Informal group learning

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description 

"Informal groups are temporary groups that last for only one discussion or one class period. Their major purpose is to ensure active learning. They might be used, for example, to break up a lecture with peer exchanges that require students to organize, explain, and otherwise cognitively process their learning" (Barkley et al, 2005). Students may or may not produce a product, and the activity and/or product is typically not graded.  
Active learning is the primary goal of informal group learning, but it can also serve a variety of other purposes. Informal groups can function as quick check-ins that help instructors gauge whether students understand some element of course content (a concept, a set of relationships), and/or identify common patterns of misunderstanding. They can also help students monitor their own learning and comprehension of course material.  


  1. Think-Pair-Share:  ask a question, have students write briefly, then discuss with a partner. This technique can provide a check-in on comprehension, elicit differences of interpretation or opinion, clarify confusing concepts, or provide the time and space students need to be able to participate in a larger class discussion. 
  2. Concept Maps:  students diagram relationships among terms or concepts
  3. Sketching:  students draw a picture or series of pictures of a process (e.g. cell division)
  4. Analytical Grid:  students use various criteria to re-organize course material and to analyze similarities and differences among concepts 

Tips to Implement Effectively

  • Some instructors prefer to separate or dilute friends by having students form groups across rows of seats rather than side by side.  
  • Keep groups very small (2 or 3 students) to avoid the need to rearrange furniture or to permit informal groups even in classrooms with chairs bolted to the floor.
  • If the activity produces a product (concept maps or sketches), collect them (without names) in order to gauge students' understanding.  Scan through them as you move through the room and select several examples.  
  • Project examples that represent deep as well as shallow understanding, or common misunderstandings allows the instructor to walk the entire class through such issues.   


  • Barkley, E.F., K.P. Cross, and C.H. Major. 2005. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning (CATL) has several copies of this book for instructors to borrow. 
  • Analytical Grid Summary:  More detailed information about how to structure this item from Collaborative Learning Techniques.
  • Collaborative Learning Toolbox:  Design ideas, organized by purpose:  informal techniques to gauge student understanding in the moment, break up a lecture, or develop students' ability to self-assess their learning;  and Collaborative learning designs that, by design, require a group and therefore also tend to structure the group's work so that students must rely on each other.
  • Structured Academic Controversy Summary:  More detailed information about how to structure this item from Collaborative Learning Techniques.
  • Think Aloud Pair Problem Solving Summary:  More detailed information about how to structure this item from Collaborative Learning Techniques.
  • Think-Pair-Share Summary:  More detailed information about how to structure this item from Collaborative Learning Techniques.

Hoskins, D. (2015). Informal group learning. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from