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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Types of Structured Group Activities

Example of Group Activities

Quoted and summarized below, and supplemented with input from additional sources cited below, are seven forms of in-class structured group activities commonly assigned by instructors based on a workshop given by the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching. Each is organized differently and, as such, should be approached in a particular way in order to maximize your opportunity to participate, to engage in learning about the topic, and to improve your understanding of a research problem by gaining perspective and knowledge from others. However, each activity can pose particular challenges. Below are description of each group activity, along with suggestions intended to maximize the benefits of participating.

The Double-Entry Journal

  • What You Do: This strategy enables students to record their responses to text as they read. The page of a journal is divided into two columns. On the left, students summarize what they have read; in the right-hand column, they record their reactions in the form of questions, objections, sources of confusion, or concerns. In class, you are paired with another student to give feedback on each other's double-entry journals, either in writing or orally [a third column may be added for the partner to write comments]. In some cases, your professor may collect the journals and offer their own feedback as well.
  • Benefits: Creating a double-entry journal encourages collaborative learning and introspective thinking about one's own learning based on the text being reviewed. Sharing journals provides an opportunity to practice giving and receiving feedback from your peers, similar to what can happen in professional workplace settings. The repetition of completing the journal on your own, receiving feedback, and potentially receiving analysis from your instructor encourages in-depth learning about the research problem.
  • Learning Opportunities: For this activity to be successful, it is important to be thorough and sincere in your analysis of the text and to critically consider the opinions and insights given by your peers. Concomitantly, when providing feedback, focus on assessing the effectiveness of the other person's argument, the evidence presented to support any recommendations or conclusions, and the general organization and clarity of the writing [e.g., its effectiveness in describing and analyzing the text]. The most effective feedback strikes a balance between constructive criticism and positive encouragement.

The Jigsaw

  • What You Do: Each member of a group is assigned unique material to learn and teach to the group's other members. The subject of investigation is usually fairly broad, with each group examining a particular aspect of the issue. Students from different groups working on the same material get together during class to decide what is most important and how best to teach it. After practicing in the "expert" groups, the original groups reconvene and the students teach each other what they learned. The outcome from this exercise is often to write a reflective paper about the way the student's expert knowledge was changed or enhanced based upon input from others.
  • Benefits: The process of creating diverse groups of students that divide into expert groups to examine the research problem, then get back together to teach their original groups what they have learned, facilitates positive, interdependent learning in the classroom by forcing you to teach the research topic to others. This cooperative learning process encourages productive interaction and cooperation among group members. Instructors may also assign this activity because it can be an effective way to learn the material that will be covered in a mid-term or final exam.
  • Learning Opportunities: This group activity works best if your professor has provided everyone with a specific learning goal or guiding questions because this sets the parameters for how the expert groups and the home groups examine the research problem. If this has not been provided, be sure to ask your professor for guidance. For this activity to be successful, everyone must participate in learning the material and listening to those who are teaching it. It can also help refine your presentation skills in a small group setting.


  • What You Do: Prior to class, your professor distributes a "Pro-Con-Caveat" grid to fill out that relates to a specific research problem, usually in the form of a question. The grid consists of three columns: a list of the arguments in favor of a certain decision, a column for arguments against that position, and a third column that identifies caveats that must be considered [i.e., issues that may impact or influence the decision]. Students bring a copy of their grid to class and then work in groups to create a grid that the group determines to be the best synopsis of ideas from each group member's pro, con, and caveat column. Each group then reports these best ideas to the class.
  • Benefits: This activity is usually assigned if your professor wants you to prepare ahead of time to analyze a research problem and to be aware of the topic from more than one perspective. Doing so encourages individual reflection on issues before class. Additionally, this activity promotes higher-order thinking when students make judgments about which pros, cons, and caveats are most important. Reporting the results of your group's work also supports cooperation in designing a presentation about the topic.
  • Learning Opportunities: For this activity to be successful, the underlying decision, dilemma, or judgment to be made should be approached objectively. You should think about the activity introspectively by putting yourself in the shoes of others in order to thoroughly consider all pros and cons related to the question. In formulating caveats, think about external factors and conditions that could influence outcomes, either positively or negatively, or, the role of possible stakeholder groups that could support or oppose a specific decision, policy, or recommended course of action.

The Roundtable

  • What You Do: This activity involves dividing the class into small groups. Your professor then poses a research question and gives each of you time to think about possible answers. Students in each group then go around sharing their solutions to the problem, with an option to "pass" if you need more time to think about the question. Variations of this activity may include having students write down their answers on a sheet of paper that gets passed around or having the students share answers verbally with one student recording each response [time can be wasted selecting the group's "secretary," though].
  • Benefits: This activity is very democratic in that it gets everyone actively involved in the discussion in a rapid, but low-stakes manner. The roundtable activity also encourages brainstorming within the group because you can build on what others have said as participants address the research question. As a learning tool, this activity has the benefit of generating more ideas as a team than an individual student might be able to on his or her own. Roundtables can also effectively tackle big, open-ended questions because everyone involved brings their own thoughts and experiences into finding possible solutions to a problem.
  • Learning Opportunities: Going first can be frustrating ["why didn't I think of that!"] because hearing what others say can help you formulate your own response. However, this is not a competition, and after everyone goes around answering the question, a larger discussion usually takes place based on what each individual said. Some professors may ask you go around again after hearing what everyone has said to further build upon everyone's input. Use the moment before the roundtable responses begins to think about the research question and it's implications. If it helps, make notes to yourself as you're contemplating possible solutions to the problem.


