Group Work

There is a lot to be said about the joys of group work. There is the opportunity to see ideas that may not have been apparent to you before through the sharing of group members’ ideas. You have the opportunity to connect with other students that you may not have known as well. There is also the joys of learning social skills (although this point is relevant mostly in the younger elementary level education). There are many positives to working in a group, but there are also some downfalls to the idea of working in a group.

I will address only my main concern with collective work, which is, the work may not be spread out evenly. As I was going through elementary and high school, when we were put into groups I was stuck doing most of the work. The other kids figured, “If I don’t do it, she will.” They were right! I didn’t want to get a terrible mark due to the fact that other students were doing what they were supposed to. Although most of the time there are group evaluations at the end of assignments or presentations involving more than one person, it does not always tell the full story. We, would never really know how accurate those are. I know that when I was in groups there were at least a few people that were really close friends and they would just give each other great marks because they liked each other, not because of their performance in the group work.

Have your experiences with group work been negative or positive? If you are becoming an educator, will you have a lot of group work for your students? What do you think is the prime age range for the effectiveness of group work?

Thanks for reading 🙂


17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. celestelalonde
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 21:52:41

    Good topic! This is something that I thought a lot about during my Internship as I was teaching French as a Second Language, so students really needed to lean on each to learn. I think that every age group can benefit from group work as long as it’s used for the right purpose. I have seen some teachers who let their students work in groups which took away from the point of the assignment. So in that regards, I don’t think that group work can be over-used. I would say that I used some form of group work in almost every class everyday for my French students from grade 9-12. Whether it was just for the set, or for the majority of the class, my students worked more comfortably in a second language if they knew they weren’t struggling alone.

    Your concern that students would have unfair workload or marks can be avoided. Giving students the opportunity to choose their partners, or have the choice to work alone was effective in my classroom. Also, I relied heavily on self-assessment and peer-assessment. I made sure to be assessing throughout their work time, and not just on the final project. I hope this helps!


  2. Sylvia
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 16:29:46

    One program for you … Kagan! Kagan structures help turn group work into cooperative learning by establishing 4 elements – PIES (Positive interdependence [we’re all in this together – team mentality!], Individual accountability [each person has a role or a specific responsibility], Equal participation [equal time or equal turns], and Simultaneous interaction [multiple people working together at one time]). Our district is training teachers in this structure so that teachers can use cooperative learning more effectively. Hope this helps. Thanks for posting!


  3. Sandra McVannel
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 19:16:44

    Hi Erin,
    I read your insights on group work and as an educator (and a mom of sons who were often frustrated with group work in school and still sometimes are), it’s important to really think through the reasoning for group work. In my experience, I use group tasks as part of the Gradual Release of Responsibility model to allow students to benefit from the thinking and organization of others as well as provide an opportunity to share their knowledge with peers. Group work helps students with the “practice” component of learning a skill or concept in class. Cooperative learning and programs like TRIBES offer a wealth of knowledge where group work is concerned. As for assessment – I have issues with teachers assessing the whole group on the completed assignment when I feel that the self-assessment and peer-assessment piece are more important in the group work process for individual learning.


  4. Aviva (@grade1)
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 22:39:36

    I completely understand where you’re coming from when it comes to group work. I think then that we need to teach students at a young age how to work well as part of a group. We need to teach them responsibility, and we need to show them the value in contributing well to a group. I teach Grades 1 and 2, and I do a lot of group work!

    That being said, when I started group work with the class, I used a very structured format, almost like the old cooperative learning model. This helped the students understand their roles. Now they are able to assign the roles themselves, and not just work individually, but really work as part of a team. Collaborating online through different group projects (e.g., the Progressive Story Project), helped my students see the value in collaboration. They now work really well in groups, and even when they’re working alone, they see the value in helping each other out. They enjoy learning together, and this is great to see!

    So while I’ve had my own struggles with group work over the years, I’m hoping that by teaching students at a young age how to work well in a group, they will become even better at “group work” as time goes on. I’ll be interested in hearing what others have to say on this topic!



  5. Angie
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 22:44:46

    It sounds like you understand the value of group work but are struggling with accountability. This lies in the way the group work processes are set up by the teacher. Have you read any of Barrie Bennett & Carol Rolhesier’s work? Beyond Monet is a fabulous resource that helps teachers structure tasks so each member of the group is accountable for their thinking and work. Here is a link to a PDF of some of the teaching strategies listed in Beyond Monet.

