Discussion groups and group work in general has become important and gained an increasingly dominant position in education over the past thirty years, especially in language classes.
In ESL classes in particular it is very hard to conceive of a class being conducted in the more traditional language class manner of students sitting in rows, waiting to be called upon by the teacher to “perform,” and getting perhaps one or two chances per class session to speak in the second language, in front of the whole class, and being corrected by the teacher. There are many benefits to group work in the second language classroom: more opportunity to speak and at less risk for public ridicule—true for almost any subject matter. In groups, after some guidance and presentation from the teacher, students get to wrestle with the material more than in a lecture setting. This is not to say, of course, that group work is without pitfalls, one of the major problems being the group dynamics—not all of them positive—that form as an inherent part of group work. With some guidance, however, the challenges of group can be navigated while retaining the positive aspects.
Challenging Dynamics of Group Work and Ways to Address Them
A major concern to consider is that many students lack experience in working in groups and/or may have difficulty in following directions in how to do so. Therefore, the group work and instruction in how to complete it has to be carefully planned and communicated precisely, at least at first, by the instructor.
5 Methods to Address Negative Aspects of Group Work
Open Dialogue on the Purpose of Groupwork
The first obstacle to use of group work is overcoming student resistance. Many students are either inexperienced with use of groups or had bad experiences with them (including this writer). Students also come to class with a number of “issues” such as fatigue and personal problems, and the last thing they want to do is move around the room and talk to others. Many come with experience of poorly conceived group work in that either led them to being left out of the process as their more extroverted and experienced peers took over or the less engaged ones dumping all of their work on others within the group. They may even had disengaged teachers who told them to just “deal with it” or words to that effect while significant portions of their class grade hinged on the group project. Other students may be skeptical about working in groups with their peers who are no more advanced in the subject matter than themselves and “make the same mistakes.” All of these concerns are valid and should be addressed by discussing the rationale and benefits for working in groups.
Allow Alternatives: Sometimes Working Alone Is Not Bad
Another concern with groups is the consideration of individual student learning style. Implicit to group learning is the notion that all or most students are kinesthetic, hands-on, social learners. This is simply not true. A number of students—perhaps the majority of those who have reached secondary or higher levels of education and done well—learn best by working individually and quietly reflecting on the material. Other students may have physical challenges that make getting up and running around the room—or expecting others to come to them—difficult and humiliating. Group work therefore should be balanced with consideration for these students and alternatives to work alone on projects offered at least some of the time.
Goal and Time Limit to Reach It
Groups can be an excellent method to arrive at consensus and different interpretations and suggestions to problems and course material. Indeed, these are major reasons for use of groups in the classroom and workplace. They are of particular use in literature and language classrooms where different perspectives on the course material is valuable (indeed, students have seen new interpretations to my own work that I had not thought of or intended and yet were completely valid and indeed more complex than what I had meant.) However, not all curricula are equal in this matter. My daughter’s geometry teacher, for example, routinely throws students in groups and expects them to arrive at solutions to complex formulas after minimal lecture and presentation. While my own background in this subject is limited, I believe that at advanced levels of mathematics there are indeed different and novel formulas and ways to solve them: different interpretations of the task, that is. This is simply not true of intermediate geometry, however, with novice students who require guidance from instructors to work through established formulas. Putting students in groups and expecting them to figure it out on their own is a misuse of group work. This will almost inevitably lead to disintegration of the group into confusion as students try to figure out what to do and how to do it.
Conversely, some tasks, such as filling in a worksheet with the correct plural form, are so straightforward, perhaps even simple, that they should be completed individually, even as homework, rather than spending time working on them in groups. If students complete the task in ten minutes when they’ve been allowed the entire class session, they will naturally be skeptical of the process. Open dialogue about the purposes of group work—more chance to speak in the target language, more interaction with others—which, after all, is how language is used—more opportunity to speak without judgment—should be openly addressed.
Another concern with group work is the need for teacher guidance. Group work is simply not, as some teachers seem to interpret it, an opportunity to sit behind their desks and correct papers or lesson plan. The teacher needs to be up and moving around the room, offering guidance in understanding and completing the task and addressing the conflicts between students that may develop. If teachers don’t appear to be committed to and are not modeling the process, they cannot expect such commitment and practice from students.
Groups and Roles within Them Becoming Entrenched
Another problem is the groups and their roles becoming fixed. Students may find a certain group of students they prefer to work with and a certain role—group leader, group recorder—as comfortable. There is a certain advantage to this—it saves the time of setting up new groups each session. However, not all of these groups and roles, despite their fixed nature, are functional. Students may secretly or openly resent a peer always assuming the leadership role. Another student may arouse irritation by becoming the group “loafer.” Mixing up the groups and suggesting different roles—“Jerry, why don’t you take the lead today?”—prevents these dysfunctional group dynamics from forming and forces students out of their comfort zone, necessary for progress and learning.
There are enough positive elements to group work, especially within the language classroom, that teachers should consider devoting a considerable amount of class time to working in groups. However, just telling students to “work in groups” will probably not work. Careful consideration and planning by the teacher has to be given to when and how to use groups and communicating expectations and methods to students.