Group work, only better

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by bledsoe on October 16, 2014

Last week my high school math classes did their first group work activity of the year, and it went much better than it ever has. The level of engagement in all the groups was very high, the behavioral functioning of the groups was excellent, and the math conversations taking place were impressive. Here are three reasons why I think things went so well.

1. The activity was a legitimate group task

I'm becoming more and more convinced that this is essential for good group work. If you just put students in groups with standard practice type problems, there's not really much for them to do except compare answers, which gets dull pretty quickly. A legitimate group task is one that a) has some depth to it, b) requires the students to figure some things out,  and c) generates at least a little confusion. It's also one in which students can still get a lot out of it even if not everyone understands absolutely everything about it. The activity my students worked on fit all of these criteria.

2. The group rules were easy to understand

I used to have a bunch of rules which I explained to everyone before they got started, and which I suspect they found horribly tedious and ended up not paying much attention to. This time I had two rules:

  • Everyone must move through the activity at the same pace
  • No talking outside your group

I chose these two rules based on my experience with previous group activities. I decided that these two rules were the most essential for effective functioning of the groups, and were also the ones that the students tended to struggle with the most.

3. The group roles were clear and useful

Actually, I guess I did have a third rule: everyone in the group has a role to play. I've used roles in my groups before and they worked okay, but I wasn't thrilled with them. This time I tweaked them a little bit and they worked much better:

  • Reader - reads all questions out loud to the members of the group.
  • Checker - confirms that all group members get the same answer for each question/problem.
  • Off-Task Enforcer - ensures that all group members remain on-task.
  • Outside Talker - the one person who can talk outside the group (e.g., to ask the teacher a question they can't figure out on their own).

One simple thing I did this time was, after I explained the rules and the roles to the students, I had them get in their groups and decide which person was going to take which role. Then I gave each group a post-it note and made them write down everyone's name and role, and leave the post-it out where I could see it. This did several things:

  • Gave them a simple task to accomplish immediately.
  • Forced them to learn each other's names, if they didn't already know them.
  • Created a way for me to quickly see which person had each role in that group. This was especially helpful for me in a) enforcing the Outside Talker role (many students want to just ask me questions immediately, rather than going thru the Outside Talker); and b) prompting the Off-Task Enforcer to get off-task group members back on task (which takes a lot of the off-task enforcement duties off my shoulders).

My On Task Percentage (OTP) for the groups was really high. When I first tried doing group work, I had many groups who struggled to function at what I called Level 1; which is to say, their OTP was really low, say below 50%. This time, all but one of my groups was over 90%, and several were even higher. (I had one group that had an OTP only around 70%, largely because their Off-Task Enforcer was the one who was frequently off-task. I pointed this out to the group and they agreed and immediately suggested that they all take on the Off-Task Enforcer duties; their OTP began improving almost immediately.) Overall, I had a much higher OTP than any I'd had before, and it was higher for all my classes, honors and non-honors alike.

There is still some work to be done. After the first day, some of the novelty had worn off and some students were more actively looking for ways to avoid doing their work, but the good activity and the group rules and roles helped to keep the OTP pretty high.

It seems the more I do group work in my classes, the better I get at it, and the more value the students get out of it.

Photo Credit: Cloudtail via Compfight cc

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