Alex Quigley – how to make group work… work

Group work can help brilliant learning happen, says Alex Quigley – but it’s a strategy that has to be handled with care…

Done well, group work can boost learning, help develop a host of communication skills and enrich our students’ understanding; done badly, it can waste time and prove damaging to the confidence of all involved. Let’s erase the threat of wasteful activities, then, and define great group work, ensuring it remains a valuable pedagogical approach for teachers in every classroom.

Some people deride group work as little more than a chance for some ‘social loafing’, whereat students let their peers do the work while they waste time and worse. No doubt, without clear parameters of behaviour, it’s a method that can indeed pose a threat to establishing good order in the classroom, so crucial for effective learning. Still, we needn’t throw it out simply because it offers up the opportunity for poor behaviour. Instead, we need to deploy it with precise application.

Doing it right

In the words of Tom Bennett, the ‘behaviour guru’ who often casts a sceptical eye on the practice of group work, we should exercise caution and great care with this approach: “When students bring the necessary focus to group work, and when teachers use it appropriately – that is, to supplement instruction, not replace it – group work can go a long way in reinforcing content knowledge.” We know the potential benefits of great group work.

Students can have their ideas challenged and developed in a way that working individually cannot offer. They can receive meaningful feedback on their learning (we know the teacher cannot exercise one-to-one feedback all the time) and they can learn from the model answers and insights of their peers. So let’s break down the process of making it happen:

Make the implicit rules of good group communication explicit

Students often do not understand the fundamentals of good communication, such as how to listen. Make active listening (good eye contact; supporting gestures and body language, like nodding in agreement; paraphrasing the ideas others, or summarising what has been said) explicit and model it for them.

Make the parameters clear

Often, poor student behaviour in group work stems from a lack of clarity. What exactly are they meant to do? What is the time frame to do it in? What does an excellent outcome look like? One way to clarify the group work activity is of course to conduct thorough questioning for clarity beforehand. Another is to undertake a ‘premortem’: given they are clear about the task, now probe how it could go wrong, what could be the potential pitfalls , and so on.

Define group roles

One of the crucial aspects of defining the parameters of the task is ensuring that each and every student understands his or her role. To counteract ‘social loafing’ we can ensure that each student has a distinct task. Is one student taking notes and leading discussion; does another have responsibility to lead research into their presentation topic; is someone keeping time and arranging the presentation etc? Each role will require a certain set of skills – judge the student, and the balance of the group, when assigning these roles.

Recognise reluctant individuals

Sometimes the composition of the group is the most important decision for a teacher. Some students, naturally introverted, find working in groups difficult; other, more extrovert students will hold court, sometimes with overconfidence that can block out their quieter peers. A fine radar on the ongoing group activity to spy reluctance or overconfidence is essential.

Keep time

Students cannot work effectively for too long a time. Break down the lengthier group task into smaller chunks – such as 10 or 15 minute bursts. This struture provides opportune moments for shining a light on best practice. Simply, stopping the class, and getting one group to continue their discussion can illuminate exemplary work. Also, it allows for questions and clarification that can prove so crucial for a great final product.

Assess work of the group, and of individuals

A key component of effective group work is assessing it fairly and accurately. Students can, quite rightly, get annoyed if one student loafs and gains the credit when it isn’t due. You can assess in different ways. There can be individual goals and achievement and group goals. You can assess individuals for their teamwork, but also their knowledge and understanding of the subject. Great group work isn’t easy – but with careful training and planning it can prove a worthwhile and valuable teaching approach for us all.

About the author

Alex is Director of Learning and Reseach at Huntington School, York. He writes regular blogs at huntingenglish.com. His book, ‘Teach Now! English: Becoming a Great English Teacher’ is out now (routledge).

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