Teaching approaches: Group work

From OER in Education

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1 What

Collaborative work in small groups is designed to develop ‘higher order’ skills. The key elements are the talking and associated thinking that take place between group members. However, putting pupils in groups is no guarantee that they work as groups (Bennett 1976), so much deliberate work needs to be done to make group work productive.

According to Johnson and Johnson (1999) the cooperative group has five defining elements:

  • positive independence – pupils need to feel that their success depends on whether they work together or not (they sink or swim together);
  • face-to-face supportive interaction – pupils need to be active in helping one another learn and provide positive feedback;
  • individual and group accountability – everyone has to feel that they contribute to achieving the group goals;
  • interpersonal and small-group skills – communication, trust, leadership, decision making and conflict resolution;
  • group processing – the group reflecting on its performance and functioning and on how to improve. (Adapted from Group Work - Research Summary, section What).

2 Why

An alternative approach to individual practice is the use of cooperative small-group work during the review and practice part of the lesson. This method has gained in popularity in recent years, and has attracted a lot of research interest in a number of countries, such as the United States (Slavin 1996). In other countries such as the United Kingdom this method is still underused, however. In a recent study in primary schools Muijs and Reynolds (2001) found that less than 10% of lesson time was spent doing group work.

The use of small-group work is posited to have a number of advantages over individual practice. The main benefit of small-group work seems to lie in the co- operative aspects it can help foster. One advantage of this lies in the contribution this method can make to the development of students’ social skills. Working with other students may help them to develop their empathetic abilities, by allowing them to see others’ viewpoints, which can help them to realise that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Trying to find a solution to a problem in a group also develops skills such as the need to accommodate others’ views.

Students can also provide each other with scaffolding in the same way the teacher can during questioning. The total knowledge available in a group is likely to be larger than that available to individual students, which can enable more powerful problem solving and can therefore allow the teacher to give students more difficult problems than s/he could give to individual students. (Adapted from Group Work - Research Summary, section Why).

3 Wider Benefits

The main elements of collaborative group work identified as crucial by research are:

Giving and receiving help One of the main advantages of cooperative small-group work lies in the help students give one another. Not all kinds of help are necessarily useful, however. Just giving the right answer is not associated with enhanced understanding or achievement. In his review of research, Webb (1991) reports a positive relationship between giving content-related help and achievement. Giving non-content-related help did not seem to improve student achievement, though. Receiving explanations was found to be positive in some studies, and non-significant in others, this presumably because the receiver has to understand the help given and be able to use it. This may well require training the students to give clear help. Receiving non- explanatory help (e.g. being told the answer without being told how to work it out) was negatively or non-significantly related to achievement in the studies reviewed, while being engaged in off-task activities (e.g. socialising) was negative. In a more recent study Nattiv (1994) found that giving and receiving explanations was positively related to achievement, giving and receiving other help was slightly positively related to achievement, while receiving no help after requesting it was negatively related to achievement.

Necessary student social skills Effective small-group work does require a significant amount of preparation, and a number of preconditions have to be met beforehand in order for it to be effective. Firstly, students must be able to cooperate with one another, and to provide each other with help in a constructive way. A number of studies have found that while small-group work is positively related to achievement when group interaction is respectful and inclusive, use of group work is actually negatively related to achievement if group interaction is disrespectful or unequal (Linn and Burbules 1994; Battistich et al. 1993). This is very possible, as many (especially young students and students from highly disadvantaged backgrounds) have been found to lack the social skills necessary to interact positively with peers.

Thus, students often lack sharing skills, which means that they have difficulty sharing time and materials and can try to dominate the group. This problem can be alleviated by teaching sharing skills, for example by using the Round Robin technique in which the teacher asks a question and introduces an idea that has many possible answers. During Round Robin questioning a first student is asked to give an answer, and then passes his turn to the next student. This goes on until all students have had a chance to contribute.

Other students may lack participation skills. This means that they find it difficult to participate in group work because they are shy or uncooperative. This can be alleviated by structuring the task so that these students have to play a particular role in the group or by giving all students ‘time tokens’, worth a specified amount of ‘talk time’. Students have to give up a token to a monitor whenever they have used up their talk time, after which they are not allowed to say anything further. In this way all students get a chance to contribute.

Students may also lack communication skills. This means that they are not able to effectively communicate their ideas to others, obviously making it difficult for them to function in a cooperative group. Communication skills, such as paraphrasing, may need to be explicitly taught to students before small-group work can be used.

