Using groups to help engage and involve students in their learning has become common place in today’s classrooms. Unfortunately, it also presents many opportunities for students to be off task and to waste time chatting. Another danger of group work is that one or two people actually do the work and the others are there in body only, allowing the ‘keeners’ to get the task done.
A few basic strategies can help to eliminate some of the potential problems that arise, or at least smooth out some of the complications of group work and get everyone participating.
1. Forming the Groups
The first thing to consider when setting up the groups is whether the outcome of the activity is best accomplished with students of similar abilities working together or groups of varying interests and abilities. If random groups of students with different levels of ability are desired, simply numbering students works well. For example, if you have 28 students in the class, number students from 1 – 7. This will give you 7 groups of four.
Tip: Have the students actually say their number or they will not recall what number they are and may even decide to work the system and ‘pick the number’ of the group they want to be in.
If groups of students with similar abilities are preferred, it is best to plan the groups yourself before the class starts.
Another Tip: After the students have been allowed to from their group, insist that each group looks like a group with all desks facing each other, forming a good conversational circle. No one should appear left out or separated in any way from other group members.
You will save yourself many frustrations by explaining the entire activity very clearly before anyone moves an inch! Describe the purpose, the desired outcome and the details of how the outcome will be achieved before you even form the groups. It seems that as soon as some students know where they are going and who they are going to be teamed up with, they quit listening and lose site of the purpose of the group activity. Use phrases like this: – The goal of our class time today is . . . – The reason we are going to do this activity in groups, rather than on our own is . . . – Before your group starts the activity, make sure that you have . . . – After 10 to 15 minutes of working together as a group, you should have accomplished. – By the end of today’s class, we will all have . . .
3. Define Roles within the Group
Not every group activity allows for this, but whenever possible it is extremely helpful to select a role for each person in the group. Start by assigning each person a letter. For example, if you have groups of 4, one person will be “A”, one “B”, “C” and “D”. Person “A”might be the recorder and write down the notes for the group. Person “B” might be organizer who has to get the materials and set everything up, person “C” could be the take down person who has to return everything to it’s place, and person “D” might be the presenter who is in charge of reporting back to the class.
The nature of the activity will determine the roles, but if each person is responsible for something, they will engage more and might get more out of the activity. Knowing that their role is crucial to the function of the group in general also helps them to feel valued and an integral part of the class that day.