Today’s typical classroom presents teachers with an assortment of diverse abilities, differing rates of learning, a racial mix, a multi-age mix and other differences. Group work can be very effective in using the varied skills and abilities of the participants, but can also pose its own dilemmas. There has been plenty of noted success in cross-age tutoring, using grouping to break down socio-economic differences and to allow for styles of learning that can be enhanced through peer interactions.
1. Know your options
Group work should go beyond: “Everyone picks a partner!” Today, with all the variety of students in a classroom, variety of grouping is a great tool to enhance learning. Consider Pairing, Buzz and Voice Circles, Rotating and Snowballing Groups, Jigsaw, Fishbowl, and Teams for different ways to change up the students.
2. Structure the groups yourself
It may be easy to say to the class, “get into groups of 3 or 4”, but soon enough the tendencies to be with friends, or like-learners will form the groups without the real benefits of meaningful collaboration. When you know your students well, you can manipulate the mix to make it a meaningful experience for each learner.
3. Use a cooperative learning dynamic for assigning work
When everyone feels they are learning by contributing to the effort, success is heightened. Assessment strategies for teachers can be based on individual grades and group work. Draw on the group’s efforts to deliberate and use collective decisions and experiences. Don’t let the group rely on dividing up the work and patching it together to present. Explain why the assignment will be done as a group effort, and give credit for the process, not just the final product.
4. Provide reasonable guidelines
Be sure to use group work only for lessons that are complex enough to require it. Involve the students, and explain how the group will be a different way of handling the assignment. Teach team building skills and help them define their roles. Use class time rather than expecting the group to meet outside of your monitoring. Avoid having the group spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they should be doing by providing clear attainable objectives.
5. Coach the group
Students sometimes think that the teacher doesn’t have to teach or have as much work to assess with group work. Changing this perception means close monitoring of the group, the workload, and the process. Students need strategies for dealing with members who are not doing their fair share. They also need structure on time management and how to effectively resolve disagreements.
7. Develop group identity
Sometimes group members get started on tasks without taking the time to deal with their identity as a collective team. Encourage the group to be open, and to get to know each other first. A few ice-breaker games will help personalities emerge. Choosing a group name and even a logo makes members feel cohesive. Members should be vocal about what they like and don’t like about group work, and openly discuss past situations where group work went bad. More commitment to the group will emerge.
8. Modify the assessment
Try to create a means to evaluate the group assignment that isn’t all about the final product. Include the student’s own ability to assess the steps taken by the group. Insist on a timeline for the project and require the individuals to keep track of their contributions. Teach students how to keep their work authentic and use a plagiarism tracker to understand the pitfalls of plagiarism.
Group work can be very rewarding and for some students, a favorite way to work on assignments. We want students to learn to work and succeed in groups because that is what employers need from their workers. Teamwork is a big part of the workplace and working with others, even ones they don’t like or ones with different abilities is a useful skill to be taught and developed at school.