Students are frequently asking if they can work with a partner or in a group to complete their assignments. As an educator though, you may have some trepidation around group work—and that’s completely normal! Successful cooperative learning means helping students strike a delicate balance between working and interacting to keep your classroom from quickly descending into chaos. So, with the right expectations and positive classroom community in place, can group work actually work in your classroom?
Let’s take a look at four major pitfalls to avoid for successful group work—realized first hand, of course—accompanied by key tips, tricks, and best practices to avoid them while fostering teamwork and collaboration in your classroom.
Pitfall #1: Teamwork descends into anarchy
Effective group work requires a positive classroom community to truly be a success. Before you ever send students off into pairs or small groups to tackle an assignment, make sure you’ve taken time to discuss, model, and practice working in teams.
Cassie Dahl, a Minnesota elementary teacher and blogger, shares tips for building teamwork in an elementary classroom. This includes a couple of great read alouds to help model and discuss how others demonstrate positive or negative group work behaviors. Additionally, she offers up some exciting ice-breaker activities that require collaboration—and may also elicit a few laughs along the way, showing just how fun working in a group can be.
Ultimately, laying out clear expectations for cooperative learning and taking time to reflect on them as a class (especially when things don’t go so well) can help you and your students achieve a shared vision for cooperative learning. See how this story of group work gone wrong turned into a learning experience on the blog Beyond Traditional Math.
Pitfall #2: One student does all the work
Yikes—we’ve all seen this happen in our classrooms! Whether you identify as the student that once took over or were more of a wallflower when it came to group work, as an educator you know effective group work ensures all students have an opportunity to contribute.
There are several strategies you can try to help level the playing field for all students in a group environment. Elementary leaners may benefit from specific tasks or jobs. By setting clear expectations, students are supported with a specific path to follow when working cooperatively. Amy Lemons, a Texas elementary teacher, suggests these specific group work “jobs”. Check out how she’s made this tip work in her classroom and download her job chains.
For older students, try defining a cooperative learning rubric or trying out self- and peer-evaluation forms to help students think about their behaviors in a group setting. Consciously teaching these sorts of skills to your students will serve them tremendously in future college and career situations that are defined by working with a team. Check out Daily Teaching Tools for a variety of free downloads to encourage self-reflection.
Pitfall #3: Someone gets their feelings hurt
Working with a group requires more than academic skills to get the job done; interpersonal skills are also key to make sure communication doesn’t break down. When students talk over one another, shoot down a peer’s idea, or refuse to work with everyone on their team, cooperative learning collapses.
Rather than simply punishing rude behavior or asking students to be kinder to one another, spend some time digging into accountable talk and what it means to communicate effectively. Arm your students with sentence stems and questions to ask to help them navigate through disagreement, confusion, extension and other possible conversation directions with respect. Start by checking out these Accountable Talk Tools from Mr. Giso’s Room to Read blog.
Pitfall #4: Classroom time is wasted
The physical act of getting students sorted into groups can be a major time-waster. Determining which students are in what group, who will work where, and then shuffling desks and materials into place can easily eat up half of time you’ve allotted for collaborative work.
If you’ve fallen into this trap, chances are you’re not terribly optimistic about trying out group work again. The good news is there are plenty of tricks to streamline the process. Start with making partner or group selection quick and fun. You can use popsicle sticks of varying colors, puzzle pieces, or even playing cards handed out at random. Students then find their match(es) and can get right to work. Partner cards can also be educational. Have students solve math problems to find a partner with the same solution or hunt for a partner that has a card with a synonym of their own word written on it. Check out more tips about partner selection from The Brown Bag Teacher.
Additionally, it’s important to go into cooperative learning with a strategy. Find a few different learning activities that work for you and your students and spend some time setting expectations, modeling transitions, and reviewing procedures for each of your selected options. Being able to avoid the “What am I supposed to be doing?” question is a big win in itself! Take a peek at “the Fish Bowl” and four other activities for cooperative learning from Got To Teach.
Cooperative learning experiences are just one way to foster a positive classroom community. Check out this blog post for even more tips to ensure you and your students build a safe and encouraging learning environment.