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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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Margarita A.'s picture

I agree with these 5 tips on trying to manage group work, it is very important to demonstrate and explain to students what they are expected to do. If any of these tips are not applied it is likely to have students confused and off task. Overall I do feel it is a difficult task to have them managed when they're doing group work but it's a process and reading these tips can definitely be helpful to a new teacher and any teacher who has a hard time when students are working in groups.

mayrap's picture

I agree with the authors when they say a teacher should show students how to be successful in the classroom. I have been in classrooms where the teacher directs students to perform a task but students are unclear of the outcome. I really like the idea of including a decibel reader in the class as a fun visual way for students to monitor their voice level.

Polly's picture

It is so true that students may be off-task in groups when they haven't been taught how to collaborate. I really enjoyed the article in Edutopia, How to Teach Math as a Social Activity by Willard L Bowman about using SEL strategies in the classroom. He includes many great resources for teaching social skills. Students make each other accountable. I also enjoy using "Reciprocal Teaching" as a method for reading text books in groups. The students follow a script, making predictions, clarifying, asking questions, and summarizing.

rebecca_vega's picture

I have been in many classes when group work gets out of control. After a couple of minutes many students do not stay engaged and do not stay on topic. You have to teach your class at the beginning of the year how to collaborate in groups. If you do not teach your class how to collaborate they will most likely be off-task. I agree with tip 1 that states the teacher needs to be clear and specific about the task. I like the tip about incorporating community builders. It is also very important to monitor progress time and noise.

karen_sanchez's picture

I found most of these tips useful for group time. They all covered the different situations that could occur during group time. However, I somewhat disagree with tip #2 because if the topic or article is interesting and engaging enough, I have seen students in groups focused on just discussing and giving their own examples (real life connections). This usually happens with upper grade levels, like 4th grade and above. On the other had, I do agree that in lower grades, this may not be possible because I have also observed what you stated in this tip, where the students are not focused and need to turn something in to make sure they were engaged. Tip #2 was the only tip where I have seen two sides of this and I think it also depends on the way the teacher presents the information and the environment the classroom has.

StephanieHillsMcginty's picture

I really appreciate the article as a whole, but specifically points 3 & 5. I am an offender when it comes to tell and not sure! I definitley will be using the method of acting out and practicing classroom procedures in order to have a calm classroom pace. Point 5 discusses creating a community within the classroom. I personally love that idea and have practicd in within my own classrooms. The suggestions that came along with point 5 were interesting andhelpful. I wonder what other idea I could implement in my classroom.

Nancy1409's picture

I think this article makes great recommendations for more successful group work within the classroom. I particularly like the first tip. So often I see students confused as to what they are expected to do in their group. It makes more sense to have written directions for students to follow. Having students be accountable to determine what the task is before seeking the teacher's help is a great way to get students to be more attentive and learn to rely on each other for help. I feel this helps create a good sense of community in a classroom.

Emily Bruce's picture

I find this article very helpful. I specifically like the idea of modeling specific transitions and interactions. Students are often told what to do, however I think it makes so much more sense for what is expected to be modeled to them and by them. This creates no confusion for the students and they are not bored when going through classroom procedures in the beginning of the year. I also like what this article says about monitoring progress, time, and noise. All students work at different levels and it's important that every student is engaged. This can become tricky in the classroom when students finish at different times. It is important to make sure that students are being challenged and also have something to do when they finish their work and are waiting for others. By having meaningful activities, students will have good classroom behavior because they will be focused on the task at hand.

SarahBaca's picture

I definitely agree with this article. One of the things I hated the most as a kid was being in group projects where group members didn't contribute. I found myself having to do the entire project on my own. It is so important to make sure that everyone in the group is being productive, and that groups are meant to produce.

Emma Zoe's picture

I really appreciate this. A group project is very important for students personal and professional growth. Thanks for sharing such a great post with us.

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