Teaching Discussion Sections
Group work is one pedagogical strategy that promotes participation and interaction. It fosters a deeper and more active learning process, and it also provides instructors with valuable demonstrations of the degree to which students understand particular topics or concepts. In addition to exposing students to different approaches and ways of thinking, working with other students in groups can promote a sense of belonging that combats the anonymity and isolation that many students experience at a large campus. Some students may initially be reluctant to participate in group work, so sharing the reasons for group work with your students can help to convince the reluctant ones. It might help them to know that research has shown that groups frequently devise more and better solutions than the most advanced individual (Barkley et al., 2004; Cooper et al., 2003). Working together in groups also gives students the opportunity to learn from and teach each other. Classroom research has shown that students often learn better from each other than they do from a teacher (Barkley et al. 2005, 16–20).
From a practical standpoint, group work also fosters interpersonal skills highly valued by employers, not to mention friends, neighbors, and family.
For instructors, group work can save some preparation time. Although preparing for effective group work does take some planning, it is less time-consuming than preparing a lecture.
It is not difficult to incorporate group activities into your lesson plan, but there are some general rules of thumb about structuring group work so that it has useful outcomes for students. Below are some basic guidelines to consider when designing a group activity, along with several kinds of group work learning techniques.
Guidelines for Designing Group Work
There are many learning objectives that can be achieved by having students collaborate either in pairs or in small groups. (Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful resource for formulating your learning objectives.) In groups, students can
- summarize main points
- review problems for exams
- compare and contrast knowledge, ideas, or theories
- solve problems
- evaluate class progress or levels of skill and understanding
Think about your goals for the activity: what do you want your students to get out of their participation?
How to Form Groups
Small groups or learning teams can be formed in four ways: randomly, teacher-selected, by seat proximity, or student-selected. Random and teacher-selected group assignments avoid cliques and ensure that students interact with different classmates throughout the semester.
Once you know your students fairly well, teacher selection can be useful for grouping students. Consider selecting groups or pairs with varying strengths and skill levels, since research has shown that groups of problem solvers with diverse skills consistently out-perform groups of problem solvers who are highly skilled in the same way (Page, 2007, cited in Davis, 2009, p. 194).
You may also want to consider using your students’ attitudes toward group work as a mechanism to help you create groups. Take a one-question survey, or add this question to the initial survey you use at the beginning of the semester:
Which of the following best describes your experience of group work?
- I like group work because my group helps me learn.
- I question the value of group work because in the past I've ended up doing all the work.
- I have little or no experience working in groups.
- I have different experience of group work than the choices above. (Please explain.)
Those who check “B” can be put into a group of their own. They might find this to be the first time they are really challenged and satisfied by group work (adapted from Byrnes and Byrnes, 2009).
Group Size and Duration
Group size can vary, as can the length of time that students work together. Pairing is great for thirty-second or one-minute problem solving. Groups that work together for ten to 45 minutes might be four or five people. (If there are more than four or five, some members will stop participating). Groups can be formal or informal. Informal groups may be ad-hoc dyads (where each student turns to a neighbor) or ten-minute “buzz groups” (in which three to four students discuss their reactions to a reading assignment). Formal group assignments can serve semester-long group projects.
In large groups it is useful to assign roles within each group (examples: recorder, reporter to the class, timekeeper, monitor, or facilitator). If students are not used to working in groups, establishing some discussion guidelines with the class about respectful interaction before the first activity can foster positive and constructive communication.
It is useful to arrange the students in groups before giving them instructions for the group activity, since the physical movement in group formation tends to be distracting.
The Structure of Group Work
Successful group work activities require a highly structured task. Make this task clear to students by writing specific instructions on the board or on a worksheet. Include in your instructions:
- The learning objective. Why are the students doing this? What will they gain from it? How does it tie into the rest of the course?
- The specific task: “Decide,” “List,” “Prioritize,” “Solve,” “Choose.” (“Discuss” is too vague.)
- Structure the task to promote interdependence for creating a group product. Create an activity for which it is truly advantageous for students to work together.
- The expected product: for example, reporting back to the class; handing in a sheet of paper; distributing a list of questions to the class.