Finally, some students may lack listening skills. This can frequently be a problem with younger students who will sit waiting their turn to contribute without listening to other students. This can be counteracted by making students paraphrase what the student who has contributed before them has said before allowing them to contribute.

Organising small-group work For small-group work to be effective, one needs to take a number of elements into account in the structuring of the task. Before commencing the task, the goals of the activity need to be clearly stated and the activity needs to be explained in such a way that no ambiguity can exist about the desired outcomes of the task. The teacher needs to make clear that cooperation between students in the group is desired. According to Slavin (1996) the goals need to be group goals, in order to facilitate cooperation, which need to be accompanied by individual accountability for work done in order to avoid free-rider effects. Giving both group and individual grades can help accomplish this, as can use of a shared manipulative or tool such as a computer.

Avoiding free-rider effects can be aided by structuring the group task in such a way that every group member is assigned a particular task. One way of doing this is by making completion of one part of the task dependent on completion of a previous stage, so students will pressure each other to put the effort in to complete the stage before them. Johnson and Johnson (1994) suggest a number of roles that can be assigned to students in small groups, such as:

  • the summariser, who will prepare the group’s presentation to the class and summarise conclusions reached to see if the rest of the group agrees;
  • the researcher, who collects background information and looks up any additional information that is needed to complete the task;
  • the checker, who checks that the facts that the group will use are indeed correct and will stand up to scrutiny from the teacher or other groups;
  • the runner, who tries to find the resources needed to complete the task, such as equipment and dictionaries;
  • the observer/troubleshooter, who takes notes and records group processes.

These may be used during the debriefing following the group work;

  • the recorder, who writes down the major output of the group, and synthesises the work of the other group members.

After finishing the group task the results need to be presented to the whole class and a debriefing focusing on the process of the group work (the effectiveness of the collaborative effort) should be held. A useful way of starting a debriefing session is by asking students what they thought had gone particularly well or badly during group work (the observers mentioned above should be able to do this).

Research has shown that cooperative groups should be somewhat, but not too, heterogeneous with respect to student ability. Groups composed of high and medium, or medium and low, ability students gave and received more explanations than students in high-medium-low ability groups. Less heterogeneous groupings were especially advantageous for medium-ability students. When students of the same ability are grouped together, it has been found that high-ability students thought it unnecessary to help one another while low-ability students were less able to do so (Webb 1991; Askew and Wiliam 1995). (Adapted from Group Work - Research Summary, section WhatDetail).

4 Practical Considerations

Review all the ideas you have explored relating to group work, some of which are summarised in the table below. Circle in colour any ideas you have never used or considered.

In another colour highlight the ideas you intend to try with your case study class. Of these, prioritise with numbers the idea you think will have most impact in your lessons.

Reflect on your practice after each lesson. When you have successes or difficulties with the case study class, share them with other teachers who may have ideas to help you.

After at least four weeks of putting these ideas into practice, carry out the original questionnaire again – both your own views on pupils’ likely perceptions, plus the pupils’ views themselves.

Putting it into practice

Grouping – size and composition

I could use …

Managing groups

I could use …

Stimulus for group talk

I could use …

pairs pair talk explanation for group talk
small group (three or four) pairs to fours demonstration for group talk
large group (five to seven) snowball question and answer for group talk
friendship grouping spokesperson taking notes using group talk
ability grouping envoys worksheets and book exercises using group talk
groups with similar personalities together rainbow groups practical work using group talk
groups with different statements number/letter/colour misconceptions or false personalities together
single-sex groups random numbering artefacts, photographs, etc.
groups with equal numbers of boys/girls per group random continuum open ended questions
random selection for grouping other ideas group concept or mind maps
groups with pupils with same first language other ideas concept cartoons

card sorts or continuum

other ideas


Whatever you choose to do, remember:

  • grouping plans rather than seating plans;
  • the choice of seating and grouping is yours;
  • express grouping and seating in terms of learning not behaviour;
  • change groups regularly;
  • ensure pupils know what the purpose and the product of the discussion will be;
  • make explicit the reason why they should;
  • be considerate to the views of others;
  • face each other, and sit as close together as possible;
  • use eye contact;
  • clear the desks before they talk as a group;
  • work within the time targets set;
  • don’t loom or lean;
  • speak to them at their level or lower;
  • encourage non-verbally: eyes, face and gesture;
  • withhold your opinion or the ‘correct’ answer for as long as possible;
  • ask questions rather than provide answers;
  • use others’ answers as prompts for argument. (Adapted from Group Work - Practical Considerations, section Body).

5 Relevant resources

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