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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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Areli Arratia's picture

I agree with the author that when placing the students into small groups, you have to assign a task. If you just have them placed into groups for discussion, most of the time it will end in them just derailing into other topics. Also, when assigning a task the authors make an important point that as a teacher you need give very specific details if you want the outcome to be successful.

eliserosencrans's picture

I never thought of groups in this way before. It was a very interesting read because it opened my eyes to ways to keep students engaged and curb the chaos that comes with group work. I have seen group work in the upper grades and they often get off task very easily. I think this trickles down from the management of the teacher and whether or not they are specific in what the group needs to get done. Kids often get off track when they don't know what they're doing. My favorite part of the article was when the author stated that the teacher needs to give very specific details and model what they want done. I think it's very important to tell and show the students what you expect them to get done during group work.

roxane_guzman's picture

"Making production the outcome" is a great tip for making group work manageable. In the teacher's attempt to create a free and open collaborative space, students become unproductive and off task when they are told to simply "discuss" a topic. Because of these issues, teachers tend to shy away from incorporating group work into their lessons, causing students to miss out on opportunities to develop their communicative, social, and critical thinking skills. Having students work toward producing something they will present or turn in is a great way to ensure that groups are working collaboratively and productively. This is one tip that I will be sure to remember when offering that time to "discuss" to my students.

Jennifer Medina's picture

I found it true on the way you described group work as an "invitation for engagement and, potentially, for chaos!" I have experienced both the engagement and chaos of group work. Depending on the class and the way the teacher manages group work it can be a great learning experience or a time for students to become off task. To keep group work productive and manageable, I believe classroom management and strategies as such are necessary. The "1,2,3, Then Me" would benefit all styles of learning and will make the assignment run smoothly for students and teacher. The community builder is helpful to keep the class engaged and building relationships in the free time between transitions.

Kenneth Caid's picture

I have to admit, I chuckled a little when I read, "When teachers ask students to work on a task in groups, they issue an invitation for engagement and, potentially, for chaos!" That statement is so true. I have seen some pretty remarkable outcomes from the group work of students but I have also seem the classroom devolve to the state of a crazed lunch room. Your tips seem pretty on point for making group work come together and work.

I really like your idea of incorporating community building activities either before group work begins or during class as a whole. Creating the bond between all the students in the classroom is essential to them respecting each other.

I also like your building question, "Where have you seen this topic portrayed in real life or in the media?" This is great for kids who want to talk about their life at home and for those who are more private or do not feel comfortable enough with their fellow students to disclose personal information, as they can talk about how it relates to people in the media instead of themselves. Overall, a lot of great advice.

Emma_Hernandez's picture

These are some great tips for managing group work. Before reading this article I don't think I would be able to use too many projects that include group work, as the times I have seen it in action in an elementary classroom, it looks like chaos! However, I think that after reading this I would like to implement them once I have my own class. One of the strategies that I would like to implement is the "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." I think this format will give students the opportunity to understand the directions more clearly, in addition, it will help the teacher keep the classrooms manageable.

Gabriela Mia Roque-Rivera's picture

Today I had just completed a one hour observation within a second grade classroom and having just read this article, I certainly feel that the statements made are very accurate. Group work can most definitely be an invitation to chaos if a teacher has not instilled expectations, instructions, directions, and emphasis on an outcome. As adults, attempting to do group work can still be difficult (speaking from experience) when one is suddenly expected to work with classmates that they do not truly know, interact with very little, and most importantly, if they do not respect and dislike one another. Although in a wishful Utopian classroom, group work can take place positively and benefit all within the group, this is very unlikely and especially within an elementary school classroom where students have different personalities, friendships, and abilities. However, i do believe that group work and partner talk can take place effectively and positively and benefit the majority by following these tips. Buy giving a reason and goal for the partner talk I witnessed today, I believe the partner talk would have lasted longer than several seconds despite the classroom atmosphere having been generally friendly and unified. By adding the simple task of "Discuss with a partner and make sure to listen so that way we can share something new or different that your partner had told you, " I believe would have been that much more helpful. I also have to make the statement that the tip of monitoring progress, noise, and time is very important! Simply because the class is interacting fairly quietly for some amount of time does not mean they are on task, which i noted in one observation. Having read this article and conducted personal observations, I have gained new knowledge on this subject matter and have a new understanding of how to instruct and conduct partner and group interactions within my own classroom .

Kendall Nowak's picture

Group work completely has a way of escalating quickly so I totally appreciated this article. I especially like when the authors suggested the "1-2-3, Then Me" format, I think this strategy allows students to understand what's being asked of them more quickly as well as the task at hand. Students also being able to get some conversation out and deliberate helps in mapping out of what they will be doing together. I'm excited to use this strategy when putting students into group activities and even when students are not in groups. Great article! :)

Emily Cullen's picture

I think the author was accurate with his tips on how to keep group work manageable. Group work is not for everyone, and most students dread having to work with anyone other than their "friends." I agree with the author that it is important that teachers should incorporate community builder activities. The students must have respect for one another to successfully work together on an assignment. Monitoring progress, time, and noise is also a helpful tip that will help improve class management and keep the chaos to a minimum.

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.

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