    Dont bail on group work. It takes time for a classroom culture of cooperative learning to develop. It won’t happen immediately. Keep trying and you will see the great benefits.
    Angie Harrison


  6. Diane Main
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 22:48:46

    I work in a computer lab setting, and we do both individual and group projects. Most group work is for two to four students.

    You mention the acquisition of social skills, mainly in lower grades (elementary). I have to say that you don’t want to “sell short” the value of this for older students, including high schoolers and adult learners. My Masters degree program involved almost ALL group (or at least pair) projects. It was a very important reminder and great practice with connecting with another person (or with other people) with a common purpose in mind. Many young people I know actually LACK the important skills of diplomacy, tact, and fairness if they don’t get enough practice working as part of a team. Most jobs involve either working as part of a team, or at the very least, customer service. The skills one gets from group projects are perfect preparation for the real world.

    And yes, it’s not always fair. Just like life. However, with many of today’s collaborative tools, it’s very easy to keep track of “who did what.” Wikis and Google Docs have revision history features. I demonstrate these to my students and let them know that if one person does ALL the work, everyone will get an F. And if one person does NONE of the work, everyone will get an F. We do use a self- and peer- evaluation form for these group projects. But I am also in the room with them during the in-class portions of their work (when groups consist of people in the same tech class period, which is not always the case, thanks to technology).

    I have found that it does not take long for students to stop “playing favorites” in their evaluations. I also tell them that I hold on to the forms, and if a parent comes to me with an issue regarding uneven work distribution in a group project, I can pull out the forms and see exactly what was reported about each member of the group BY all members of the group.

    I also tell the students THAT little piece of information.

    I have to say that even during individual projects — because I allow students to guide, help, and teach each other — the quality of the learning experience increases with the increase in interaction between and among students during their projects. This far outweighs the inconvenience of having to teach students how to play fair.


  7. JoAnnJ68
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 22:52:23

    I think as with everything we must first model and make sure the expectations are clear. Groups have always been my style of teaching and they have worked well because everyone knew what was expected. While the work is being done I continually take notes and watch what is going on. At the end of the period I always do a short debrief with each group so was can all share what happened what has been accomplished, & what needs to be done. If there is a problem, work it out before the next session or it will continue to fester. At the conclusion of the project each group self evaluates and has a formal session where I share my rubric with them and they share their’s with me. The usual lesson learned is good friends don’t often make the best partners. Group work isn’t something you just dive into. It takes planning but it is well worth it. Kagan is also a good resource for kids working in groups.


  8. Lizabeth68au
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:03:13

    I agree with celestealonde, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. I sit all my classes in groups and they work together a lot. However, I always assess individually. It’s just easier that way. Even if it is a task where they are collaborating, I always make it clear that the assessment will be individual. Having said that, it is possible to set up an assessment criteria which assesses the ways they collaborate and solve problems together.

    The skills learned in group work, and the lessons of equality and listening to others, are so important.


  9. missmac100
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:08:05

    I was always the one who got things done in group work. I hated group projects but enjoyed working with and learning from others. If we had group work with no grade attached, then group work was awesome and to be honest more people participated and shared. When a grade was attached, some would rely on those who work hard (like me) because they knew they would get a good grade and no one “tells” on someone in their group for not working. Nor should they. Problems, discussions, and projects can benefit from working in a group. This is how we learn. Don’t put a grade on it. Let students do group work and then produce something together (no grade) or if you have to have a grade, let it be on an individual reflection/extension of the group project.


  10. Shawn Urban
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:14:21

    Hi Erin.

    I think not only kids benefit from socializing. Socializing evolves and builds. Adults benefit too. Socializing not only is a skill; it refreshes the spirit, and this is a benefit at every age.

    Regarding disproportionate contributions in group work, who hasn’t experienced that? Those who don’t lose out in the end. What they learn is reliance, rather than ingenuity and problem solving. Wikis are a great way to determine who contributed what when since they keep a history of edits and contributions. Not only is the contributor identified, but so is what he or she contributes or edits. Beyond edits, outside monitoring by a neutral party can more accurately score contribution. But then you have Big Brother and the monitor does not participate in the activity.



  11. Heidi Siwak
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:33:44

    Students need to be taught how to work effectively in groups. This is a fine art!
    I always try to relieve student stress about groups. They know that ultimately they can only be assessed on their own work. It does not matter who is in the group each will be assessed individually. This is where the accountability comes in. I will never allow a student to ride on someone else’s coat tails.

    The second key to success is encouraging students to take ownership of the group,s success. They must discuss and decide their own group rules before the work begins.
    I call these Rules of Engagement. Here’s a sample, but they change depending on the activity
    a. How will you know if your group has been successful?
    b. How will the group handle someone who is not contributing?
    c. What will you do to ensure the group’s success?
    d. What will the roles be?
    e. How will you decide whose turn it is to speak?
    f. What will you do if someone is dominating the group?

