Many people herald the wisdom of crowds, but ask a teacher about crowds of students and they will tell you a different tale that is often characterised by the polar opposite of wisdom. Great group work in the classroom can similarly prove a boon or a burden for hard working teachers.
Done well, group work can boost learning and help develop a host of communication skills and enrich our students’ understanding. Done badly, it can waste time and prove damaging to the confidence of all involved. Let’s erase the threat of wasteful group work activities and define effective group work, ensuring it remains a valuable tool for teachers.
Some people deride group work as little more than a chance for some ‘social loafing’, whereat students let their peers do the work while they waste time and worse. Many teachers and students alike would quickly subscribe to ‘group hate’. No doubt, without clear parameters of behaviour, group work can pose a threat to establishing good order in the classroom, so crucial for effective learning. Still, we needn’t throw out group-work because it offers up the opportunity for poor behaviour – we does need to deploy it precisely.
We would do well to recognise that even when we are teaching the whole class, or when students are seemingly working independently, they share their knowledge and form unofficial groups. When we explicitly structure group work we can better diagnose the hidden misconceptions that often spread amongst our classes like wildfire.
In the words of Tom Bennett, who often casts a sceptical eye on the practice of group work, we should exercise caution and great care with this approach:
“When students bring the necessary focus to group work, and when teachers use it appropriately— that is, to supplement instruction, not replace it—group work can go a long way in reinforcing content knowledge.”
We know the potential benefits of great group work. Students can have their ideas challenged and developed in a way that working individually cannot offer. They can receive meaningful feedback on their learning (we know the teacher cannot exercise one-to-one feedback all the time) and they can learn from the model answers and insights of their peers.
Group work – Essential Steps
Let’s break down the process of successful group work so that students exercise the requisite focus that Tom Bennett describes:
Make the implicit rules of good group communication explicit. Students often do not understand the fundamentals of good communication, such as how to listen. Make basic skills active listening (good eye contact; supporting gestures and body language, like nodding in agreement; paraphrasing the ideas others, or summarising what has been said) explicit and model it for them.
Makes the parameters of the task clear. Off task student behaviour in group work can often stem from a lack of clarity. What exactly are they meant to do? What is the time frame to do it in? What does an excellent outcome look like? One way to clarify the group work activity is of course to conduct thorough questioning for clarity beforehand. Another is to undertake a ‘premortem’. Given they are clear about the task, now conduct a ‘premortem’ to probe how it could go wrong, what could be the potential pitfalls etc.
Define group roles. One of the crucial aspects of defining the parameters of the task is ensuring that each and every student understands their role. To counteract ‘social loafing’ we can ensure that each student has a distinct task. Is one student taking notes and leading discussion; does another have responsibility to lead research into their presentation topic; is someone keeping time and arranging the presentation etc. Each role will require a certain set of skills – judge the student, and the balance of the group, when assigning these roles.
Recognise reluctant individuals. Sometimes the composition of the group is the most important decision for a teacher. Some students, naturally introverted, find working in groups difficult; other, more extrovert students will hold court, sometimes with an overconfidence that can block out their quieter peers. A fine radar on the ongoing group activity to spy reluctance or overconfidence is essential.
Keep time. Students cannot work effectively for too long a time. Break down the lengthier group task into smaller chunks – such as 10 or 15 minute bursts. These points provide opportune moments for shining a light on best practice. Simply, stopping the class, and getting one group to continue their discussion can illuminate exemplary work. This can also allow for questions and clarification that can prove so crucial for a great final product.
Assess the work of the group AND of individuals. A key component of effective group work is assessing it fairly and accurately. Students can, quite rightly, get annoyed if one student loafs and gains the credit when it isn’t due. You can assess in different ways. There can be individual goals and achievement and group goals. You can assess individuals for their teamwork, but also the knowledge and understanding of the subject that they exhibit.
Great group work isn’t easy, but with careful training and planning, it can be executed successfully and it can prove a worthwhile and valuable teaching approach for us all.
Take a look at Tom Bennett‘s excellent ‘Group work for the Good‘ article here.
Oxford Brookes University shares this useful guide to ‘Getting the Most from Group Work Assessment‘.
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Teach Secondary‘ magazine.