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4 November 2022

5 ways to level up your classroom group work

Darby Bozeman

Former Middle School Teacher; current DT+ Educational Consultant

Classroom group work

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Do you think group work is a super valuable component of any successful classroom community? And does the thought of it make you cringe, just a little bit? If you answered yes to both of these questions, it might seem like you’re in trouble. Fear not! Group activities don’t have to be scary. 

Read on for five practical ideas and suggestions to make your classroom group work less intimidating (and more effective).

1. Set expectations

In the wake of the pandemic and the last few years, it’s no secret that our students' ability to communicate has suffered. Honing these soft skills is not a lost cause, though; it’s just more important than ever to work with our students to make sure they know what we expect – and what they can (and should) expect from themselves.

I don’t mean implement stricter rules in your classroom – I’m talking about having a group discussion, as a class, about what successful a conversation looks like and feels like. To start, check out Unlocked: Teamwork and Collaboration. This 8-minute video can be the jumping-off point for a larger classroom brainstorm about active listening and how to do that in your unique classroom environment. 

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After watching, have a class discussion about what active listening means for the members of your class. Consider coming up with a definition for this (and other important group work concepts) to keep posted around the room at all times. The more we see something, the more likely we are to remember it and internalize it. 

2. Start small

Not every group assignment has to only focus on the academic side of things. A good way to build group rapport is to assign your students a very simple task; that way, they can focus more on how they work together than what they’re working on.

For example, send students on a scavenger hunt of Digital Theatre+. In your assignment, ask them to find two musicals that all students in the group would be interested in watching. Then, have them reflect on that process as the culminating activity – how did you delegate tasks? What happened when you disagreed on something? Were there moments in your conversation that didn’t feel good; why is that?

This type of activity can be adapted to whatever unit you’re working on. It’s always relevant and powerful to have students practice working together in a way that serves everyone.

3. Assign roles

Assigning different roles or jobs to each student in a group can be an effective practice to keep students focused. When developing roles for the groups in your class, consider the following questions: Does each role serve a purpose? Are the expectations for that role clear?

Student writing on a board 
It may seem pretty intuitive to come up with different group roles. Timekeeper, recorder, team leader… we’ve heard all these before. But when you have a student whose job is to “keep things on track,” consider what that means for them. Do you want them to interrupt their classmates the second they go off-topic? What does this look like in practice? 

Or if you have a timekeeper, what does this role actually entail? What should the timekeeper do if time is almost up for the task; do they take over? Do they have a code word to share with their peers to remind them to get back to work?

These questions aren’t meant to give you more work, but rather to give you a starting place for thinking through how and why we assign roles to students. Your students will thrive when they know what’s expected of them and how to go about meeting those expectations. 

4. Let them work alone

Yes, this is a post on group work – you didn’t read that wrong. But if you worry that the brunt of a task will go to one or two members of a group (or if you have quiet students who have a hard time opening up and being involved), consider having the first part of a group task be independent.

For example, check out the Lesson Toolkit: Macbeth and scroll down to page 21. Here, you’ll find a few questions to spark discussion in a Macbeth unit. In traditional group work, you may simply give these questions to a group and let them have at it. What I’m suggesting instead is to divvy up the questions to individual members before they meet as a group. This makes them not only accountable to the group but makes their individual contributions equally valuable. When I was in the classroom, this strategy often helped me ensure that all students were “doing their part” in a group activity. For more ideas, check out this post on how to use jigsaw activities in the classroom.

5. Be realistic

This is the part where I remind you, dear teacher, to give yourself and your students grace and allow for growing pains. So often, when I was at the beginning of my teaching journey, I was terrified that if a group of students talked about anything other than the task at hand for more than a few seconds, I was failing them. If your mind ever jumps to that scary thought, remember that it’s not true. It’s human nature for people to skip around in conversation. If I had a dollar for every time I took a conversation off track in a meeting – well, I’d be wearing a much nicer watch right now.

Students working in a group

Just because your students mentioned Stranger Things doesn’t mean they aren’t completing the task; they might just be bonding with their group, and that’s a good thing! The most important part of this is students learning how to regulate and find their way back to the task at hand. Remember that they can’t learn this if we don’t let them.

Working well with others is a vital skill that will serve our students throughout their lives. Don’t fear group work – embrace it! Your students will thank you.