Active learning

Group Work Strategies That Work

As a student, I was never a fan of group work. I still remember the time my teacher paired me with “Tyler” for a research project. I’m sure my teacher’s intentions were good. But I knew from the start that it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Tyler wasn’t a bad kid, but he wasn’t what you’d call a high performer. Our teacher assigned our partners, and we all knew the intention behind the groupings. High achievers were paired with those who could “use some help.”

This wasn’t my first group project, and I knew my role. Do all the research. Write the paper. Come up with something for Tyler to say during the presentation. Hassle him to learn his lines. Get the same grade.

A Novice Teacher’s Perspective

When I began teaching, I was no more a fan of group work than I was as a student. It was messy. It took up too much class time – not to mention grading and planning time. I didn’t understand how students would learn the content if I didn’t explain it to them.

Group work was something I was supposed to do. I had read the research on the importance of peer learning. Administrators celebrated teachers who used group work. And they encouraged the rest of us to give it a try.

But no one had shown me how to do it well. When I saw other classes doing group work, I noticed all the common problems.

One student did all the work, while others fooled around. Projects that looked good hanging on the wall, but didn’t demonstrate meaningful learning. (Jennifer Gonzalez refers to these as “Grecian Urns”).

I felt that group work was something you did during an observation. When you wanted your students to actually learn something, you explained it to them or they read about it in a book.

Benefits of Group Work

It took years before group work became a regular part of my classroom routine. But once it did, there was no looking back. Not only were my students getting more out of each lesson, but it was a lot easier on me as a teacher

In a lecture-based classroom, the teacher is at the center of all classroom activity. She delivers the content through lecture. She asks questions, decides who answers, and determines whether the answer is correct. The teacher tells students when they can use the bathroom and what page to turn to in their workbooks. She even provides pencils and paper to students who don’t have any.

It is important for both students and teachers to know who’s in charge. But teacher-centered classrooms can be terribly inefficient. With twenty to thirty students in a room, the teacher becomes a bottleneck. Students get frustrated when they don’t get enough attention or have enough freedom. They begin to act out. Teachers get overwhelmed because they can’t give students the attention they need. They get upset because students “aren’t listening.” They assert their authority more firmly. It quickly becomes a vicious cycle.

Group work isn’t about making pretty posters to hang on the wall. And it’s not about matching struggling students with high-performers to boost their grades. It’s about giving teachers permission to not solve every problem or provide every answer. It’s about students learning to learn from each other and to use their resources.

Promoting Effective Group Work

For effective collaboration to occur, it’s important to understand why group work is valuable. But understanding the ‘why’ is not enough. Establishing group work as a regular classroom routine takes time. Teachers and students both need to learn norms and develop the social-emotional skills that make group work effective.

I’ve worked with some educators who believed that effective group work was not possible. Some simply don’t see how students will learn if they don’t explain the content. Others think it’s a passing fad. Still others believe that “it won’t work with these kids.”

Sadly, the latter is often used to justify regimented and drill-based instruction for students of color. Despite the fact that “collaboration is linked to higher grades for black students.” Furthermore, similar benefits were not found for white students. (According to a 2018 report by the American Institute for Research).

If you are coaching or supervising educators who have these misconceptions, it’s important to be patient. Many of these teachers have tried group work before, without success. They will need extra assurance and support to be successful this time around.

Here are some tips to make group work engaging and impactful in any classroom.

Start with an Engaging Activity

The first step to effective group work is an engaging activity. Students need to have a reason to work with their group. The right activity should be inquiry-based — where students have a challenging problem to solve. It should be a bit too difficult for any one student to do on their own. But it shouldn’t be so hard that they can’t get started on their own.

Some great activities for this purpose are The Sieve of Eratosthenes (math) and Team Story Analysis (language arts).

Teach Group Process

Inquiry-based learning allows students to learn content through discovery. But we still teach the process explicitly. Many students have become used to a sit-and-learn approach. If we want them to engage in active learning, we need to actively reset their expectations.

As you introduce group work to your classes, explain what is expected. Start class with a discussion of what good group work looks like: students participate equally, listen to one another, etc. Keeping groups small (2-4 students), helps ensure that everyone has a role.

You may choose to assign roles. For my short story projects, each group had a captain, a scribe, an artist, and a presenter. The team’s job was to read a short story and record important information in a graphic organizer. The scribe completed the organizer. The artist created a poster or slideshow. The presenter was in charge of sharing the team’s work with the class. The captain coordinated roles. If the group needed to ask me a question, it had to come from the captain.

Make it Count

There’s an old saying in business, “What gets measured, gets managed.” I still remember how focused and well-behaved my students were on test days. At no other time could I hand them a few pieces of paper and expect 40 minutes of peace and quiet.

Now, I could have just enjoyed the respite those days provided,  but that’s not my nature. I wanted to harness this focused concentration and reproduce it throughout the year. After all, part of my job as an educator is to prepare students for their future careers. I couldn’t think of any job where your value is measured by what you do once or twice a month. In the real world, what matters is who you are and what you do on a daily basis.

If we want students to make an effort during group work, we need to let them know it’s important. And the way we let them know is by attaching a grade to it. I use test grades as the standard unit of measure, as students understand that quite easily.

“This activity counts as one fourth of a test grade,” or “this project is equal to a test grade.”

I use a group work rubric so students will know how their grade will be calculated. This rubric focuses on process, product, and presentation. Students earn ‘process’ points by communicating well and involving all team members. Their ‘product’ score is based on the artifacts they produce. ‘Presentation’ is based on how well they share their work with the rest of the class.

Advocates of standards-based grading rankle at the idea of grading classwork. I agree that it may be more accurate to grade students purely on mastery of standards. But such grading systems can have negative consequences for student confidence and motivation.

Set a Timer

I can’t overstate the importance of using a timer in the classroom. Recording times that students are on-task vs off-task can improve student behavior, even in a lecture-based class. For group work, it’s an absolute necessity.

A common challenge with group work is that students won’t self-start. As teachers, we feel the clock ticking. We know how much we need to cover. Why don’t our students have the same sense of urgency?

We need to transfer that sense of urgency to them using clear, measurable units of time. Before they begin, let them know how much time they have to complete the activity. When the time is up, they will be expected to present to the class and hand in their completed work. Prominently display the countdown timer for all to see.

For most students, the clock and the grade will provide enough incentive to stay on task. Others will be motivated by the desire to appear competent to their peers when they present.

It’s important to recognize that clocks and grades are extrinsic motivators. When students don’t believe they are able to meet external standards, the strategies can backfire. We should constantly assess students’ “level of concern.” If their concern level is too low, increase the challenge. If their level of concern is too high, dial it back.

Using a timer may not have much of an impact the first time you use it. Some students will not realize their time is up until it’s too late. Time management is a component of social-emotional learning (SEL). If students aren’t ready to present when called upon, be supportive. They are already developing their sense of time. And learning that they will need to be more focused the next time around.

At First, You Probably Won’t Succeed

The key to success with group work is practice and experience. The strategies above will point you in the right direction, but they won’t make all your challenges disappear.

Create room in your pacing guides and unit plans to allow for weekly group activities. If you make group practice a weekly habit, the level of engagement and the quality of work will steadily increase.

If you’re not sure how to plan an engaging hands-on lesson, use a planning template. This workshop lesson plan template provides a three-part structure that is perfect for group work. 

Creativity, Collaboration, and Conceptual Learning

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