    The students sit and discuss this. They write their group rules on sticky notes and refer to these when they run into difficulty. By making students plan ahead for conflict, you turn over control to them.

    Students must be taught the language of listening and conflict resolution.

    Support those students that you know will have difficulty working in a group.

    Differentiate your grouping based on needs. Accept that some students are not yet ready to work in a group. Maybe all they can handle is individual on partner work. That’s ok. I wouldn’t send my daughter onto the road in the car before she was ready. Why would a send students into situations where they might not be successful?

    Flexible Grouping is a relatively new term and a very effective way of forming groups. They are short-term and needs-based. Below are 2 posts about this form of grouping.

    I hope this helps!


  12. Valerie Mulholland
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:34:33

    Hi, Erin

    This might be helpful to you: Group work is at least as complicated to teach as is math. Given that, imagine if we taught math skills the way we teach group work? Here’s the scenario: A teacher flops down on the sofa in the staff room and says, “Oh, I tried multiplication with the grade 7s. They hated it. They just fooled around. I’m not doing that again. I’m staying with the addition.” Sounds crazy, but if you substitute ‘group work’ for math you get where I’m going. As a teacher, I am always working with a group. It is a life skill, not just a way of learning. My daughter works in business: works on teams. But it’s complex work that involves thinking, being and doing; therefore, it demands a lot from us and from students. That’s my two cents.


  13. John Lawrence
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:53:04

    1 person taking on the bulk of the work – that, sadly, is a situation that will repeat itself over and over. I’ve been thinking about this lately as I recently chaired a successful 1st – Online Conference for MT in early March. Work amongst the organizing committee was definitely not shared equally. So I been thinking about how I change this for next year?
    1. Make sure that the expectations of the new organizing committee members are clear and include specific time commitments.
    2. The idea for the OCMT conference was my idea and concept and I’m not sure that I communicated all of my thoughts about what the conference “should look like” effectively. So – lesson #2 – don’t expect everyone to read your mind about how and what they should be doing.
    3. Ideally, we should be able to hold everyone accountable for their actions but human beings seem to get touchy when we “grouch” on them so – lesson #3 – do your best all the time and make sure to compliment when work IS done well by your group members. As a presenter in the OCMT conference said, “People always have time for a compliment”


  14. Kelsey
    Mar 20, 2011 @ 23:59:37

    Kids need to learn how to work well in groups, stating that, they also need to understand that groups serve a purpose. Being able to understand the basic function of the group, assign (and understand) differing roles and then work together to achieve the task at hand is a hugely important skill for kids to learn + it transfers to the workplace.
    Effective group work depends on how well the teacher is able to manage the classroom and greatly depends on the instruction the children have had in how to participate during group work. You have to teach turn taking, listening skills, note taking, and about the different roles group members can take on. Conflict is a normal part of group work, especially during the storming phase of team development. Teach the children that, and teach them how to work through it and achieve success.
    I always use self and peer assessments when I have children doing group work, and depending on the grade level, I also give them role cards.
    Differentiated instruction becomes easier when you are grouping, plus you can always pair your struggling learners with higher achievers.
    I see no negatives to group work, the children who refuse to participate (at higher grade levels) – should be encouraged to try it out.


  15. Sue Davis
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 00:01:02

    A couple of ideas to encourage fair work assessment of groups/individuals:
    * Have a mid-way check in with the group. Ask them to show their work to date
    * Assign roles to group members and assess them on their role
    * Students keep regular journals on what they have contributed to the group work – list of tasks that they completed and timelines of how long that took
    * Group sets up division of tasks at the beginning of the project and gives this to the instructor.
    * Use group issues as ‘teachable moment’ to build communication, problem solving or team building skills.
    * Give students mini-lesson on assertiveness and on giving/receiving feedback.


  16. Trackback: Possible Pair and Group Combinations « Celeste's Blog
  17. Brittany
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 00:33:11

    Coming from a business background, I like using group work when the members have clearly defined roles. I think it is helpful to draw up a contract at the beginning of a large group project, and everyone outlines what each person will be responsible for. At the end, if something’s not there, you know who didn’t pull their weight. I think group work can be very effective for large tasks, and allows a lot of learning from their peers. Also, I would argue that the learning of social skills extends even into secondary grades. Students negotiate, collaborate, and solve conflicts, and although they do this in elementary, the experience with it as a young-adult helps prepare them for post-secondary education and “the real world”.


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