Gender and Group Work

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley8 Comments


Do boys loaf more or less when working in groups with girls? Do girls work better in a single sex group? What is the ideal classroom grouping scenario? Such questions can beguile even the most experienced of teachers. Answering those questions could provide us with important marginal improvements for our teaching practice.

Whilst we should take care to avoid lazy stereotypes, we do know that boys and girls can respond differently to group work. With my English Language A level teaching experience, I have always been interested in the dynamics of language and gender. In terms of language use, females are repeatedly shown to be more inclusive with their talk in group settings, whereas males prove more competitive. This research into adult language has correlated quite well with my experiences of many of the classes I have taught. Does it translate to how we group students within our classes?

Some research has shown (Smith-Lovin & Brody, 1989) that in adult conversation, that as the number of females in the group rises, the number of male interruptions decreases. Should this influence our grouping decisions? Perhaps this should guide us toward mixed gender groupings? At the very least, it may make us think hard about how we group our students.

Advocates for group work will cite the benefits of the ‘wisdom of crowds’, whereat larger groups make better predictions and decisions. And yet, having smaller and smarter crowds is that little bit better (see the research here). So then, when we decide to enact a group task in class, having a mixed group of girls and boys, selected by their expertise related to the topic, mat prove our best bet.

If we accept the notion of the ‘wisdom of crowds‘, then what is the magic number for group size? There is no fixed answer, but research evidence shows that any group size above six is unlikely to be effective. Why is this? Well, successful group work relies on group goals, but alongside individual responsibility. With too many students in a group it is too easy for social loafing (students putting in less effort when they know they can because other group members pick up the slack) to happen. Better to have a smaller groups, such as trios or fours. Of course, even then, they’ll need training.

Instead of just doing the same old, same old with our groupings, how about reflecting upon the following questions before making your in-class grouping decision:

  • What is the ideal number for the group size for this task?
  • Are students clear about what effective collaboration looks like and sounds like?
  • What are the group goals and individual goals for this task? Are they clear to the students?
  • How are you going to fend off ‘social loafing’?
  • Should personality differences influence our grouping decisions? Are there introverts in the classroom that should receive particular attention as we decide upon grouping students?
  • How should we group in relation to ability or skill levels? Are the groups separate by ability or mixed, or randomised? Does this make a difference?


In response to this blog, Jenn Borgioli Binis shared this excellent Atlantic article on Group Work and the Secretary Effect – showing how group work can reinforce social roles. Once more, it provokes us to think hard about group work in our classrooms. Thanks Jenn!


  1. I have noticed that when it comes to younger students (age 11-12) average to high achieving boys tend to dominate small groups and high achieving girls take on peacemaker roles, but by the time students reach upper middle school (age 13-14) boys begin to defer to high achieving girls and participate less–what you refer to as “social loafing.” However, my observations seem to conflict with that famous paper I read back in grad school, which found that high achieving girls believe they are naturally talented and lose motivation when facing challenges (“I suppose I’m not really talented, after all”), whereas boys are praised for effort and therefore excel when challenged. Perhaps we’ve all taken those findings to heart and have changed the way we dole out praise. To be honest, though, I think the biggest contributors to these group dynamics are our expectations.

    1. Author

      A really thoughtful response Asha – thanks. I wholly agree with your last point – our expectations (which is bound up in our relationship with our students) really are integral to success.

  2. Great post. We did some work a year or 2 back in our TLCs on grouping strategies in practical subjects. In Music, to fend off ‘social loathing’, we assign manager roles. A quality assurance (QA) manager to ensure the work is focussed and in keeping with the brief and success criteria, a ‘phone’ manager who keeps a record of success criteria/outcomes on a phone/electrical device and is the port of call when referring to these, a target manager who is responsible for ensuring team and individual targets are being worked towards etc. We have found since employing these manager roles, students feel empowered and responsible. We also assign more ‘hands on’ roles for students who need to move/act etc. So equipment managers monitor use of specialist equipment, storage and ensure instruments are played with correct technique.

    We also looked at Kagan grouping strategies on how to put together certain individuals.

    But the biggest revelation that came from the TLC was simply to keep mixing it up – employing different strategies over time has a far more positive impact than simply allowing students to choose their own teams each lesson.

    Great topic to get you thinking!


    1. Author

      That’s for that contribution Rob. I wholly agree that it is about managing the structure of the task and the roles of the grouping with conscious intent – even to the point of regularly mixing it up. Sounds great.


  3. Alex, thanks for providing those questions to consider when organizing group work. I’m an American soon-to-be certified high school English teacher, eager to get all the help she can get! Question: Have you any knowledge/experience of the benefits of single-sex schools? I ask because I wonder if what works in those settings can be partially reenacted and considered when structuring group work in class. Eager to know your thoughts. Thanks!

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