Group work is a learning strategy meant to combine social interaction with academic content. It serves a purpose, so before a teacher considers group work or cooperative learning, the purpose must be clear. If done simply for the sake of variety in a lesson, group work will soon be tiresome. So first decide what the goal of the lesson is, and if group work or cooperative learning is a good fit.
If group work is a goal, the classroom itself must support it. Change the room to suit the task at hand, whether that means clearing desks to the side so students can sit in groups on the floor or pushing desks together for groups of three, four, or five. Plan ahead—if a group poster is the outcome, have you provided a large, flat surface for each group? If they are to perform a skit they wrote, have you given all the groups adequate rehearsal space? Encourage the students to plan and arrange the furniture, and to be responsible for returning the classroom to its original state.
Group work means having students work in groups. The groups may have formed based on friendships, random chance, or by teacher assignment. Everyone in the group may be duplicating the efforts of everyone else, or they may simply be talking to one another. The task may be clear, but not the individual roles within the group.
Group work is useful for quick projects. The teacher might say, “Everyone share their answers from the homework with everyone else in your table group,” or , “Your group has 15 minutes to select the three strongest reasons why the Civil War was fought.” This is especially useful before the whole class discussion, as everyone has had time to think on the topic, and the weaker learners have previewed some stronger responses.
Cooperative learning is a more sophisticated form of group work that assigns formal roles to individuals in the group. Each person contributes to the outcome, but also has a unique task within the group. For all but the briefest of tasks, cooperative learning is better than simply grouping students.
Whether for group work or cooperative learning, a teacher can rapidly form groups in several ways, starting with not forming them at all—let students do it. Students may select their own groups, but this tends to create the same groups every time, as most students cluster by social rank or academic success. It also often ostracizes certain students. Shy students, for example, are usually slow to join in the formation of groups and will be the last to be student-selected. A variation on student selection: ask students to form and reform groups in quick succession for a series of short tasks. As the class becomes accustomed to working in all combinations, the tasks can become richer and more complex.
Better than student selection is to have the teacher form the groups, even randomly. Before the activity, know how many students are needed in each group. Take the class total, divide it by the desired number of students in each group, and have students count off by the answer. Suppose 28 students in a class need to be in groups of four. They count off by 7s, so all the Ones will get together, all the Twos, and so forth. If the number does not divide evenly, one group will have more students than the others.
Another easy and entertaining way to divide students is to take several colorful pictures (perhaps from old calendars or National Geographic magazines) and cut them into as many pieces as there are members of a group. Pass the pictures out randomly to students and have them reassemble the pictures silently.
When the teacher controls the grouping more carefully, student differences can be accounted for and learning increased. The teacher can base the grouping on previous assessment results, ensuring that struggling students are grouped with more capable students. In general, heterogeneous grouping provides the best group work, since everyone can contribute, all need to work, and the social interactions are richer than relying on past friendships. Using data to improve collaborative learning, the teacher can subtly encourage a supportive classroom climate without putting any student on the spot.
The simplest intentional grouping is by gender—boys on one side of the room, girls on the other. This is a quick and easy way to conduct review games, for example. A review question can be posed to one team, with 1 minute allowed for that team’s discussion, and then the teacher can call on one student in the group. No one in that gender group is the “captain” and no knows which student the teacher will call on, so everyone has an equal voice and must pay attention. The called student had the benefit of hearing the group discussion, and feels a self-esteem boost when he or she delivers a correct response.
As the complexity of the task increases, the need for the teacher to group wisely becomes more evident. Most groups require three to five students. Groups greater than five allow students to avoid work or break off into conflicting, smaller subgroups. Groups of three sometimes create problems from triangulation, since two students can outvote the third.
With four students, four distinct roles emerge: Recorder, Presenter, Materials Manager and Time Keeper. The teacher assigning these roles may want to challenge students. Make a weak writer the recorder; make a shy student the presenter; make the disorganized child the materials manager.
When groups are larger, or the task varies, other roles can include the Devil’s Advocate (what are the flaws, where are the weaknesses?), Facilitator (get the group going, keep them on task), Trip Advisor (visits other groups for exchange of information), Researcher (tracks down information either from the teacher or other acceptable source), Gatekeeper (ensure everyone is heard from, involved, nobody monopolizes the project) and Reality Checker (checks that the group’s choices are feasible).
No matter what cooperative group you are forming, someone—the teacher or students—must keep track of time. So either each group has a person assigned as a Time Keeper, or the teacher can use a timer visible to all on an overhead projector or magnetically attached to the board.
An easy way to repeatedly assign those four main roles of Record, Presenter, Materials Manager and Time Keeper is to divide the class (on paper) into four groups and randomly arrange students’ names into those four groups. The names will appear in rows and columns, with combinations created in patterns similar to winning patterns in slot machines. The first call for group work could be generated by rows, the next rotation could be made by zigzag lines across, and another rotation created by diagonals.
Natalie Houston, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston, suggests giving each student a letter-number combination: A1, B1, C1, D1, A2, B2, C2 and so forth. The first group activity uses A1, B1, C1, D1 in a group, A2, B2, C2 and D2 in the next group, and on. The next rotation uses A1, A2, A3 and A4 in a group, B1, B2, B3 and B4 in the next group. A third rotation could be A1, B2, C3 and D4; A2, B3, C4 and D1 for the next group.
Whatever method is chosen to assign the roles, be aware of the social pressures the group may feel. Placing one girl in each group because only six girls are in the class, while intended to create a gender-neutral environment, makes all the girls uncomfortable. Better to put two girls in each of three groups and allow the other three groups to be all boys. Be aware of other forms of diversity, too; each group should promote race and language diversity without making an individual student feel isolated. Remember one of the benefits of group work or cooperative learning is the social dynamic that adds to the student’s learning.