George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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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.

JNuss's picture

Nona Craft makes a very valid point that collaborative problem based learning will build 21st century skills. Often time the outcome of cooperative learning groups isn't just a product but learning 21st century skills and soft skills that employers are wanting for career ready students. I think as a teacher I am often worried about the assignment and what product students will produce. I need to take a step back and realize that when beginning collaborative groups at the beginning of the year or when we reorganize groups that the coming together of the group is just as important as an assignment I will give them. Employers complain that students leaving high school are not prepared for the post secondary world and that is often times because they can not work with others.

One point that I feel is highlighted time and time again when I read articles about cooperative groups and collaborative learning is the expectation of the teacher. Without high expectations and explicit instruction on how cooperative groups will work then the groups will not be successful no matter what types of students you have and no matter how "hard" they work. That ties in with the accountability piece. Students need to know that they will receive feedback and be held accountable for their effort in the group and their own product as well as the groups.

One thing I feel that this article touched on but I would like to see elaborated on is that cooperative groups are meant as a pathway to give students success. Whether it be supporting and scaffolding learning or producing a product in which demonstrates learning, cooperative learning is not just a time for students to play. Yes, there needs to be team building, but this is more than that. This is an opportunity for students to learn and grow as students and as citizens.

Ashley Nunez's picture

I agree with so many of the points you made in this article! In particular, the importance of establishing and creating a "culture of collaboration" within the classroom. As teachers, part of our jobs are to teach students how to work well with each other. We need to give them plenty of coaching on how to work together, how to appropriately discuss ideas, and, even, how to respectfully disagree with a teammate. Over my ten years of teaching, I can say that these skills can be challenging for students! To help with this, at the start of the school year, I spend time illustrating what each skill looks like before my students begin working in groups. I also find myself talking to students about how to "help" their teammates with a math problem without actually "telling" them how to do it. This is a great skill for students to learn because it also reinforces their own understanding of a topic when they can explain it to someone else.

I also enjoyed the methods you stressed at the end of your article to ensure that all students are held accountable for the learning. Keeping groups small and the need for giving students individual roles are so important to group work. I use groups a lot when students are reviewing math topics through various activities like scavenger hunts, matching tasks, games, and working on graphic organizers. Often, no matter how I group my students, there is always one or two that seem to be doing the bulk of the work. Which, more than likely, means they are the ones doing the bulk of the learning. Utilizing various roles within my groups could help to ensure that I am holding all students to the same standard and making them each accountable for their own learning and the success of their group. I recently read an article about cooperative learning that could also help with this accountability issue. The author mentioned the use of a "random reporter" in which a teacher calls on group members at random throughout a lesson to share their group's findings, strategies, or answers to the class. In addition to your suggestion about creating group roles, this method would be a great way for me to assess for individual student understanding throughout an activity.
Thank you for all the great ideas!

A Brown's picture

I feel that one of the things that I still struggle with (as a new teacher who works with 10-12 graders) is ensuring that the group work, and all work in general, has a very clear purpose behind it and is not just to pass the time. I enjoy reading articles like this where we are reminded that we need to make sure that we are taking the time to review what we have planned for our students to do and that we have planned something that will truly be beneficial and have a purpose. I have seen in my classroom where giving students work that does not have a very clear and defined purpose often has the effect where many students will just not do the work. Many of my higher achieving students will do whatever I give them, but not always the lower achieving students. I continue to work on making sure that any group work I give my students to do has a very clear and defined purpose so that my students understand why they are doing what they are doing.
The part about individual accountability was something that I feel I really stress in my classroom, even with students working in groups. I teach high school science so we have labs almost every week. I keep the groups limited to 2-3 people, depending on class size and number of lab stations available, so that there is less of a chance that one kid has to do all the work. Part of my grading system involves ensuring that students are all contributing through notes I keep over the work that I observe during these labs.

Lauren Laudan's picture

If students do not understand what is expected of them or their purpose for working in a group, the results will definitely show. I have learned that it is better to slow down and take the time to really model and explain what the goal is instead of expecting students to read the directions and complete it as desired. This article reminded me how purposeful group work needs to be.
One way I have tried to ensure productive group work with collaborative learning is by mixing up my student grouping. Sometimes I group students heterogeneously and will often times pull the higher student aside to talk to them to see if they are comfortable acting as a teacher and explaining new or confusing content to his or her partner. Other times, I give students a picture card and they have to find their "match". For example, peanut butter needs to find jelly and hamburger needs to find fries. When I assign partners using picture cards, it is totally random- I have not previously planned which students will receive which cards. I am always in awe of how excited the students get when I pull these cards out! Lastly, at the beginning of the year, the other second grade teacher and I modeled appropriate (and not appropriate) group work while reading. We asked students to tell us what was wrong with our first scenario and then what was right or positive about our second scenario. This helped students visualize how they should be sitting, how they need to be actively engaged using their finger to follow along with the words, and how they need to summarize after their partner has read. Especially in the primary grades, students need frequent reminders of what is expected of them!

