Using groups in math class

Post image for Using groups in math class

by bledsoe on December 11, 2011

This semester I've had the opportunity to try out group work in my math classes in a slightly more formal way than my standard "here's a worksheet, feel free to work with a partner" approach.  I was able to complete video lectures of two complete units, so a basic class routine looks like this:

  1. The students watch the video and complete their notes for homework;
  2. The next day in class (after the warm-up activity), we review the notes a little and answer any questions;
  3. They get in groups of 3 or 4 and complete 8-10 problems like the ones they learned about in the video;
  4. They put up their solutions on the board and we review any questions.

I basically had two rules for the students while they were working in groups:  They all had to get the same answer for every problem; and if they had questions about something, they had to ask everyone in their group before they asked me.

Since this is really the first time I've tried this, I was a little anxious about how well it would work, and I've been generally very pleased.  Here are a few things I learned:

Some students have a really hard time asking questions of other students - When the students started working in their groups, almost immediately someone raised their hand and said, "Mr. B, how do you do this problem?", to which I replied incredulously, "Wait a minute, you already asked everybody in your group and nobody knew how to do that problem?"  The student sighed and said "Aw, Mr. B" about the same time one of their group members said "I know how to do that one" and then they were talking among themselves and I backed out of the conversation.  Variations of this exchange played out several times in the first 10 minutes or so until everyone finally realized that I really wasn't going to answer their questions until they had talked about them within their group.

Using groups, the students do a LOT more cognitive work during class - When I'm up in front of the class lecturing, I'm doing a lot of cognitive work, and the students are just sitting passively taking notes (and sometimes they're not even doing that).  They might be actively using their brains but they're just as likely to be zoned out or daydreaming.  Having the students working in groups means all or almost all of them are asking and answering questions; the amount of brain work taking place skyrockets and I'm not the only one doing the work.

The physical organization of the groups is really important - Not only is it important to get the right mix of kids in each group (sometimes best friends in a group will spend more time socializing than working), but it's also important to physically move the desks so that group members are facing each other.  If you don't do this, a lot of students won't really work with the other students in their group, but will just work alone or kind of gravitate toward a best friend in another group.

Some students will complain strongly about working in groups - "This is stupid", "I can't learn this way", and "We should go back to the regular way" are all comments I heard.  I ignored them.  These students were irritated because when I'm lecturing at them I'm doing most of the work and they're doing very little.  In groups, they're doing most of the work, which is just how I want it.

There are still things I need to do to improve my group work, mostly stuff regarding differentiation; I need to figure out how I want to group the students, how to handle the kids who get finished really quickly, etc.  I also need to figure out when and how to have students re-watch the lecture video if necessary (need a class set of headphones? more class computers?).  But I'll work that out eventually.  For now I'm pretty pleased with how well the groups are working.

Image by shizhao via Flickr.

Previous post:

Next post: