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Upgrading from “Small Groups” to “Organized Learning Communities”

As a teacher, whenever I utter the words, “Okay class, please get into your small working groups,” I remember the sense of dread that I felt when I heard those words as a student.Candid_6a016301e4b359970d019b008ab243970b-pi

This semester I’m running an experiment in my Systematic Theology class.  It’s the first Master’s level course in theology for nearly all of the students.  For many, it’s the first theology course they’ve ever taken.   In this context, students need and appreciate time to process their thoughts and reactions to the texts.  In the past, I’ve used small working groups. 

However, this year, the randomly assigned “small working groups” are gone.  We traded them in for collaboratively organized learning communities.

In the first week, students read a short text in class and discussed it with a few neighbors.  We read from Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith about the necessity of risk and doubt in the theological adventure.  They were given time to read and to discuss.  Then, we debriefed as a class.

Candid_6a016301e4b359970d019b008ab2d1970b-piFirst, we explored the text.  The content of the reading itself encouraged students to take the risk and speak up.  Then, we shifted to discuss what makes for a productive learning community.

Students named many gifts:

  • time keeper (i.e., someone to keep the community focused on the task at hand),
  • case studies manager (i.e., someone to apply abstract concepts to practical situations)
  • questioner (i.e., someone to press the hard questions)
  • dreamer (i.e., someone with vision to imagine other ways to do things)
  • connector (i.e., someone who can draw together disparate claims and questions)

At the end, each student claimed his or her gifts, and small learning communities were assigned so that each community had a diversity of gifts.   In these communities, gifts have been claimed and affirmed, and everyone is expected to make her or his unique contribution to the common vision of the task at hand.Stock_6a016301e4b359970d019b00bb3a4d970b-800wi

Of course, some days we’re all just tired, but early results from the experiment are encouraging.  On the whole, I haven’t seen that look of dread when I say, “Okay class, please gather in your learning communities.”  There are further theological connections to mine.   Yet, even without my saying a word, they are learning something important about beloved community and the gifts of the Spirit as we model an intentional way to organize faithful, diverse folks. 

How do you organize student peer groups? 

How could this teaching strategy be used in an online setting?

Lea F. Schweitz

About Lea F. Schweitz

Lea F. Schweitz joined the faculty of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2007 and teaches in theology, philosophy of religion, and religion and science. Her current research project focuses on early modern views of humanity and the impact these views have on the theology and science of the time. In both her teaching ministry and her research, she is committed to inter-disciplinary interaction, historical sensitivity, community building, and the integration of academic concern with practical and public care. In addition, she is the Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science  (link at ) and looks forward to continuing the long tradition of bringing religious traditions together with the best scientific knowledge in order to promote a more just and peaceful world. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Kurt, their two children.

Reader Interactions


  1. Wow – this sounds excellent.

    I also like to use short passages from primary readings to base our discussions on during class. I do something similar in terms of giving students time to read the text on their own asking them to identify one key insight or question; afterward I have them discuss with their neighbor; and finally, we come together and discuss the text as a class. During this larger class discussion, I take notes on the board as students share about their ‘neighbor conversations’ – linking connecting points and charting the shared insights all along the way. This helps create a visual of the things that stood out most to us from the text and of what is missing or left unsaid. Time flies when we do discussions this way.

    However – your method of identifying and claiming students’ various roles and gifts adds another valuable layer. I look forward to trying this next time. Thank you!

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