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Not Just Group Work -- Productive Group Work!

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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We know that group work can be instructionally effective, but only if it is productive. We don't just want busywork when students work in groups -- we want learning! Work doesn't always create learning, an idea that many teachers still struggle with. These teachers make the assumption that even with a clear task, group work will be productive. Conversely, many teachers assume that when building classroom culture, group work will be productive as well. Actually, multiple factors lead to effective and productive group work, but all must be in place to make it happen. So how do we create that structure for productive group work?

Clear Intention

The purpose of group work needs to be clear not only to the students, but also to the teacher. Do students even know the intended outcome for why they've been assigned to work in a group? Have those expectations been clearly set? Have students set those expectations themselves? These are questions that educators need to consider as they structure group work. In addition, there are many ways to do group work, from random groupings to teacher choice to something in the middle. All choices are good, as long as you have a clear intention. Teacher choice can be effective when the idea is guiding instruction based on assessed needs. Student choice is excellent for projects and extension assignments. Whatever drives the choice, the intention of the grouping must be clear.

Heterogeneous vs. Homogeneous

Similar to clear intention, heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping must be intentional in choice. There are pitfalls in both. Putting together students of similar ability may not always produce the desired outcome. If students in a low-achieving group do not have access to resources (teacher, materials, etc.) to complete the task, they will not reach the desired outcome. Sometimes, members of high-achieving groups fail to interact with each other, so teachers must ensure that culture is built for that. Similarly, heterogeneous teams shouldn't just be "higher and lower kids" together, but instead carefully arranged. Sometimes the high-achieving students will take over and exclude others from the learning process. Educators need to think very carefully about their construction of homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings, and the intentions for both.

The Importance of Structure

As explained in the video about PBL, structured collaboration is key. You should not put students in groups and simply ask them to complete the task. Along with clear goals, teachers need to consider protocols and structures to facilitate effective group work. Whether it is a critique protocol or reciprocal teaching, these structures can help ensure that the group work moves along efficiently and with purpose.

Scaffolding Culture

How are you building a culture of collaboration in your classroom? Teachers should not forget the importance of scaffolding the skills needed for students to work in groups. Paired with a good collaboration rubric, where students know what is expected of them in terms of behavior, teachers need to scaffold skills such consensus building, effective communication, and the ability to critique. Educators need to explicitly teach and assess collaboration, a critical 21st-century skill, if they want their group work to be productive.

Individual Accountability

This can work in many ways. If you keep the group size limited, it can lead to greater individual accountability, because the work must be spread over a limited number of people. Clear and authentic roles can also lead students not only to value each other's work, but also to realize that the task or project can only be completed when everyone does his or her role and work effectively. It is also crucial that an educator builds in formative and summative assessments from these group work sessions so that he or she can check for understanding and ensure that individual learning is occurring.

Productive group work creates collaborative learning, a model where all students contribute. It really builds a team where the learning and learners are interdependent. More of this shared work needs to happen in the classroom, but only when careful steps have been taken to ensure success.

How do you ensure productive group work with collaborative learning? Please tell us about your strategies in the comments below.

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Jennifer Boss's picture

This article was a great read. It reiterated some important points about cooperative group work such as being clear with your intentions, and making the activities meaningful to the learning you want to take place.
I teach kindergarten, and I am always looking for activities and games that my students can do or play cooperatively and still be actively engaged in learning. So many times I find literacy or math related games that don't seem to have any real learning in them. Something I try to do with my students to ensure that they will have effective cooperative learning is making sure to choose partners or groups that contain students whose strengths support each other's weaknesses. An example of that is pairing a higher level student with poor organization skills with a mid ranged student who is very organized. They help each other to be organized and understand the concepts being learned. I also try to pair srudents with personalities that go well together. For example, I wouldn't necessarily want to put two strong minded leaders in one group because they might butt heads a lot. I love teaching my kindergarteners how to be good partners though!

Trish Raymond's picture

This was an enjoyable read. I am working on setting a clear intention within my classroom. This is something that I have struggled with, although I have made some improvements. Cooperative group work is a vital component that can take your classroom to the next level. Achieving a successful cooperative learning environment takes time and effort. I especially appreciated your "good collaboration rubric". Thank you for sharing.

jjackson's picture

This is a good article about how to make collaborative work worthwhile. I think where I sometimes fall short is in making the intentions of the activity clear. As an adult, I don't want to work on a task without a clear indication of the outcome. The manner of grouping is also important to how the dynamics of cooperative learning works. Deliberate grouping of students is important based on the intended outcome. The main key to successful cooperative learning is to provide a lot of modeling for students. When they have a clear picture of the expectations and the desired outcome the rest will fall into place.

Elizabeth Reicher's picture
Elizabeth Reicher
Music Teacher for Granview C4 Schools

I am very interested in combining cooperative learning, blended learning and gamification of the classroom. In my dream classroom I would facilitate learning while students worked collaboratively and individually to complete tasks and solve problems. This would allow me the freedom to provide remediation and enrichment for the learners in my classroom.

