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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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Scot Bujarski's picture

As I was reading this article, there were three strategies that really stuck out to me. The first strategy was the "1, 2, 3, Then Me" strategy. This strategy really grabbed my attention because it seems to solve one of the most occurring problems I have seen during my observations (students asking the teacher questions that could have been answered by asking their peers). The second strategy that caught my attention was having each student do the group assignment. I liked this strategy because it gets rid of the "slacker" in the group (i.e., by making it random whose assignment gets turned in for the group, every group member has to do the assignment). The third strategy that really stuck out to me was making the students responsible for monitoring their progress, time, and noise level. This strategy caught my attention because of what I have learned in my master's program (i.e., when you give students more responsibility in the classroom, they become better behaved and more engaged).

christine_do's picture

These are great strategies for efficient group work. Addressing these issues in group work allow the students to practice independence in a structured format. It also works at building community learners. A strategy that goes along well with clear task instruction mentioned here is "Ask three, before you ask me." I also love the ideas regarding production outcome. Even as adults, when working in groups, we often get distracted and off topic if there is not some sort of expected outcome to produce in the work.

Stephanie Mead's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. My favorite part was about being clear and specific with the instructions. I like the idea of the 1-2-3 me. This helps students read the directions quietly on their own first which then if they have questions they can ask. This helps with a smoother transition into the activity.

Celena Olivar's picture

I loved how this article also mentioned the importance of positive group interactions, especially building a community. It is so important for students to have a positive view of working with their peers. As a substitute teacher I have often come across situations where I tell the students to form into the groups their teacher has decided, and I hear a series of "Oh no" or "I don't want to work with that person". If we focus from the beginning to create a positive atmosphere and a great classroom community, we can avoid all of this from happening. Thank you for the great tips.

Diana Ordonez's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. Having students work in groups can be tricky, many times they want to pick their own groups and we know that there won't be much work being done. I really think that it is crucial to be clear and precise about what you want the students will be doing. A great way to do this is project what the students should be doing on the over hear projector or write it on the board. That way if students keep forgetting what they should be doing they have the instructions in front of them and are able to keep working. Having the students present their information is a great way to keep students on task and ready to learn. This will give the students an outcome to group work. I really enjoyed this article and got a lot of great ideas from it.

John Dadlez's picture

There was nothing really new in this article for me. We get regular doses of this information in practically every text book we're assigned to read. Except for the last item. I don't remember really touching on the fact that kids assigned to groups might really not want to work with certain individuals in the classroom. Forcing them to share interests and break down barriers was interesting.

Elizabeth Cazares's picture

I really like the idea of assigning each student, either by groups or individually, some sort of duty. I've seen it in a few classrooms I've observed, where everyone in the class has a responsibility, and I feel it works. It is an effective and simple way of getting students to interact and work together.

Michael Turner's picture

The idea of "conducting dry runs" for novel collaborative learning exercises is certainly beneficial. The assumption that such tasks will only confuse my students often prevents me from integrating these methods. Carving out some time to practice the approach without an academic component will most likely result in success when there is an integrated layer of complexity.

Marissa Romero's picture

i think that all five of these points are essential for making group work manageable, but i think the most important are two and four. by closely monitoring the groups' progress and noise, the students will have the best ability to be productive. where group work fails is that the students are not held accountable during the entire activity, but by monitoring all aspects of the groups' progress students can work efficiently and be the most productive.

Yanira Villalta's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. After working on my lesson plan this really tied to it because most of my activities were having them work together and listen in on each other's suggestions and this article really emphasizes on making it clear and precise what you want the students to be doing while working in groups or as a team.

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