sibylalise's picture

The article mentioned clear intention. Students need to know the purpose of the group work. I think often times we just put students in a group and tell them to work together without giving them a purpose. With a clear purpose, student's will have a better understanding of why they are doing what they are doing and likely be more willing to work in the group.

It is also important to think about what you are wanting the group to do in order to decide whether to group students homogeneously or heterogeneously. If grouping students homogeneously, our higher level students will be challenged and have the opportunity to learn from other higher thinkers. Meanwhile, if we are wanting to help support our struggling students, they often can learn from our more advanced students while also still being able to use their strengths in a heterogeneous group. Like the article mentioned, there are pitfalls to both groupings, as there is with almost anything. Unfortunately, it is difficult to challenge our higher level students while also supporting our lower level students when grouping students together.

As we know, grouping students together must be intentional and there must be structure in order for students to learn. Lack of accountability is something often noted when students are working in groups. This can be easily remedied by having smaller group sizes and/or roles given to each student as the article mentioned. Making each student be held accountable for different tasks will likely keep them involved in the group work, therefore yielding more positive results.

Jaimee Beugelsdijk's picture

"Work doesn't always create learning..." we as teachers need to evaluate our own planning to ensure that we are not just keeping students busy. Instead, students in groups should be engaged and learning. Is it easier to keep individuals over groups engaged? I think so. Distractions can run abound with groups. But the learning can be so much greater when there are different perspectives to be shared. As Miller mentioned, expectations for the outcome and the group work must be clear to the teacher and the students. What does it mean to work cooperatively? How do students know they are on the right track? I think it is vital that discussion and modeling up-front must be utilized before group work can begin so that students are well-aware of expectations and have seen what effective group work looks like in action. Scaffolding and modeling group work and cooperation would allow for a positive work environment for the students. Also, the use of "clear and authentic roles" stood out to me. We as teachers must ensure that each individual within a group is held accountable, but that accountability must center around the participation AND learning of each individual. Every role must ensure that each student is meeting the learning outcome of the group. I think that I have not utilized the authenticity of roles enough in the past, and I hope that I can use more "leaders and thinkers" with my group roles.

Chen Han's picture

I had read four articles my professor recommended, which care "New Class Roles: Building Environments of Cooperation", "Student Learning Groups: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous?", "Making Cooperative Learning Powerful" and "Empowering students through collaboration". By reading those articles, I learned about what is effective cooperative learning, and how to divide students into groups to encourage them active participation However, these four articles are wrote by four different authors. When I read those articles, I could not understand how to combine these concepts and use them into my classroom.

Fortunately, my professor recommends me to read your article. At "Heterogeneous vs. Homogeneous" part, I learned of the teachers need to group students for different courses and what they want to achieve during cooperative learning. If my students want to study diverse knowledge from their team members, I will mix the groups so that students of all levels are represented in each group (Heterogeneous). On the other hand, If studnets would like improve knowledge they now have, I will organize the students by ability levels.

Tiffany's picture

I truly enjoyed reading this article. To be honest, I have struggled with collaborative grouping this past semester and I am definitely looking forward to implementing some of the strategies suggested above.
I have spent some time reading various articles about heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings over the last few weeks. One common strategy that I have seen within all of my research is that we must keep these groups fluid while providing both individual and group accountability within each task.
When considering methods for keeping our groups fluid, one of the strategies that I found within my readings this week is to group students in sets of four. This way some group tasks can be done in pairs while other tasks can be done as a small group. I also like the idea of using other factors other than ability levels to group our students and keep groups fluid. For example, we could group by learning styles or physical traits such as eye color, or even family characteristics (number of siblings, etc). This way our students have the opportunity to form small bonds with one another before beginning group work.
When considering implementing both group and individual accountability, one of the most memorable strategies I read this week was one used by SFA (success for all) called random reporter. For this idea, students are grouped in small groups and each student is assigned a number 1-5. During instruction, the teacher poses a question to a team and calls on a random number 1-5. The team member assigned to that number must answer the question correctly to earn team points. For this strategy, I really like how individual students are held accountable for knowing the information and for helping their team members work towards a goal.

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