- The time allotment. Set a time limit. Err on the side of too little rather than too much. You can decide to give more time if necessary.
- The method of reporting out; that is, of sharing group results with the class. Reporting out is useful for accomplishing closure
- Closure, which is critical to the learning process. Students need to feel that the group-work activity added to their knowledge, skills, abilities, etc. Summary remarks from you can weave in the comments, products, and ideas of the students in their small groups is also an effective way to close a group-work activity.
If your group work consists of a set of short problems for students to work through, as often happens in science and mathematics courses, there are many ways to structure the activity. Here are a few ideas, with some advantages and disadvantages:
- You can give the whole class a single problem, break into groups to solve it, and then come back as a class and discuss the problem, either by having groups report out or by leading the discussion yourself. Then repeat.
Advantages: You know everyone is exposed to the correct way of thinking about things, so there is good closure for each problem.
Disadvantages: Potentially too much idle time for faster groups. This method can be very slow, so less material can be covered.
- You can give each group a different problem, and have the groups report back to the class to walk through the solutions.
Advantages: Students get some practice teaching as well as good exposure to problems and solutions.
Disadvantages: Students don’t get to practice as much problem solving.
- You can give each group a different problem, have them solve it, and then have these groups split up and re-form in such a way that each new group has someone experienced with each of the problems. Then they can explain the solutions to each other.
Advantages: Students get a lot of practice explaining, as well as good exposure to problems.
Disadvantage: Students don’t get to practice on many different problems.
- You can give the whole class a set of problems and discuss the set of problems with each group.
Advantages: Students work through more problems without significant idle time. You can address difficulties specific to each group.
Disadvantages: You may end up repeating yourself a lot. You also may be spread too thin, especially if several groups are stuck at the same time. If this happens, call the class back together when you find that all the groups are having difficulties at the same place.
Fostering Group Interaction
During group work, as tempting as it may be, do not disengage from your class and sit at the front of the room! Circulate and listen to your students. Are they on task, or are they talking about their weekend plans? Are students understanding the concepts and the assignment, or are they all stuck and confused? Do they have questions for you? Pull up a chair and join each group for a while.
On implementing group work for the first time in their section, some GSIs find that the students fall awkwardly silent when the GSI walks by or listens to their discussion. This is only temporary, and it should stop once your students are familiar with you and the group-work format. Because unfamiliarity drives this reaction, it is good to implement group work very early in the semester and to use it often in your section.
When a student in a group asks you a question, the natural reflex is to answer it. That’s your job, isn’t it? Well, not exactly — it’s lower on the list than empowering students to find answers to the questions they ask. Frequently a student asking a question hasn’t discussed it with the group yet and is not aware that members of the group either know the answer or have enough information to figure it out together. So, especially early on when your class is forming group-work habits, it is important not to answer questions — at least not at first. Instead, ask the other group members how they would approach the question. If no one in the group has an idea, you can either give the group a start on how to answer it, consult with a different group on the question, or answer the question yourself. (The latter is best considered a last resort.) Following this pattern will foster group interactions, and soon students will only ask you questions after they have discussed them with their group.
Tips for Formulating Productive Group-Work Assignments
One common mistake that leads to failure in group work is that the assignment is too vague. For example, if you tell your students to “discuss” a particular concept, students may make a few vague or general comments and then turn to discussing what they did over the weekend. Instead, make sure you have concrete and descriptive assignments. For example, instead of “Discuss projectile motion,” try “Solve for the final velocity of the projectile.” Instead of “Discuss the use of technology in the classroom,” say “List the pros and cons of using clickers in the classroom.”
Ask questions that have more than one answer. (This may not work for all disciplines.)
Make the material that groups will analyze short — maybe just a short paragraph or a few sentences. Present it via handout, overhead, chalkboard, or another medium that all can easily see.
If the material is longer, give concrete lines of questioning, which you display prominently or hand out. Understand that groups often take longer with longer material than their GSI anticipates, which can produce frustration.
Vary the format of the tasks. For example, on one day students might generate the questions they want to analyze; on another students may give arguments or provide evidence for or against a position or theory, etc.
Group Work Learning Techniques
The instructor poses a question. Students are given time (30 seconds or one minute) to think of a response. Each student then pairs with another and both discuss their responses to the question. The instructor invites pairs to share their responses with the class as a whole.
Divide the class into groups of four. The instructor identifies a controversial topic in the field covered in the course and gathers material that gives information and background to support different views of the controversy. Students work with one partner, forming two pairs within the group of four. Each pair takes a different side of the issue. Pairs work outside of class or in class to prepare to advocate and defend their position. The groups of four meet, and each pair takes a turn stating and arguing its position while the other pair listens and takes notes without interrupting. Each pair must have a chance both to listen and take notes and to argue their position. Then all four talk together as a group to learn all sides of the issue. Next, each pair must reverse its position and argue the opposite position from the one it argued before. Lastly the group of four as a whole discusses and synthesizes all the positions to come up with a group report. There may be a class presentation in which each group presents its findings.
Instructor or students identify a number of significant articles on a topic. Each student individually outside of class writes a reflective commentary on one article. In class, students are randomly paired with another student who has written a commentary on the same article. The two partners read each other’s commentaries, comparing key points to their own commentary. Then the two students team-write a commentary based on a synthesis of both their papers.
Students in small groups sit in a circle and respond in turn to a question or problem by stating their ideas aloud as they write them on paper. The conversation can go around the circle, each student in turn, more than once if desired. After the roundtable, students discuss and summarize the ideas generated and report back to the class.
This can be used an icebreaker or as a tool to generate ideas and discussion. Ask each student to find one partner they don’t know well. Make sure everyone has a partner. You can use triads if there is an uneven number of students in the class. Students interview their partner for a limited amount of time using interview questions given by the instructor. Often questions are opinion- or experience-generated: How do you use writing in your daily life? Should premed students study holistic medicine? After a set time, students switch roles so that both get a chance to be interviewed. Then, join each pair with another pair to form a group of four. Each partner in a pair introduces the partner to the other pair and summarizes the partner’s responses. Other variations on this activity are possible.
Thinking-Aloud Paired Problem Solving
Students in pairs take turns thinking through the solution to a problem posed by the teacher. The student who is not the problem solver takes notes, and then the two students switch roles so that each student gets a chance to be both solver and note taker. Then they can go into larger teams or back to the class as a whole and report back about the solutions and the process.
Same as think-pair-share except that instead of reporting back to the entire class students report back to a team or class group of four to six.
Ask students to hand in a first draft of a writing assignment. Photocopy each paper and identify it with a number instead of the student’s name. Give each student in the class an anonymous paper to edit. It is helpful to give the students verbal and written guidelines for editing criteria. After the students edit a paper, each student receives the anonymous feedback from his or her unknown peer editor. It is often useful to have a class discussion about how this process worked for everyone.
Reciprocal Peer Questioning
The instructor assigns outside class reading on a topic. The instructor asks students to generate a list of two or three thought-provoking questions of their own on the reading. (Note that asking productive questions can be a new skill for students to learn; you may want to give some attention to this.) Students bring the questions they have generated to class. Students do not need to be able to answer the questions they generate. Students then break into teams of three to four. Each student poses her questions to the team and the team discusses the reading using the student-generated questions as a guide. The questions of each student are discussed within the team. The team may then report back to the class on some key questions and the answers they came up with.
At the GSI Teaching & Resource Center we have other material to help you plan and design group work activities. Come and visit us in 301 Sproul Hall, or send an email with your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
References for Group Work Techniques
This section draws on the following works:
Barkley, E., et al. (2005). Collaborative Learning Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Byrnes, Joseph F. and Mary Ann Byrnes (2009). “Dealing with Students Who Hate Working in Groups.” Effective Group Work Strategies for the College Classroom. Madison: Magna Publications, 6–7. Available through facultyfocus.com.
Cross, K. Patricia (2000). Collaborative Learning 101. The Cross Papers 4. League for Innovation in the Community College.
Davis, Barbara Gross (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Johnson, D., R. Johnson, and K. Smith (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.
Meyers, C. and T. Jones (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Millis, B. and P. Cottell (1998). Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty. Oryx Press.