Technology would play a large role in allowing my students to acquire information and practice the skills needed to complete a task or solve a problem with their team and as a tool of creativity and innovation.

Badges would be awarded based on both the success of the individual team members, as well as the team as a whole. Along the way each individual team member would be assessed on the knowledge they attain along the way to the end product. Each member of the team would then asses each other's contributions to the task and that information, once analyzed for validity, would weigh into their grade.

This learning environment would require the same components that you discussed in your
article. The student would need to understand the desired learning outcomes of the assignment and practice in order to acquire the academic, social, and technical skills required to participate at their level of knowledge towards the success of their team. They would also need to understand or create clear goals for the outcome of their collaboration based on the intended outcome of the learning .
In considering grouping, I believe homogeneous groups would work the best as team members work together for the success of all. Often times reluctant learners will shine when they feel that they are needed and their learning has a purpose. I would not select leaders for the teams as I think that would limit the team members from using their talents and learning leadership skill throughout their educational experience.

In know this classroom may sound like a utopia, but I truly believe by combining knowledge acquisition, collaboration, and technology into the learning environment we are not only educating our students, but also setting them up for success for future endeavors outside of the educational settings.

Thank you for speaking to the need of all of these vital components in creating classrooms in which students not only learn, have the opportunity to create and innovate while presenting solutions to real life problems by using their knowledge to support each other.

Leah Wisdom's picture

Great article! I really like the emphasis that "work" does not always create learning. Often, when we talk about increasing the rigor in classrooms, teachers believe this means increasing the work load or tasks. Rigor is about offering ways for students to dig deeper into content in practical ways through application and dialogue, it's about synthesizing information and developing a new understanding. This can happen effectively in effective cooperative groups, if the goal is clear and the process is well structured. I really like the idea of having an established, understood rubric for expectations and ways to hold individuals accountable for their role in the group, all the while keeping the learning of the group at the center of the goals.

Martin Diaz Alvarez's picture
Martin Diaz Alvarez
Business Consultant

Group projects can help students develop a host of skills that are increasingly important in the professional world . Positive group experiences, moreover, have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention and overall college success.

Jiayi Li's picture

Students will benefit a lot from group work. They will not only learn knowledge but also learn communicative skill during this process. There are some challenges for teachers to give students group work because students may not be able to focus on studying, instead they may start chatting to their friends. Teachers could use wisdom to manage classroom, so group work will function smoothly. Students need to have clear goals in mind that they need to know what they are going to do in group work. Also they need to know what's the purpose of group activity. Students know what to do and how to do and why do they need to do before group activity, then they will study more effectively.

Teachers may also use scaffolding strategies when having students do group work. Students may find it's hard to learn new things with their peers, so teachers could help explain activity and knowledge during group work. After group work, teachers also need to access students learning performance to make sure that each students learn the objective during the class.

amyesrb's picture

I very much enjoyed reading this article and I think it is a great summary of the key points necessary to create effective collaborative learning and productive group work in the classroom! In such a brief reading, it contains many exceptional points that I agree with.

My first thought when I was reading about Clear Intention is the idea of the teacher providing the students a rubric, detailing "the intended outcome for why they've been assigned to work in a group." Rubrics are powerful because they provide the teacher with an outline for assessing the work fairly, and the students know exactly what is expected of them to be successful. It can also be valuable for the students to create the rubrics with the teacher; this can give the students a sense of empowerment and motivation to productively work together. I like how the author provided a link to rubrics in his article (good collaboration rubric). I taught middle school math for almost 11 years and I loved using rubrics for projects and group assignments. For some group projects, I would use a rubric to provide an overall grade to the group for their finished products, and the students would use a rubric to evaluate one another on their efforts working in the group. It was always interesting to observe that middle school students would (at times) be stricter grading each other than I would have been.

Another point in the article that I like is the author's point of view on grouping; "All choices are good, as long as you have a clear intention." I agree with this because I do not believe that there is only one right way to grouping students. In the past, I have assigned students groups and I have allowed students to choose their own groups, depending on the assignment or project. I like how the author provides examples of when teacher choice for grouping is effective, and when student choice for grouping is acceptable. I also agree with his similar ideas on heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping... "must be intentional in choice." There are definitely strengths and weaknesses in both of these types of groupings, and it takes truly knowing your students to group them appropriately and most effectively.

A final note from the article that I truly believe in is "Educators need to explicitly teach and assess collaboration, a critical 21st-century skill, if they want their group work to be productive." As a middle school teacher, I learned quickly not to assume that my students knew how to work cooperatively and productively in groups. They may have learned in elementary school, but working effectively in groups takes continuous guidance and practice.

Terrific summary on the steps it takes to create interdependent learners!

Shawn P's picture

Thank you for sharing this. I have recently started pbl collaboration assignments, and we have started having a lot of conduct issues and students who do not participate. I noticed that my setup had a weakness in a few of these areas. I look forward to strengthening these areas in my classroom. I know that this will help in my class.

Nona Craft's picture

I enjoyed this article. This is one I will share with colleagues. Collaborative problem based learning tasks will build 21st Century skills in today's students.

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