Four S Team Activity

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.

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.


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.