Getting students thinking and engaging through small-group discussion

In discussion-based classes, especially large ones, it is difficult to ensure that all students have a chance to verbalize their thinking and receive feedback on their ideas. Incorporating small-group discussion is a low-stakes way of ensuring that all students have the opportunity to actively engage with course material and their peers. In this video, Todd Rakoff breaks students up into small groups to apply abstract legal principles to a concrete problem. Students discuss in small groups before participating in a whole class discussion, where Rakoff solicits insights and synthesizes students’ perspectives.


Todd Rakoff, Byrne Professor of Administrative Law

Student Group



Harvard Law School


Legislation & Regulation

Group Size

80 students

Additional Details

First-year requisite

  • Provide students with structure for their small group work and set expectations for what they should accomplish within the allotted time
  • Consider optimal group size. Students are more likely to contribute in smaller, 2-5 person groups.
  • During small group discussions, circulate the room and listen in to assess if/how students are moving the discussion toward the learning objectives
  • Provide groups with 1-2 minute warnings before bringing the class back together so they can wrap-up their comments. Once you are back in a whole group, synthesize themes that materialized during small-group work. Select a few groups to share out, especially those who raised interesting points you overheard during small-group work.
  • A meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate STEM courses found that, on average, examination performance is higher and failure rates lower when students are exposed to active learning pedagogies including in-class small group discussions (Freeman, 2014)
  • Students self-report increased content learning, skill development, and retention when learning is directed through small groups (Simonson, 2014)
  • When students are taught with a range of structured small group work activities,  lower-achieving students perform better on tasks requiring recall of factual information, and higher-achieving students perform better on tasks requiring application and evaluation of course concepts (Simonson, 2014)