Encouraging your pupils to collaborate and work as a group can be an excellent way to enhance their learning, keep them motivated and develop skills which are applicable far beyond the context of school. When well-prepared and effectively managed, group work can be very fulfilling for both teacher and learner. I’ve put together a list of tips to help maximise your chances of success when using group work at school. Please add your own ideas by commenting.
Group work requires planning
Like most things, group work will run a lot more smoothly if you’re fully prepared. Group work is quite different to individual or paired working and should be specifically prepared or adapted from existing tasks. Without proper preparation, group work can be a very disengaging experience for pupils who may not become fully involved with the task in hand.
Think outside the box
Working with groups is a great opportunity to think beyond the usual limits you face within a lesson. An effective group is able to work together to achieve a lot more than an individual and has a pool of skills and ideas to draw on. Use this to your advantage by setting especially creative or challenging group tasks. You’ll find your pupils flourish when faced with a challenging activity that’s achievable if they work together.
Consider group dynamics
It is wise to think about who will make up each group before the lesson. Allowing pupils to create their own groups can be very effective insofar as pupils may be more motivated to work together when grouped with their friends but this can prevent the mix of skills, personality types and abilities that can make group work really flourish. So think carefully about whether you want to pre-determine your groups or allow your pupils to group themselves.
Use rewards and competition with care
Introducing an element of competition or reward for the best group can be very motivating for pupils. However, take care if you decide to go down this route that your groups are evenly matched and therefore all have a fair chance of winning – pupils will know from the offset if they’re in a group that’s ‘doomed to fail’ and this will demotivate them. Also be careful that your task is not set up in such a way that you could have a clear ‘runaway winner’ before the task is completed. Otherwise other groups may become disengaged with the task and not finish it to the best of their abilities.
Establish ground rules for behaviour
Behaviour can be a challenge when working in groups as everyone talks louder and louder to make themselves heard above their own group and those working around them. It is especially important to re-establish your ground rules for behaviour at the beginning of lessons involving group work and to reinforce these throughout the lesson to ensure that the excitement and noise does prevent pupils working as effectively as they can.
Set and share clear objectives
As with every lesson, it’s important when working with groups to have a clear idea of the aims and objectives of the lesson or task. Ensure that pupils are fully aware of this objectives. You can put a spin on this with older / more able groups by enabling them to develop a mission statement or similar for their group. This sense of ownership of the task can often be a great motivator.
Allow some freedom
Remain open-minded about the best way to complete the task in hand. Group work situations naturally give rise to brain-storming and idea sharing and sometimes, as a teacher, you will learn a lot about how your pupils will best learn by taking a slightly back seat and observing the learning process as it happens before you. Pupils may well come up with new ways of approaching things that you’d not considered before. If it’s practical, allow them the freedom to explore their new methods and support them if appropriate.
Let your learners become teachers
Within every group pupils will have different strengths. Encourage pupils to play to their strengths and teach their peers about areas which they are particularly comfortable with. Taking on the role of teacher is not only empowering for the individual but it is a great way to embed learning both for the pupil-teacher and the rest of the group who may be hearing things from a fresh perspective.
Track progress but be flexible
Time tends to run away when you’re working in groups and it can be only too easy to reach the end of the lesson and find you’ve only got half as far as you’d hoped to. In your planning define how far you’ll need to have got by various points in the lesson so you can ensure that the tasks are on track. However, don’t be afraid to change your plans if you find that pupils are getting more out of a particular activity than you might have expected, don’t stop simply because your plan says it’s time to move on. Just take stock and briefly re-plan how you hope to use the rest of the lesson. It’s important to be flexible, especially if it means pupils can continue to engage in a particularly valuable activity.
Group work often has the benefit of producing a fairly tangible result or product. Take time to share every group’s work with the rest of the class and be sure to celebrate what has been achieved and learned. Often with group work we’re so pushed for time that this step is skipped altogether. If you don’t’ have time at the end of the lesson, build in a review of group work as the starter of your next lesson. This can be a very positive way to start a lesson and an excellent way of embedding the learning that happened during the group work.
Please share your ideas on working with groups. Do you agree or disagree with any of the points above. Do you have any further strategies to improve group working? Please leave a comment with your thoughts and ideas.