by Shannon McCurdy, PhD, Physics

See also Group Work: Techniques

Learning Objectives
How to Form Groups
Group Size and Duration
The Structure of Group Work
Fostering Group Interaction
Tips for Formulating Productive Group-Work Assignments

Learning Objectives

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, 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?

  1. I like group work because my group helps me learn.
  2. I question the value of group work because in the past I’ve ended up doing all the work.
  3. I have little or no experience working in groups.
  4. 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 include 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 community agreements 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. 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. 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.)
  • 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 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 help to weave together the comments, products, and ideas generated by the small groups. However, group-work activity can also be concluded effectively by inviting individual students to synthesize the class’s overarching findings in the 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, 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 solutions back to the class.

  • 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.
  • Disadvantages: Students don’t get to practice 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

  • Make sure you have specific 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 clickers in the classroom,” say “Analyze two cases and list criteria to evaluate the use of clickers in each one.” Giving specific group work helps students engage more deeply with content and helps them stay on task.
  • Ask questions that have more than one answer. (This may not work for all disciplines.) Students can then generate a variety of possible answers, explore what is involved with each, and evaluate them in comparison with the other answers.
  • Make the material that groups will analyze short — maybe just a short paragraph or a few sentences. Present it via handout, document camera, chalkboard, or another medium that all can easily see. Frequently, if groups have longer passages to analyze, their work goes well beyond the time-frame the GSI intends.
  • If the material is longer, provide concrete lines of questioning that are displayed prominently or handed out. This helps keep group work within the scale and time frame the GSI anticipates and reduces 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.