoting involvement and participation. The value of small-group activities include the following:

  • Small groups provide an opportunity for more people to have more “air time” to express opinions, add ideas, and ask questions.

  • Small groups allow individuals to receive feedback more quickly.

  • Small groups allow participants to learn from each other.

  • Small groups create opportunities for more people to practice skills or apply knowledge at the same time.

  • Learning becomes more dynamic and active in small groups.

  • Small groups encourage participants to know each other better, breaking down barriers and creating a more positive learning atmosphere. If a goal is to provide participants with the opportunity to meet and work with a variety of people, change small-group formations from activity to activity.

Small groups are a great way to encourage participation, but using the grade-school method of counting off by fours or fives is not a very creative process. Whatever technique you use to form small groups, there is only one decision you need to make: Which is more important, how many groups you have, how many people are in each group, or neither one? Here are three examples:

  • The activity may require a trio, such as a role-play between two people plus an observer. You need three people in each group, but it doesn’t matter how many groups.

  • The activity may have five areas, each to be covered by a small group. You need five groups, but it doesn’t matter how many people are in each.

  • Sometimes you can provide flexibility so that participants can select their own groups, but you still have enough control so that everything is covered. For example, you may have five issues posted on flipcharts that need to be addressed. You could say, “To form small groups, stand next to the issue you want to address. When five people are standing next to one issue, stand next to your second choice.” In this case, if you had 22 people in your session, all five issues would be covered, and potentially the smallest group would have two members. Most often, the distribution is quite even.

What if you don’t have the exact number of people? Additional participants can always be observers. If there are too few, you may fill in occasionally, although this is not a preference of mine because it takes you away from other groups who may need your assistance. A little planning before you form small groups ensures that the participants will be successful and all content is addressed.

Count off

Of course, you can count off. But do it backward instead. To break into five groups, count off backward from five, “five, four, three, two, one, five.” Be sure to stay with the group. Adults can get really confused on this one! You may also teach participants to count to five in a foreign language — Spanish, German, French, Chinese — and ask them to count off in their new language. This adds a nice touch if the language is one of your participant’s first language. It also can spark interesting discussion in a diversity training session.

Go to your corners

Identify reasons for people to go to separate places. All of these work for a physical or virtual breakout classroom. For example, you could have them go to four corners depending on whether they are a first born, last born, middle, or only child in their family. They could go to the corner of the room that is closest to the direction they would head to go home (as the crow flies). They could go to the breakout room based on the first letter of their last name, e.g., A-F, G-M, N-S, and T-Z. You could connect the corners to content. For example, if you’re training a business-communication class, you could have them select the method of communication they prefer: email, face-to-face, telephone, or texting.

Personal data

Form small groups based on some tiny piece of data about them. You could use birthdays for four groups by using first, second, third, and fourth quarter of the year. You could try it by last digit in their telephone numbers, color of their shoes, favorite season, first letter of their middle name, or height. To use the last two in a physical classroom, have participants stand in order (alphabetically or by height) and then split at the quarter, or one-fifth point depending upon how many groups you desire. If you need two groups, form groups of those wearing glasses or not. In a virtual classroom assign each group to a breakout room.

Secret codes

Code the participants’ materials in various ways. Purchase stickers and place them on the training materials, under the participants’ chairs, on the outside or inside of the table tents, or on nametags. If you distribute a limited number of different-color markers participants use to write their names on their table tents, you can refer to the color marker they choose. Handouts for an activity can be copied on different colors of paper. Put participants into groups based on the color of paper they choose. You may also write numbers or letters on the back of participant notebooks. Yes, you can use this in a virtual setting. It’s easy if you are sending physical materials to them. But you can also code the materials differently before you email the master. This works especially well if you want to form two teams.

Puzzling participants

Purchase or make four- to six-piece puzzles. Participants select a puzzle piece and find the rest of the pieces to their puzzle to form a small group. More puzzle pieces than participants? Paper-clip two pieces together from the same puzzle. Small blank puzzles are available from a party goods or office supply store. Add a personal message that is revealed after the small group puts all their pieces together.

Puzzles do not always have to “fit” together physically. You could write the names of people (or fictional characters) who “fit” together on index cards. You could use, for example, Alice, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts; or you could use Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Pig Pen. You could select television characters, political figures, movie characters, or even “characters” from your organization. Although this one is more complex, it is possible with a smaller virtual class.

Pick a prop

It takes a bit of preplanning, but there are hundreds of props you could bring for forming groups. Trinket catalogs like Oriental Trading sells miniatures of almost everything — toys, various-shaped erasers, cards, party favors, and so on. You could bring miniature lifesaver candy or miniature candy bars in different flavors. Have participants select one and then find the other individuals who have selected the same (color, flavor, toy) whatever.

Or take bubble-gum cards from four different sports: baseball, football, basketball, and soccer. Participants form teams of the same sport. You could use a regular deck of playing cards. Sort the cards into sets of matching numbers and have participants find their set.

Using props works well around holidays, when it is easy to find little, inexpensive, yet cute items. You may use something as simple as colored index cards or shapes cut from construction paper.

One final suggestion

Arrange participants in small groups prior to giving activity instructions. If you begin with activity instructions and follow with instructions about how you want small groups to form, many participants will have forgotten the initial instructions by the time they have settled into their small groups.