Success with student group work

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Group work is important in fostering students’ learning skills, but ensuring this approach is effective can be difficult. Dr Stephanie Thornton offers some practical advice for fostering better classroom dialogue and pushing student group work in the righ

Group work has enormous potential for boosting learning. When it works well, everyone gains. But not all group work has positive effects. In fact, a poor dynamic in the group may even have a detrimental impact.

The crucial factor determining whether or not a group will foster learning is the style and quality of the interaction within the group. 

Effective groups are characterised by:

  • Inclusivity – so that all members participate and are treated with respect.

  • Collective problem-solving – so that all engage the task, rather than some dominating and others passively following their lead.

  • Explanatory and elaborative communication – so that solutions or problems are explored in detail rather than summarised.

  • Constructive resolution of conflicts and contradictions – the group treating such disagreements as an integral part of problem-solving and not as an ego issue or power struggle.

Unfortunately, some groups never generate any of these characteristics; some get part of the way, but do not hit the mark sufficiently to enhance learning; and most “could do better”.

This should not surprise us: finding the optimal style of interaction in a group is itself a skill – one that relatively few adults possess, let alone students. The general consensus is that teachers should take an active part in improving dialogue within groups.

But how can a teacher best push group interactions in the right direction? There is a growing body of research which has practical implications in this area.

Choosing who goes in each group 

The obvious first step is to assign students to groups in ways that will optimise their interactions. But research suggests that this may be the least effective tool in a teacher’s armoury.

The problem is that research shows no systematic benefit from assigning students to groups on the basis of obvious variables such as gender or ability. 

Even assigning all the top achievers to the same groups does not ensure an optimal impact from group work: some such groups will work well and enhance learning, others won’t. 

It seems that however you mix (or don’t mix) students by factors such as gender or ability, it is always the quality of the interaction within the group that determines its educational impact – and quality of interaction can be good or bad, however the group is composed in terms of those factors.

Furthermore, although it is obviously wise to take personalities into account to some extent in assigning students to groups (five Tiggers would probably be as doomed as five Eeyores), and to avoid obvious spark points (no Montagues with those Capulets), we cannot hope to ensure a good dynamic through cherry-picking at this level either. 

Who has a classroom that would neatly divide up into well-matched personality types, leaving no awkward customers? Who can predict exactly what personalities, or what mix of personalities will yield the optimal group dynamic? Even the most co-operatively disposed group of individuals may fail to engage in a fruitful dialogue.

What the research suggests is that we should worry less about who is in each group, and focus more on directly influencing what happens within groups.

Setting expectations

What do students expect of group work? What do they think they are supposed to be doing? What sort of role do they think they should play in the interaction? 

Very often, student expectations are far from what we would hope, if the ideal interaction is to develop. Research shows that addressing student assumptions and re-orienting their expectations of group work is a key way in which teachers can set the scene for more effective group interactions.

Status and its implications for group work provide a key starting point in setting the scene. Students often import all sorts of assumptions as to the importance and the appropriate role within a group for individuals of different status (ability, gender, and so forth). 

These assumptions can cripple group dynamics: the high status tend to dominate and disregard those of lower status, who tend to meekly accept this rather than getting actively engaged in the task. This is to no-one’s benefit. 

Disrupting these assumptions about status is a key factor in allowing a genuinely inclusive and collaborative dialogue to develop.

One effective strategy here is to point out that many tasks need multiple skills and perspectives – and that no individual has all those skills. Research shows that the more a teacher emphasises this idea, the more likely it is that lower and higher status individuals will actively engage in genuinely collaborative problem-solving.

Respect is also vital to an effective group dynamic. Who knows how rudeness has come to be seen as normal (if not witty and clever) in our television shows and society? It is not and it is profoundly destructive of group dialogue, and has no place in team efforts. And that’s a point that needs making in setting the scene.

Skills need to be explained too. Central skills involve asking questions, offering explanations and listening. Research shows that we can materially improve the quality of group dialogue by explaining how to do these things better. 

For example, listening is not merely waiting for the other to stop speaking, as many students seem to think, but an active effort to understand (and perhaps check by replaying) what the other is trying to communicate – which may not wholly lie in the specific words used. 

Equally, some questions provoke better discussions than others: ask a general question (“how does it work?”) and you will get a general answer (“it’s a steam engine”), and often that leads nowhere. But the more specific and detailed the question (“what does that rod there do?”) the more detailed and specific the answer (“well, it pushes that piston, which...”).

The detailed discussions that ensue are optimal for revealing puzzles and different understandings, ideas and possibilities – in other words, for creating exactly the kinds of dialogue that best foster new insight and new discoveries. 

Structuring the interaction

Once groups are formed and beginning to address a task, it is time for the teacher to step back and let them get on with it. But research shows that, even when expectations have been set vis-a-vis status, respect and skills, groups may still need support if an optimal interaction is to develop. How to give that support without interfering too much? 

Various studies have noted that giving groups written guidance, not on the task in hand per se, but on the way to approach it as a group, can materially improve the quality of interactions. 

For example, you might explicitly identify certain roles for individuals within the group, roles which will rotate from one to another after a while. Individuals might take it in turns to be the one with the main responsibility for summarising the discussion, or for spotting flaws in arguments; or they might take it in turns to be the instructor and the learner – and so on. 

By formalising these roles, a teacher can increase the likelihood of everyone getting a turn in each position and hence the probability of a genuinely inclusive dynamic developing. 

Equally, a teacher can increase the probability that dialogue will develop at the right level of detail and with the right orientation to collaboration and problem-solving, by giving out a list of questions likely to foster that kind of dialogue.

One effective strategy is simply to encourage students to ask each other questions beginning who/what/where/when/why/how. Or you can foster constructive debate by sub-dividing the group into two, each half preparing one side of a debate and then coming together to synthesise a conclusion. 

Getting the right task

Some tasks lend themselves to collaborative exploration far better than others. A problem with one clear right answer, or a problem that an individual with the right abilities can solve alone may be counterproductive in this regard. It is complex, open-ended tasks demanding a mix of different skills and perspectives that are most likely to generate the optimal kinds of group interaction.

Putting your oar in 

However well you have set things up, there will still be groups that do not gel in the optimal way. What to do for the best then?

When to intervene is a difficult question. While the general rule is to stand back as far as possible, there are three situations when it is best to intervene:

  • When the group is stumped and no-one has any ideas to take it forward.

  • When the group is clearly not communicating in a constructive way.

  • When a dominant leader who is not involving everyone else has taken over. 

The issue of how to intervene also presents a choice. Two styles of intervention are possible. One is to offer direct guidance on the problem, the other is to focus on facilitating the group’s own approach to a solution. 

Research shows that effective interventions facilitate rather than guide. Keep direct help with the problem to a minimum: too much guidance from a teacher disempowers the group and undermines collective effort. Focus on the quality of the group’s communication, not their success with the task. 

Listen to the group discussion before you intervene: what exactly is going wrong with their interaction? The most effective strategy is to then ask open-ended questions designed to redirect the group back to elaborated questions and explanations, and to a collective approach to solving the problem.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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