Classroom Management

5 Tips for Making Group Work Manageable

Encourage small-group effectiveness by clarifying the task, focusing on production, modeling successful behavior, monitoring progress, time, and noise, and building community.
A young girl is sitting, looking at something in front of her and smiling. She has a yellow crayon in one hand and her other hand is palm down on a worksheet. A young boy is sitting a couple feet away from her at the same table, looking at the same thing.
Photo credit: VirginMoney via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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.