From early primary school to university, there are many pros and cons of asking students to work in groups. Before you consider asking the students in your class to work together, it’s important to have a careful think as to what your objectives are and whether the children might learn better through a different format.
Below are some ideas to help you better facilitate group work in the classroom and ensure you (and the students!) are getting the most out of the activity…
- What is the point of the activity? Try to be more specific than just saying “I want the students to learn to work together”. Do you want stronger students to learn how to teach their skills to weaker students? Do you want shy students to learn to express their ideas?
- How will the students’ learning be maximised by completing the activity in groups?
- Is the task challenging enough or multifaceted enough to warrant group work?
- Is there any reason why the activity shouldn’t be done in groups?
Tips for Facilitating Group Work
1. Think about the physical space. Is there room in your classroom for everyone to spread themselves out adequately? What are the noise levels like? Will everyone be able to hear each other?
2. Provide guidelines about how students are expected to treat each other when working together as a group. It may be necessary to explain the kinds of behaviour that won’t be tolerated, such as insults, intimidation, “opting out” and blackmailing others into decisions.
3. Before beginning, it is often worthwhile to ask the students to share their own personal goals for being a good team-member. For example, they might say: “I want to work on listening and understanding other people’s ideas better.”
4. Design your group sizes based on the task and the skill level of the individuals. Generally groups should be no larger than 4 or 5 individuals to ensure everyone can be heard, but that there is also cohesion. You might want to consider making smaller group sizes for younger children (groups of 2 or 3 might be better for children aged under 7 years).
5. Think about the division of labour. Are there enough tasks for everybody? Are the tasks varied and suited to the team-members’ individual strengths? Do you want to allocate roles to each group-member or at least inform the group beforehand of what the roles will be? Even when groups have individuals in different roles, try to encourage each person to liaise with others to ensure there is unity in the overall project. Each team-member should feel that it is in their best interest for each person to work their hardest. Consider whether you will be assigning a mark for the group or will be assessing each individual separately.
6. Especially with younger children, it can be easiest to determine groups based on where the students are sitting in the classroom, however, this may mean they are always working with the same people and it may not necessarily work best for the activity involved. Think about whether you want a mix of differently abled children in each group or a mix of different personalities in each group. Otherwise, ways to choose group members can include: asking them to count off and grouping them according to number, grouping them by birthday, height, alphabetically by first or last name, or asking them to pull straws out of a hat. Alternatively, ask the students to nominate which topics they would like to work on (in order of preference) and group them according to their topic preferences. Of course, students may like to compare notes with their friends so be aware of this when using this strategy.
7. Put your students into groups before explaining the ins and outs of the task. If you try to explain it before they are in groups, you are likely to hear whispering and negotiating on group composition going on while you are trying to speak.
8. Ensure you are informing your students what the “point” of the activity is. Will they be marked on “participation” and “teamwork” or only on the end product? How does the end-product (assignment, presentation) relate to other aspects of the course and why have you chosen this part of the course to incorporate a group activity? Even for older students, don’t assume they know why they are being asked to work in groups.
9. Make the task challenging! Groups are much more likely to use problem-solving skills, share ideas and challenge themselves to take on new roles if they have a challenging and exciting project on which to work. If the task is mundane or has a clear right and wrong answer, there is no room for debate or different scope. Don’t be worried if there are weaker students in the class, just ensure that the groups have a mix of stronger students that can help to guide others.
10. Consider giving the students a few “easier” tasks at the beginning of the assignment to encourage them to share ideas and build confidence. If the initial task is too challenging, it may make students reluctant to share their ideas for fear of being “wrong”. Tasks that are good to start off with include: listing what they already know, making pros and cons lists, and listing questions that they might want to answer by the time they complete the task.
11. Consider some kind of team-bonding activity before commencing the group work. Even if it is only a short task, the students will benefit from knowing each other a little better and building trust and companionship before they begin sharing ideas.
12. Provide instructions for the task in writing and allow time for students to ask questions before they commence the activity.
13. Give the students a realistic outline of what the end project should look like. For younger students, you might consider giving them a couple of examples or a template to work with. For older students, a list of criteria against which they will be marked is always a useful resource.
14. Help the groups with time-management by giving them an estimated amount of time they should take to complete each stage of the project (or ask them to work this out themselves if they are older). Plan ahead for a session in which the class can give an update on their progress and have the opportunity to ask any questions prior to completion of the project.
15. Model useful language that students can use to problem-solve. For example, ask them to use assertive language, such as “I feel…” and “What do you think….?” and to avoid dominating the group with language such as, “You should….” and “We have to….”.
15. There are often students in every class that find it difficult to work in groups, whether that is because they have an Individual Learning Plan (because they are high-achieving or having difficulty with learning), or whether they have social difficulties, such as an Autism Spectrum Disorder or Social Communication Disorder. Perhaps there are just students in your class who are frequently absent (due to illness or other) or who have behavioural issues. Have a careful think about whether or not they will be exempt from group activities and why. If you are leaving them out of groupwork, does this mean things will be easier for you, for them or for other students? Remember: You may well have to justify your decision to other school staff and/or parents!
16. Monitor the ways the groups are working in an unobtrusive way. Circulate around the classroom, encouraging students to ask questions and to share their ideas. Be slow to jump in with suggestions but, instead, have some useful prompting questions up your sleeve to help them down a new line of enquiry.
17. At the conclusion to the activity, ensure you relate the findings back to the curriculum and discuss the knowledge that has been gained. Be careful to acknowledge the contribution of different team-members and the different perspectives gained. Depending on the topic studied, it may be necessary to correct some misconceptions or inaccuracies that students may have stumbled across in the course of their own enquiry. For example, if they were studying a topic in history and have misreported certain facts, it will be important to clear this up, sensitively, before moving on. This will ensure other students in the class don’t walk away with misinformation.
18. Don’t be afraid to leave some topics open. There is no need to decisively cover every aspect of a topic, leave some room for further enquiry or for the next project.
19. At the conclusion to the group work, it is also crucial to ask students to evaluate their own performance as a team-member (whether out loud or as a personal reflection). Hopefully, they can keep this reflection and read over it before they commence their next group work activity.
20. Finally, just as you are asking your students to reflect on their own performance as group members, it is also important for you to evaluate your own performance as a teacher or facilitator. Did you explain instructions clearly? Did you give students enough time to complete the project? How do you think you managed any group conflict? Is there anything you think you could improve upon for next time?
Further ideas for organising group work can be found at the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE):