10 ways to split big groups into small groups or pairs

As trainers we are constantly looking for fresh and interesting ways to subdivide our groups into smaller groups and over the years I guess we all have our favourites.

So what are yours?

As a starter for 10, here are my top 10 (in no particular order!) that I have begged, borrowed, designed and stolen:

  • A continuum of how much they know about the topic and then pairing experts with novices, or experts with experts etc.
  • Randomly hand out  cards/paper with images on such as bacon, egg, sausages (one on each card), strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and other such groups of things. Then get them to find someone with a card that ‘goes’ with their card.
  • Imagine a map of your country on the floor – get them to stand where they were born (if not born in the your country widen the map) Either the nearest or the most separated work together
  • Take a pack of playing cards – randomly give out  the kings, queens and jacks or whatever. Pair/team up accordingly.
  • Stick differently coloured dots on delegates or on their place names (if you use them) or on their manuals. (Do we still give out manuals?)
  • How about a bag of (preferably washed) socks – each picks one then finds their pair. For larger groups pairs join other pairs by size or colour to form larger sub-groups
  • Alphabetical order of favourite food. Quite nice for discussion afterwards
  • Distance travelled for a holiday. Great for the show-offs, not so great for the staycationers.
  • Find the person who is most like you/least like you. This is a great way to get people talking to each other at the start of the day
  • Find the person you know the least in the room/whose job is least like yours or most like yours. Once in their pairs invite them to discuss what they are most hoping to gain from being on this programme.

OK. Those are mine.

What are yours?

Lets see if we can create a master list of the best group splitter-uppers ever

hands on fingers image by mrehan
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  1. Posted March 5, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Three more:-

    1. Color of socks in alphabetical order, then number 1,2,3,4 -all 1′s together etc.
    2. Height and as above
    3. Date of birth in the year, without speaking and then as above!

    Hope this adds to the discussion!



    • Deb Herbert
      Posted March 7, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      A positive variation on the 1-2-3 method, and just as quick and simple, is telling them they are ‘fantastic’, ‘brilliant’ or ‘wonderful’. If you want more groups just add additional positive adjectives. It makes me and them smile, and feel positive, when they are looking for the ‘wonderful’ people etc.!

      • Posted March 7, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

        That is a fab idea Deb!

        I love this :)

        An alternative – not quite so affirming, may be to use words associated with the subject matter. For example, in a customer service course, you may use questioning, listening, empathy etc…

  2. Posted March 9, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Are we not just in danger of wasting training time with things like this when it is far far easier just to number people off?

    Fair enough if there was a learning point to the exercises – but in many (most actually) I can not see a learning point?

    As we get pushed to deliver more in less time – time itself becomes very important!


    • Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Hi Andrew, your right to focus on the learning points. As Deb mentioned in an earlier comment, if we are going to be splitting our groups into smaller groups anyway, how about doing it it a way can can reinforce learning points?

      I sometimes struggle with ‘having fun’ for the sake of it but that suggests that the rest of the time is a grind and hard work for the learners. Jooli Atkins wrote a great article about Pragmativity that offers an antedote to our concerns about this danger.

      We might be able to have an alternative to splitting groups up that takes no more time but re-inforces learning points.

      Sometimes the extra time does pay dividends in other ways like changing state, introducing movement, lightening the mood or simply getting strangers to interact a little more. All of these might speed up learning later in the day

  3. Stacey
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    A good way I’ve found to review content presented before a break and then to pair participants up after break: Take sentences (i.e., policies) from the training content and divide sentences in half. Write each half of the sentence on separate index cards. Use ellipses (…) at the beginning or end of the phrase to indicate if the card is the beginning or the end of the sentence. Participants then must circulate and find their matching half. This activity: a) eventually pairs up participants, b) reviews content, c) fulfills a learning objective or learning point, d) engages everyone at the same time, and e) requires that participants “mingle.”

    • Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Nice one Stacey,

      I’ve done somethng similar using quotations relevant to course content but love your idea of actually using text from the course. I can see this working with a Customer Service programme I’m involved in at present. They are really struggling with the vocabulary needed for the exam – this might be a useful way to help them connect definitions with terms.

      Thankyou :)

      • Stacey
        Posted March 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        Absolutely, Ally!

        I’m glad my idea might work for you. Thanks for your support. I’ve successfully used this approach with terms and definitions too. Crossword puzzles also work well for terms and definitions. Here’s a web site where you can download the (open-source, thus free) program and make your own crosswords.



  4. Scott
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    To pair off, I often tell them to find someone with similar shoes (or shirt). This often causes a little bit of laughter, creates some movement (something the learning brain needs), and usually creates pairs that wouldn’t normally partner up. If I need a larger group, I ask each pair to join with another pair.

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