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Four S Team Discussion Activities

Four S Team Discussion Activities


The best group assignments do not require students to author a paper or make a presentation: they simply require groups to make a difficult, content-based decision, much like a courtroom jury is given a great deal of complex information but is simply asked to render a "guilty or not guilty" decision.

This activity stimulates critical thinking by requiring students to analyze a complex question, evaluate the pros and cons of possible answers, synthesize rationales for the answer they choose, and discuss their thinking within and among groups.

The activity

Four-S activities revolve around the four following principles:

(1) Significant problem

Individuals/groups should work on a problem, case, or question demonstrating concept's usefulness so they understand its impact.

(2) Same problem

Individuals/groups should all work on the same problem, case, or question so they will care about what other groups think about it and energetically engage each other around the course content.

(3) Specific Choice

Individuals/groups should be required to use course concepts to make a specific choice (for example: Guilt or not-guilty? Buy, lease, or rent? Which is 'best' and why?).

(4) Simultaneous reporting

If possible, individuals/groups should report choices at the same time so differences in group conclusions are not smoothed out by "answer drift" and can be explored.

When all groups report their decisions, the teacher's job is then to facilitate conversation among the groups to compare how and why they thought differently and came to different decisions.



A class is covering how location, demographics and traffic patterns effect the success of small businesses. Each group is given a numbered thumbtack and 30 minutes to decide where in the city they would open a small dry-cleaning business, and must write a half-page justification of their decision. At the end of the time, one representative from each group must approach a large map of the city hung on the wall and put their thumbtack in the map where they would open their business. They must simultaneously turn in their written justifications. Class discussion then ensues, comparing the decisions among the groups, and the written rationales are graded for the amount and specificity of citation from the reading they incorporate


In the discussion sections of a large lecture class, students work frequently in teams on in-class activities. The only out-of-class activity is a term-long project in which they are given a list of geological features to identify in the local area. They use digital cameras (even their cell-phone cameras) to take the best (most illustrative) picture of each geological feature that they are able.  They e-mail their pictures to the teacher.  On the last week of class, the teacher shows the images from one discussion section to the other, and the students vote on which pictures best exemplify each of the geological features represented. This reward structure prevents groups from only voting for their own slides.


Student groups are required to examine several different samples of writing. They are to choose the one they feel makes best use of specific writing principles being studied, and turn a short written justification for their choice. The groups simultaneously report back on their choices and class discussion then ensues about the relative merits of each candidate. The written rationales are graded for the amount and specificity of citation from the course reading they incorporate.

Adapted from: Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L.D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.