Student Perceptions of Small-Group Learning

Nov. 20, 2008

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 110 Number 11, 2008, p. 2438-2451


Elementary school teachers regularly arrange students in small groups for learning activities. A rich literature discusses various types of small-group learning formats and how those formats affect achievement. Few studies, however, have examined students’ perceptions of small-group learning experiences. This work extends the small-group literature by studying stories written in response to a picture of children in a small group by students who attend Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) schools about learning in small groups.

Research Question

The authors examined students’ responses to pictures of small-group situations. Story analysis was guided by the following questions: How do student stories portray small-group experiences? Specifically, do students’ representations focus on achievement or affiliation? Are their representations positive and optimistic, or negative and pessimistic? What motivational systems are attributed to story characters? What are their challenges, behaviors, and goals? What do story characters feel, and how do they manage emotions?


183 students in Grades 3–5 who attended three CSR schools.

Research Design

Data collection consisted of student stories in response to a picture of three children working in a group in a classroom. Project instruments and procedures are an adaptation of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).


Results suggest that students in these CSR schools held positive beliefs about their small-group learning experiences. The stories portrayed students as active, compliant participants who supported one another’s learning, sometimes found their experiences personally meaningful, and were concerned with both achievement and affiliation. Students rarely represented competitive themes and never described rejection, being ignored, or giving up. Students told stories about small-group learning in school that sound like a typical day in most schools: They portray students who work together, support one another, and get the job done.

Updated: Dec. 22, 2008