Get it together on group work

15th March 2013 at 00:00
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 pupils work together to think, do and learn.

Traditionally we separate the concepts of pupils working in pairs or the class working as a whole from the idea of group work. The dynamics of these two activity types seem sufficiently different from group work to require different categorisation. But this is true only up to a point. Group work, usually involving sets of three, four or five pupils, creates unique opportunities for interacting that are absent from the other two methods. Yet paired and whole-class work still involve pupils building knowledge together and learning with their peers.

We will keep to the traditional definition of group work. But bear in mind that you can apply much of what follows to paired tasks and whole-class activities. Our focus will remain practical throughout.

Why use group work?

There are five key reasons for using group work as part of your classroom practice: discussion, differentiation, cooperation, ensuring progress and creating great outcomes. We will look at each in turn.

Discussion is fundamental to how we learn. When we talk, we articulate what is in our minds. In so doing, we refine and develop our thoughts. In the classroom, teachers want to create opportunities for pupils to talk about the information and ideas they are engaging with. We know that this will help them to understand the content of the lesson, and that it will lead them to go further - into the areas of analysis and evaluation. Group work is perfect for making this happen.

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 pupils we teach. For example, we might ask a very able pupil 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 pupils can make use of different skills. Group work therefore provides opportunities for all pupils to engage with a task and to experience success. Third, when pupils are working in groups, it is easy for the teacher to move around the classroom and identify who is most in need of support. This is harder to do in other situations.

The two points just outlined indicate why group work is likely to ensure progress. Cooperation also plays a part in this. By asking pupils to work together, we are appealing to the very best in their 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 pupils to do their best. Group work has positive pedagogical implications; it also has moral ones.

Finally, there is the issue of creating great outcomes. This connects to everything I have said so far. It also includes the important idea that a group is capable of producing work that its members could not construct individually. The old adage "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" rings true.

What are the risks?

It would be remiss to see group work as a panacea. It is not. There are risks and pitfalls too. Here I outline five common problems, together with methods for solving them.

First, there is the issue of passengers - pupils who sit back and allow their peers to carry them through the activity. Pupils who take on this role can be cunning in disguising the fact. Two solutions present themselves. First, avoid large groups. Three pupils 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. Second, assign roles (of which more later). This gives every pupil a specific purpose and creates an expectation in the minds of the teacher and the pupils about who should be doing what.

Next, we come to the potential for social chat. When pupils are working together in groups, the pull of talking about friends, hobbies, the weekend and many other topics is often strong. To avoid this, walk around the room and police proceedings. Use this as an opportunity to assess what pupils 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 pupils a clear sense of what they need to do at each stage. It also means they are less likely to get distracted. It is a pre-emptive strike on the teacher's part.

The third issue is pacing, which can become a problem during group work. It may be that one group gets through the work much quicker than the rest of the class. This is to be expected; it is true of all activities. Avoid it becoming an issue by developing 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, usually in the form of arguments between group members. I have found this to be rare, but disruptive when it does happen. In order to minimise the possibility of such situations arising, plan groups in advance, taking care to avoid potentially volatile mixes. It is good to take account of pupil personalities when doing this, and to keep certain pupils apart.

Finally, a common argument against the use of group work is that it can make it difficult to assess pupils' progress over the course of the activity. This is a valid point. It is difficult. But not impossible. Later on, we will look at a range of ways you can do it.

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

Creating groups

In the next three sections, we will look at effective techniques, strategies and activities to make group work a success. To begin, we will focus on the process of creating groups. Four areas will be examined in turn: group size, group composition, group positioning and role allocation.

We have already considered the importance of group size in relation to passengers. Groups that are too big will give pupils the opportunity to sit back while their peers do all the work. In addition, large groups militate against all pupils being fully involved, even if they want to be. Three or four pupils per group is ideal. This means that 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. Get the wrong selection of pupils working together and apathy, flagging interest or paralysing uncertainty can follow. It is important to remember that creating good mixes is as much about trial and error as anything else. There are few hard and fast rules, although 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 which do not. This will allow you to refine your arrangements as the year progresses. Finally, do not be afraid to mix things up if you feel current groupings have gone stale; variety is the spice of life, after all.

Group positioning is a more prosaic matter, but one which we must not forget. When working individually or in pairs, pupils invariably remain where they are, held tight by the seating plan. When in groups, this rule no longer holds.

Effective group work must include effective positioning. This encompasses two elements: pupils in relation to their partners and groups in relation to other groups. In the first case, pupils 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 (how much will depend to some extent on the type of group work activity). If they do not, 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 pupils 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. Of course, you are free to develop as many different roles as you wish. I would advise sticking with a select few, however, so that pupils can learn how to carry them out effectively. You may want to create laminated cards containing bullet-point lists of what each role entails. Pupils can then 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 pupil learning.

Envoys. Divide the class into groups of four. Give each group a selection of resources connected to a different part of the topic. These may be headed by a specific question that you want pupils to try to answer, 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 pupil 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 cards (with between nine and 15 cards in each pack). Each card should have a different argument, concept, idea or piece of evidence on it, connected to the topic. Ask pupils 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. Such a task combines application (of existing knowledge) with synthesis (through the creation of something new). You can specify what it is that you want pupils to role play, or you can choose to leave the task 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. Alternatively, present a set of success criteria that pupils 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 they could be areas that pupils have already studied. Display a set of criteria that each presentation must fulfil; this will help pupils 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. Here are three tried-and-tested ways to make it happen.

When planning your lessons, connect your group work activity to a subsequent written task. This will give pupils the opportunity to consolidate the progress they have made through talking and interacting with their peers, and 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, pupils 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. For example, you could appoint a scribe to note down the key points raised during a discussion. Alternatively, you could ask pupils 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 pupils to produce a written reflection in which they assess how much progress they have made. Help pupils 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. Pupils make great progress, feel empowered and learn how to work independently, whatever their age. We have looked at a range of ways to make this happen, including strategies for avoiding the potential problems the approach can bring.

For more ideas, you can download my resources for free from TESConnect, buy my e-books on Amazon and meet me in person for training available through

Mike Gershon is an author and sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His free teaching resources can be downloaded from TESConnect at 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 pupils make progress.

- It allows the teacher to differentiate effectively.

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