Any teacher knows that there are few things more boring and deadly to a class than a lot of teacher fronted activities with students sitting in neat rows, silent, not causing any trouble, but not interacting either with the teacher or each other.
It’s difficult to know under these circumstances how much students are even absorbing. So sometimes teachers try putting students in groups, but this also has limitations as students often just talk off topic or goof off. Or even if the teacher has carefully trained students to work in groups productively, or work alone productively, she’ll still get complaints that the class is “boring” or that “we always do the same thing” because perhaps the teacher has only learned one kind of grouping or has a particular preference for grouping strategies. The trick then seems to be not only teaching students how to function in a variety of groupings, but also to vary types of groups across a course and within a class session.
Training Students for Different Groupings
Start of Simple
A complex skill like working in groups is learned gradually, over a period of time, rather than in one chunk in a day. Therefore it’s best to start off simple: having students work in pairs to read to each other, peer review each other’s compositions, or have a conversation is good start to getting them used to working with other students, which they may not have done before. In addition, if students work with a different partner each session, then they will start to know their classmates.
Progress to More Complex Groupings
Once students are working in pairs, more complex groupings can be learned: working in groups of three or four on some small task such as brainstorming ideas for an essay or collecting information for a survey on student opinions by getting up and walking around.
Teach Students to Function in a Variety of Roles
One of the most complicated group settings, to be saved till the end of the semester, is working in a team on a major project such as a research paper. Team roles should be assigned: a leader to organize people and tasks; a researcher, to gather information; a resource manager, to collect and bring materials to each meeting; secretary to record information, and so on. The teacher might consider creating, or having students create, large posters describing each role and its functions for quick referral. By teaching students the functions of these roles and rotating the roles on a regular basis, by the end of the semester students will have learned all of the roles and can move with ease between being the group leader one day to the recorder the next.
Teach Students to Function Independently in Groups
It may seem paradoxical, but one of the best ways to teach independence in students is for them to work in groups. In groups, the teacher’s role of managing the class is deemphasized and is taken over by the group members. The group has to figure out how to successfully complete the task, and then individual students have to work independently for the group good. Once students have learned to work in groups, they often just come into class, join their group, assign roles, and figure out what to do, with little teacher input.
Varying Grouping Types Effectively
First Teach Students the Different Groupings
The first step to varying groups effectively is to expose students to a variety of groupings: pairwork, small groups of three or four; “survey” groups in which individual students move around the room, gathering information and interacting with each other; and larger group long-term group projects such as research papers. Once these different groupings have been learned by students they can move on to combining them. These different groupings should be taught starting with the simpler tasks, such as with a partner answering a question sheet on a reading to progress to more complex groupings and tasks, such as gathering different information from different classmates.
Teach for the Appropriate Situation
Teachers should not just put students in groups just for the sake of the groupwork: rather, the kind of group should have a purpose and match the instructional task. Some groupings lend themselves better to specific tasks: conversation and pronunciation practice lend themselves best to pair work, for example, while arriving at a group consensus is better suited for a small group. If the wrong grouping is chosen—a large group, for example, to complete a relatively easy task; pairwork to discuss a controversial issue—it can seem contrived, at best, or confusing, at worse, as the large group tries to figure out what to do with a simple dialogue best suited to a pair or the pair finds itself overwhelmed in choosing topics to discuss on the issue.
Teach Easy Methods to Transition between Groupings
One of the important elements of a well-run classroom in general is smooth transitions between activities; this is especially true when working in groups, when, if not managed correctly, the class can become nonproductive and chaotic. Teach students to move from pairwork to small groups of four, for example, by simply turning their chairs around and joining another pair, or have students choose a partner from their large group to discuss the material in a pair. A variety of different groupings throughout the session will help keep student interested and learning.
Teaching group work is definitely a challenge, but the pay off in terms of increased student interaction, learning, and independence outweighs the difficulty.
Learning historically has occurred in social settings rather than isolation because we are social creatures by nature. The benefits in student growth in social skills, independent functioning, and the self worth that comes from being part of a group outweigh the occasional disruption that can occur from incorporating different groupings in the class.
What are some methods you use to vary student groupings?