  • What You Do: This is a three part in-class activity. First, you are given time to think about a specific research problem posed by your instructor. The problem is usually focused on an issue or topic that has already been discussed in class or derived from your course readings. Second, students pair up and share how they approached the topic, then discuss ideas and ask questions of their partner about their thoughts on the topic. The outcome from the paired discussion is to develop a final recommendation, solution, or plan of action. The third step involves sharing your final, joint response with the class. Some professors may conclude by having the pairs reconvene to explore how their thinking changed as a result of hearing what other pairs reported to the class.
  • Benefits: This activity provides students with the time and structure to closely examine a research problem, enabling them to formulate ideas individually and then sharing with and listening to a peer learner. Students follow a prescribed process that limits off-task thinking and off-task behavior. Accountability is built in because every student must report to a partner, and partners must report to the larger group. A designated and demarcated time to think before being allowed to speak prevents over-eager students from monopolizing discussion. This activity may also be assigned because it is useful for both spontaneous discussions and a wide variety of planned learning activities, such as, discussion reviews, case study analysis, brainstorming, exam reviews, topic development, and reflective thinking. This method is also useful in engaging students in a large classroom setting or to address a complex, multifaceted research problem.
  • Learning Opportunities: Your professor may allow you to pick your own partner, but you will likely maximize your learning and understanding of the topic if you collaborate with someone in class you don't know very well. Begin your paired discussion by sharing what you see as the problem or general issue of concern, then share possible solutions or ways to address the problem. Evaluating the costs and benefits of each of your responses to the research problem may help you formulate and organize how you report your ideas to the class.

Three Stay, One Stray

  • What You Do: In this activity, groups are given the same research problem to investigate and told to come to a consensus about possible solutions or recommended courses of action. Then one member from each group is selected by the instructor to "stray" to the another group. At the new group, the "straying" student briefs the three group members about what was discussed at the strayer's group. Each strayer is then briefed about what was discussed in the group they visit. In the last rotation, the "strayer" returns to their original "home" group. Students in the home group then brief the strayer what they have learned from the other group's strayers. The intended outcome is for each group to learn the findings of the other groups while also having its findings reported to another group.
  • Benefits: This technique is used when there is no time to discuss the results of each group's discussion in an open classroom setting. This small group activity promotes good communication and listening skills and helps to effectively generate an exchange of new ideas; everyone has an opportunity to participate. This approach also promotes the idea that knowledge discovery does not just come from your professor, but lies within the student's own learning community as well as themselves. The process of sharing supports retention of the information you examine. Finally, instructors use three stay, one stray because it is efficient, avoiding time spent having each group report out to the entire class.
  • Learning Opportunities: If you are a "strayer," it is important to be consistent in relaying what was discussed in your home group and carefully document the feedback and questions you receive from each group you visit. Bring something to write down the feedback you receive. For home group members, pay close attention to what each strayer reports. It is best to take notes as strayers stop by so you document everyone's input and have something to refer back to when you conclude the activity by discussing all of the input you've received. All members should be prepared to represent the group's positions because your professor will likely not announce who the strayers are until the very last minute.

The Three-Step Interview

  • What You Do: Students are paired together and given a specific set of research questions to investigate. Your professor begins by setting an amount of time for each person to share. Student A asks student B the questions and listens to the response. After the set amount of time expires, they switch roles as interviewer and respondent. Pairs of students then join another pair and take turns sharing what they have learned from their interviews. A variation of this activity may be to have students complete step one, have them share with their group, then have the interviewer/respondent switch roles, conduct the interview, then share again with the other group of paired students. If desired, the formation of new learning groups of four students [two pairs] can then be assigned a new group-related activity or questions to consider.
  • Benefits: According to Kagan, this group activity can replace open-ended group discussions because the process of paired students thinking about and discussing a research problem, then taking turns sharing what was discussed with other paired student groups, requires active participation by every student. This activity creates the conditions for careful listening, paraphrasing thoughts of others, understanding the meaning of what was said, seeking clarification when necessary, and summarizing. Professors may also assign this activity because one person at a time reports to the entire class; it is much more structured around listening. Overall, the three-step interview helps students develop listening and language skills while also being an effective strategy for promoting individual accountability in reporting to the entire class what was learned.
  • Learning Opportunities: This activity works best for large class setting, but all these discussions happening at once can be noisy and unwieldy. As such, it can be a challenge to focus on what your partner is saying and not overhear what others are saying. This could influence how you respond when "interviewed." It also works best if your professor sets aside some quiet time before being paired together to contemplate the research questions, although no preparation time does promote spontaneous reactions to the question. For this activity to be successful, consider taking notes about what your partner says so you don't spend a lot of time being corrected when reporting out what was discussed. This activity is often assigned to encourage brainstorming about a topic, so approach this with an understanding that there is no right or wrong answer.

Active Learning Workshop: Focus on Group Work. Center for Excellence in Teaching, University of Southern California, September 25, 2012; Aronson, Elliot, and Shelley Patnoe. The Jigsaw Classroom: Building Cooperation in the Classroom.  2nd edition.  New York: Longman, 1997; Barkley, Elizabeth F., and Claire Howell Major, K. Patricia Cross. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014; Cohen, Elizabeth G. and Rachel A. Lotan. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. 3rd edition. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014; Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods. Shlomo Sharan, editor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994; Kagan, Spencer. "The Structural Approach to Cooperative Learning." Educational Leadership 47 (1990): 12-15; Strategy Guide: Using the Think-Pair-Share Technique. readwritethink, International Literacy Association; Shulman, Judith H., Rachel A. Lotan, Jennifer A. Whitcomb, editors. Groupwork in Diverse Classrooms: A Casebook for Educators. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998; Think, Pair, Share Cooperative Learning Strategy. TeacherVision.