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Get it together on group work

Reap the benefits of collaboration - and avoid the pitfalls - by using Mike Gershon's tried-and-tested methods

Reap the benefits of collaboration - and avoid the pitfalls - by using Mike Gershon's tried-and-tested methods

Group work encompasses much of what goes on in the classroom, covering any situation in which students work together to think, do and learn.

There are five key reasons for using group work as part of your classroom practice: discussion, differentiation, cooperation, ensuring progress and creating great outcomes.

Discussion is fundamental to how we learn. When we talk, we articulate what is in our minds, refining and developing our thoughts. In the classroom, teachers want to create opportunities for students to talk about the information and ideas they are engaging with, because this will help them to understand the content of the lesson and lead them to go further into the areas of analysis and evaluation.

Group work also allows us to differentiate for our classes in three important ways. First, the construction of groups can take account of the relative needs, abilities and skill levels of the students. For example, we might ask a very able student to work with two children for whom the subject is a struggle. They will then be instrumental in helping their peers to develop. Second, in a group, different students can make use of different skills, which allows them all to engage with a task and experience success. Third, when students are working in groups, it is easy for the teacher to move around the classroom and identify who is most in need of support.

Cooperation also plays a part in ensuring progress. By asking students to work together, we are appealing to their best natures; a sense of teamwork, of communal success and of individual responsibility. Cooperating through the course of a task creates a feeling of ownership and duty that empowers students to do their best. Group work has positive pedagogical implications; it also has moral ones.

Finally, there is the issue of creating great outcomes. A group is capable of producing work that its members could not construct individually.

What are the risks?

There are five common problems with group work.

First, there is the issue of passengers - students who sit back and allow their peers to carry them through the activity. Students who take on this role can be cunning in disguising the fact. So avoid large groups. Three students is an ideal size, four is usually OK, five at a push. By keeping groups small, you will make it more difficult for individuals to shy away from working. Also, assign roles. This gives every student a specific purpose and creates an expectation in the minds of the teacher and the students about who should be doing what.

Next we come to the potential for social chat. When students are working together in groups, the pull of talking about friends, hobbies, the weekend and many other topics is often strong. So walk around the room and police proceedings. Use this as an opportunity to assess what students are learning and to offer help, but be mindful of what is being said and whether it is connected to the task. Also, create activities that have a series of sub-elements. This gives students a clear sense of what they need to do at each stage. It also means that they are less likely to get distracted.

The third issue is pacing. It may be that one group gets through the work much more quickly than the rest. So develop extension tasks in advance. These could be questions, activities or self- and peer assessments. See my Challenge Toolkit resource on TESConnect for ideas (bit.lyWdL7eE).

Fourth, group work can on occasion lead to conflict and arguments between group members, so plan groups in advance, taking care to avoid potentially volatile mixes.

Finally, a common argument against the use of group work is that it can make it difficult to assess students' progress over the course of the activity. This is a valid point. It is difficult. But not impossible.

Here, it is sufficient to point out that not all tasks need to monitor progress. Moreover, it only seems hard to assess students' progress in group work because of the relative ease with which it can be checked in more straightforward written tasks.

Creating groups

Groups that are too big will give students the opportunity to sit back while their peers do all the work. They also militate against all students being fully involved, even if they want to be. Three or four students per group is ideal. All members can take part fully, in terms of doing their bit and in terms of listening to and engaging with their partners.

Group composition is perhaps the most important factor influencing the success of group work. Creating good mixes is as much about trial and error as anything else. It is usually helpful to mix ability levels and to keep good combinations together (which you will be able to identify from your seating plan). Over the first few weeks of the year, keep track of which compositions work and refine your arrangements as the year progresses. Finally, do not be afraid to mix things up if you feel groupings have gone stale.

Group positioning is a more prosaic matter, but one which we must not forget. This encompasses two elements: students in relation to their partners and groups in relation to other groups. In the first case, students should be facing in towards one another and should be close together. This creates a sense of teamwork and makes it more likely that discussion will flower. In the second case, groups should have a degree of separation, depending on the type of activity. Otherwise, inhibitions can start to surface and inter-group conversations begin, both of which can prevent progress.

Finally, we come to role allocation. In order to imbue students with a strong sense of purpose, you can give each group member their own role, such as timekeeper, scribe, leader, questioner or devil's advocate. You can develop as many different roles as you wish. I would advise sticking with a select few, however, so that students can learn how to carry them out effectively. You may want to create laminated cards containing bullet-point lists of what each role entails. Students refer to these during the task.

Classic activities

We come now to a selection of classic group-work activities, each of which produces excellent results in terms of student learning.

Envoys. Divide the class into groups of four. Give each group a selection of resources on a different part of the topic. These may be headed by a specific question, such as: "What role does imagery play in Tennyson's poems?" Ask groups to produce either a summary of their resources or an answer to their question. When sufficient time has elapsed, ask one member of each group to stand up. They should then visit every other group in turn, sharing their findings. By the end of the activity, every student in the class will have information about every aspect of the topic.

Card sorts. Divide the class into groups of three. Give each group a pack of 9-15 cards. Each card should have a different argument, concept, idea or piece of evidence on it, connected to the topic. Ask students to discuss the cards in their groups and to do one or all of the following: rank, group, match andor order the items. Extend the activity by asking groups to compare their choices with those of another group.

Role play. Divide the class into groups of three and ask each group to create a dramatic role-play based on some aspect of their learning. This combines application (of existing knowledge) with synthesis (through the creation of something new). You can specify the task or leave it open by indicating that it need only be something that has formed part of the lesson.

Research. Divide the class into groups of three or four. Either present the whole class with a single question they all have to research or hand out a different question to each group. Provide a range of supporting materials. Structure the activity by displaying a selection of mini tasks each group needs to complete, or set of success criteria that students can use to work out what they need to do and how they need to do it.

Presentations. Divide the class into groups of three. Give each group a topic for which they need to create a presentation. Topics could be new, or areas they have already studied. Display a set of criteria that each presentation must fulfil; this will help students to structure and plan their work. Two options are available at the end of the task. First, ask each group to give their presentation to the rest of the class. Second, ask groups to pair up and take it in turns presenting to one another.

Capturing progress

The final aspect of group work is assessing progress. When planning your lessons, connect your group work activity to a subsequent written task to consolidate their progress through talking and interacting with their peers. They will provide clear evidence of the work they have done. An example would be an analysis question appended to a role-play task. Having shown their dramatic pieces, students sit down individually and analyse the concept, idea, argument or event that formed the basis of their performance.

Include a written element within the group work task. You could appoint a scribe to note down the key points raised during a discussion. Alternatively, you could ask students to write Facebook-style "status updates" at regular points. In these they should indicate where they are and what they have done since their last update.

When a group work activity is complete, ask students to produce a written reflection in which they assess how much progress they have made. Help them to structure this by providing a series of sub-questions: How has the task developed your understanding of the topic? What do you know that you did not know 30 minutes ago? How would you describe what you have learned in three sentences?


Group work, when done well, is fantastic. Students make great progress, feel empowered and learn how to work independently, whatever their age.

- www.tesconnect.commikegershon



Group work roles

- Timekeeper

- Leader

- Devil's advocate

- Scribe

- Questioner

Classic group work activities:

- Envoys

- Card sorts

- Role play

- Research

- Presentations

Group work is good because:

- It facilitates discussion.

- It promotes a sense of teamwork and cooperation.

- The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

- It helps ensure all students make progress.

- It allows the teacher to differentiate effectively.

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