Give group work a dramatic makeover

31st July 2015 at 01:00
Don't fear collaborative learning, take pride in it. Just follow the lead of your colleagues in the drama department to transform pupils' joint endeavours

Many teachers hate group work. They think it gives kids a free ride, prevents appropriate differentiation and enables bad behaviour.

And without a bit of practice and research, that's exactly what it can do. But when it's tackled well, group work needn't suffer from any of these issues.

If you're one of those teachers who dislikes group work, take a walk to your drama department: here you will find people well-versed in the method, as the pedagogy of their subject relies heavily on students collaborating. With their help, you should be able to get group work working after all.

Below are a series of techniques and strategies I have adopted in my own drama classroom that have helped to make group work successful. They target students who usually struggle in these situations.

Help shy students

One strategy I started to use this year has ended up being a great way of enabling shy and quiet students to take part on their own terms.

Once the class has started a task, I put an extension activity on the board (normally an extra slide on my PowerPoint), which asks the students to think beyond the topic or to consider it in a different way. I then encourage them to give their responses individually as I circulate during the task.

This has proved an effective way of encouraging shy and quiet students to contribute and also to enable them to show their learning in a less public way.

Although it requires a bit of encouragement from the teacher, once this is an established strategy the students will begin to volunteer their ideas and will often come up with some very interesting thoughts.

The best thing is that you can draw out excellent responses during later discussions and also guide ineffective responses without the whole class hearing any mistakes - shy children often fear the public humiliation of a wrong answer.

Differentiate for ability

It can be challenging to differentiate within a mixed ability class but the group work format naturally lends itself to this. By being very careful about who is in each group and how you allocate roles, you can encourage all learners to achieve their best with varying levels of support (both from the teacher and from their peers).

It may mean more planning, but you can push a high-achieving student by giving them a role with more complexity; you can also engineer that role so they do not dominate the group. As for struggling students, you can ensure they take ownership of the task by giving them greater responsibility.

As the group is mixed, the end product will be better than if the groups were made up of students of the same ability, and that will give all the participants confidence.

Deal with potential troublemakers

For this type of student, you often need to combine strategies. One effective approach, however, is to give them a specific role such as team leader. This ensures they are focused on the task and extends their leadership, organisation and diplomacy skills. The teacher should, of course, monitor the group to make sure that everyone is getting to contribute. However, in my experience, casting a tricky student as team leader, and asking them to convey instructions to their team-mates and feed back after each task, gives them a sense of confidence and pride in their work, which can in turn inspire better behaviour.

Neutralise bossiness

These students can always be a challenge because bossiness is generally the result of a high level of enthusiasm - something we should always encourage. A good way around this is to explicitly monitor students' contributions during the lesson.

A class puzzle is a useful way of doing this. Give each student a piece of a puzzle with their name on it (I make giant laminated posters which I then cut up to hand out). Then allocate each pupil a specific individual task or target that complements the group task, making sure that the bossier students get more complex or lengthy challenges. Once a pupil has completed their task, they can add their piece to the puzzle on the wall. By the end of the lesson, you should have a completed puzzle, completed work and happy, cooperative students. Fingers crossed.

Isobel Payne teaches drama at Lingfield Notre Dame School in Surrey

What else?

Guide your students' group work with these cards to assign specific roles.


Display these visual prompts to promote effective collaboration.


Try new approaches to group work with these techniques.


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