There is a growing debate amongst educators surrounding the efficacy of group work due to the potential for conflict between students, a loss of focus on the task at hand, and unequal workload amongst members.
These disadvantages have led some researchers to suggest that group work should be used in moderation by only using it for more complex tasks. Some teachers even suggest not using group work at all.
However, an abundance of research has shown that the benefits of this active learning environment for student learning far outweigh the negatives – if it is done right. Group size, how groups are assigned and how you, as a teacher, oversee the groups need to be managed correctly.
How to use group work effectively in the classroom
As a teacher, planning group work can be a complicated and time-consuming process. So, here are a few tips on how to make the most of it.
The size of a group can greatly impact its dynamic and overall student learning. Too small a group may limit how many ideas are brainstormed to overcome a complex problem, whilst too big a group may limit the opportunity for each student to actively participate and contribute to group discussions. The likelihood of conflict and unequal workload amongst students also increases with group size.
Of course, the group size you choose will entirely depend on how many students are in the class, the time available to complete the task, and the task itself. Typically, the shorter the time for students to complete a task, the smaller the group needs to be. For example, for in-class group learning exercises such as preparing a short presentation for the end of class, smaller groups will be more effective.
Research suggests that groups should vary between 3 and 6 students, with the optimum being four or five members in each group. This is because groups of four to five encourage more productivity, are more diverse in their thinking, and are more productive overall.
Teachers often debate whether they should:
- Put people at each table in a group together as it’s a quick and effective way of splitting up large classrooms;
- Let students choose their own groups as they may know who they work well with;
- Assign specific people to each group by taking into consideration each student’s current grades, academic strengths and weaknesses, gender, and ethnicity to ensure diversity within a group.
Whilst the first two options are certainly the easiest, they do have their disadvantages. Grouping people based on where they sit near each other often means that students end up working with the same people every time. This can result in students finding group tasks boring or unappealing – especially if there are members that never contribute to group discussions.
Self-selected groups on the other hand, often mean students select their friends rather than people they would work best with. This can lead to students spending more time off-topic and socialising than working on the group project.
Research suggests that groups should be assigned by teachers as these groups tend to perform better academically. By assigning groups so each student’s attributes, academic ability, expertise and background complement one another, you’ll encourage an effective learning environment for them.
One of the biggest disadvantages of group work is conflict that can happen between students because their personalities clash. One student may dominate the conversation and not allow other members to provide ideas or suggestions whilst another student may be shy and not speak up during arguments. This conflict can inhibit student learning and increase stress levels.
To avoid this common problem, you should ensure that you either assign specific roles to each group member (e.g. team leader, presenter, PowerPoint maker) or that the group delegates who gets what role from the start. If students are often placed into the same group of people, then rotate who gets what role on a regular basis to ensure effective collaboration.
Assigning specific roles to each group member may be particularly beneficial for students who don’t have much experience working as part of a group and so, may not be able to navigate situations like conflicting opinions as confidently. Moreover, assigning specific responsibilities to each member guarantees equal participation amongst group members.
Monitoring the progress of each group allows you to make sure that your students are engaging with the task and are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It also provides you with the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings students may have about the task and identify students or groups that seem to be struggling.
As students work together in the group, circulate the classroom so you can observe group interactions more clearly and answer any questions students may have. Listen out for any trends you may hear from group discussions so you can identify and address any common problems that may arise.
It’s okay to ask each group questions about their game plan and communicate regularly with each student but avoid interfering with the group dynamic. If you see conflict starting to arise, then don’t immediately try and manage the situation. Provide your students with the opportunity to solve their own problems and develop their team-working skills. Only intervene if it is absolutely necessary or if, even after a group discussion, the group cannot overcome a problem.
Explain the task clearly
It is important that when choosing a task, you have clear goals in mind and share these goals with your students. Research shows that clearly stating your expectations for the task and what your students should gain from the experience can result in better academic performance.
By providing groups with the bigger picture of what they have to do and what the final product of their work should look like, reduces the likelihood of students not understanding the task or waste time doing the wrong thing. Some students find it useful to have written instructions on the board so the group can refer back to it throughout the lesson.
After finishing a group task, it is important that each member receives feedback from you and the other members of the group. The Sutton Trust report that if it is done right, feedback can be one of the most effective ways to help a student improve their learning. By giving constructive feedback after each group task, you allow students to learn how to receive criticism and not get upset by it.
Getting feedback from group members allows students to develop a better understanding of themselves and how their peers view them. By gaining constructive feedback from their peers about how well they worked as part of the group, and how well they did on their assigned task, students are better equipped to evaluate their social skills and behaviour and apply it to future group scenarios.
Group work can be an effective learning tool if utilised correctly. By monitoring progress, defining roles, and providing constructive feedback, you enable students to learn more actively and effectively.
However, if implementing group work into the classroom for the first time, don’t be disappointed if the experience wasn’t what you hoped to be. Students trying to work together in a group is a microcosm of the typical challenges people face when interacting with others. Find out what didn’t work the first time, change it, and then try again.