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5 Tips for Making Group Work Manageable

Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett

James Madison University Associate Professor & Education Consultant and Author
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When teachers ask students to work on a task in groups, they issue an invitation for engagement and, potentially, for chaos! Here are five tips that can help encourage productivity and keep mayhem at bay.

1. Be clear and specific about the task.

There’s nothing more frustrating than launching group work and seeing ten hands in the air or (worse) hearing students complain to one another, "What are we supposed to do?" If possible, limit initial verbal explanations to a general overview of the task and process. Then, provide crystal clear, detailed electronic or paper-based directions to each student in the group. Anticipate potential questions and areas of confusion by using a checklist format, providing visuals, or recording instructions for groups to listen to on iPads (this is particularly helpful if you have English learners in your class). Consider instituting a "1-2-3, Then Me" format in which students get one minute to read the directions silently, two minutes to discuss the directions with one another or with other groups, and three minutes to plan their approach to the task before they can ask you for assistance.

2. Make production the outcome.

Putting students in groups to simply "discuss" is a recipe for disaster. If students have to work toward producing something to turn in, present, or share with another group, they are less likely to linger in off-task conversations. Products should require all group members' participation or contributions. This might involve a graffiti-like poster in the middle of the table on which everyone records ideas, or a graphic organizer that every student completes. If each student is doing his or her own version of the task, announce that you'll be collecting one paper per group, to be revealed at the end of the activity. When time is up, use random criteria, such as "person in the group with the shortest hair" or "person with the birthday closest to the teacher's" to determine whose paper it will be.

3. Model successful transitions and interactions.

Show (don't just tell) students the basic mechanics that are critical to success in your classroom. Maybe it's how to move between stations, the process for using a discussion strategy, or how to talk during a "think-pair-share." Devote the first few weeks of class to conducting dry runs (i.e., students moving from place to place, students retrieving and returning materials, students using technology appropriately, etc.). Use volunteers to act out example and non-example conversations with "elbow partners." Post or provide sentence frames as scaffolds for group dialogue. This kind of up-front investment will pay off when students are able to move, transition, and converse efficiently.

4. Monitor progress, time, and noise.

Make students partners, if not primary agents, in keeping tabs on their progress, the time, and the noise level. If groups are producing something tangible, they (and you) can see what they have left to do. Use a decibel reader app (e.g., Decibel 10th, a free app by SkyPaw Co. Ltd), or launch a site like Bouncy Balls (from Google Chrome) for visually appealing ways to gauge the volume of the room. Track time with an online digital stopwatch or another easy-to-see timer. (Try this fun five-minute countdown timer from YouTube.) Make sure to give students less time than you think they need in order to build a sense of urgency. Check in when time is running low to see if groups require more. ("Fist to five -- how many more minutes do you need?") If some groups finish before others, have a next-step question or task ready for students to tackle.

5. Incorporate community builders.

Sometimes group work falters simply because students don't know, like, or respect one another -- yet. Full-class community-building activities are critical; but smaller, deliberately planted, group-level bonding moments also reap rich rewards in helping groups gel, release tension, and exercise courtesy. This might involve using an opening prompt like, "Before you start, share your favorite ice cream flavors," or asking students to fist bump each other as they complete each step of the task. Consider displaying fun anchor questions for students to discuss once they are finished. Anchor questions keep students from drifting into uncharted work or conversations, while providing a structure that lets students stretch beyond the content to discover connections with one another. They can be related to the content or task (e.g., "Where have you seen this topic portrayed in real life or in the media?") or appeal to general interests (e.g., "If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?").

Teachers are more likely to design and implement meaningful group activities when they have the management strategies to do so. Taking the proactive steps like those we've described can enhance engagement while curbing the chaos.

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Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett

James Madison University Associate Professor & Education Consultant and Author

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Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett's picture
Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett
James Madison University Associate Professor & Education Consultant and Author

Thanks, Alissa! We hadn't heard about Kandan but we appreciate the resource! We find that these tips work just as well with teachers in staff development and faculty meetings. :)

David Everett's picture

There are so many great ideas in this post. Group work can be very challenging to get going. I have used and love the bouncy balls noise monitor. The students love it, and it is not super distracting. Thanks for sharing!

Alexis Radney Mercedes's picture

Thanks Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett for these wonderful Tips for Making Group Work Manageable I think they are very useful.
I have a question, can I translate this article so I can share with my Spanish speaker teachers ?
I would like to make a video so I could share it with some co-workers, Couldn't I ?

Earth Wactor's picture

These are all great ideas for managing group work in the classroom! I like that most of these ideas allow for students to rely on each other as resources rather than the teacher: That is what group work is all about! I especially like the idea of collecting one randomly chosen paper from the group at the end of the assignment. It ensures that all students are working, and not simply relying on the "super smartie" in the group! I also like the time and noise level management tools that you mentioned. These are great ways for students to manage themselves and a great way to incorporate technology into the lesson. One strategy that you didn't mention is assigning roles within the group. This is also a great way to ensure that all students are working and contributing. Excellent ideas!

Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett's picture
Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica Hockett
James Madison University Associate Professor & Education Consultant and Author

Thanks, Earth! You're right that we didn't mention Group Roles in this post, but we are big proponents of that as well. We distinguish between two kinds of Group Roles: (1) Administrative Roles and (2) Task Completion Roles. The former includes roles like "Timekeeper," "Materials Manager," "Director," or "Recorder." The latter would be more task-specific and have roles that are associated with different facets of the task, assuming the task has multiple components. In either case, we advocate using role cards that can be tailored to the task and that include the essence of the role as well as "sound bites" that give students examples of things the teacher might hear the student say. For example, a brief job description for Recorder might be: "Listen for the essences of your group's ideas and compile the responses on the forms provided to you." Sound bites might include: "______, I think I heard you say...." or "Here's what I wrote. See if this sounds like what we're trying to say." We like the Analytical Role Cards for analyzing and discussing text that we feature in our book Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners. There are six roles (Philosopher, Director, Lawyer, Psychologist, Detective, and Architect). Each one has a reading lens that is tailorable (by the teacher) to the specific fiction or non-fiction text, as well as a discussion role with soundbites. Thanks again for your input!

erato kostopoulou's picture
erato kostopoulou
Middle School and High School English teacher from Ottawa, Ontario

Excellent resources! Just what I need for the noisy group work in my middle school classes! Thank you!

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