Using group roles for more effective group work

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by bledsoe on February 2, 2017

Ms. C is a first year lateral entry teacher that I had been working with for a few months, and I was scheduled to visit her second period Marketing class and give her some feedback. It was one of the first few days of the semester and she had divided her students into small groups to do the Marshmallow Challenge, an activity in which teams have eighteen minutes to build the tallest structure they can using only raw spaghetti, string, tape, and a marshmallow. I was familiar with the activity as I'd seen different variations in other teachers' classes. It's a fun and engaging way to have your students get to know each other and also get them used to working in collaborative groups.

Ms. C put the students in groups, explained the rules, gave each group their supplies, and started the timer. Some of the groups had students who began building immediately; some groups had students who sat around for a while staring at each other, trying to figure out where to begin; and some groups seemed to have a combination of both kinds of students, with one or two students who seemed to take over while the others sat and watched.

One of the things I do as an instructional coach is to visit teachers' classrooms and share feedback with them, ideally feedback that will help them to improve their instructional practices. Sometimes a teacher will have very specific things that he or she wants feedback on (e.g., "What kinds of conversations are the students having in their groups?" or "What kinds of questions am I asking during the class discussion?") but often they will just leave it up to me to share things that I think will be useful for them.

As I watched the groups in Ms. C's class I began to wonder about the students who weren't participating. Ideally, every student would be actively participating in the activity, yet that did not appear to be happening. And what exactly did it mean for a student to be "actively participating"? I decided I'd come up with a definition of what "actively participating" meant for this activity, and create a chart that showed Ms. C the students who were and were not active in each group. Later we could decide what the data meant, and if there were things that could be done to increase the active participation rate.

I decided that in order to be considered active, a student had to be doing something more than just watching. Putting together some part of the tower obviously counted, but so did offering suggestions to a teammate; sitting silently didn't count.

Then I created a chart, along with some explanatory comments for Ms. C. Each circle/oval represented a group, and the numbers inside represented the active students while the numbers outside represented the inactive students. ("M" stood for "Male" and "F" stood for "Female.")

When I met with Ms. C after her class to debrief, we talked about ways to get the inactive students to participate, and I suggested adding a rule to the activity that said that each student was responsible for a particular one of the supplies (i.e., the spaghetti, the tape, the string, or the marshmallow) and that only that student could physically touch it. The other students could make suggestions about it, but only one student could touch it. I noted that this was essentially just assigning group roles to the students, something that is generally an effective way to encourage more group participation. She decided to try that for her next class, which was also going to do the Spaghetti Challenge. Here's the chart I created for the next class.

According to the numbers I recorded, the first class had 42% of the students not actively participating, while the second class had just 21%, a pretty impressive improvement just from making a simple tweak to the rules. There might also be some other ideas we could come up with from looking at the data sheets I created. What things do you notice?

Photo Credit: Alejandra Velazquez's STEM Blog

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