Student collaboration is integral to learning. Collaboration helps students build their emotional, social and interpersonal skills. What’s more, students don’t learn facts and other information in a vacuum. Social learning helps these individuals form a more meaningful understanding of the world around them.

Collaboration, however, isn’t all fun and games. Simply bring up group work to the classroom and things take a different turn.

Although group work is a common type of student collaboration, this option can get messy and complicated – and this never works out well as the teacher would like. Some students feel left out. Others feel like doing most of the work. Motivation can sometimes wane.

If you’re designing a unit, lesson or activity that involves collaborative group work, you’ll need to make sure that you plan and facilitate this activity carefully. This way, group work won’t frustrate students and feel like a waste of time. 

Here are a few suggestions that can help encourage group work productivity and keep mayhem at bay:

Break Down the Work of Students Ahead of Schedule

If you’ve undergone effective group facilitation training, one of the things that you’ll learn is that group work takes a lot of scaffolding. You should never expect students to know how to divvy up the work by themselves. Working together to break down and assign responsibilities is a challenging task for any group, even for adults.

So, make sure that the distribution of workload is clear to everyone. Do your best to create interdependent tasks – the kind that requires individuals to work both together and independently.

Make Production the Outcome

Grouping students to simply discuss something is a recipe for disaster. If students need to work toward making something to submit or share with everyone, they’re less likely to linger in off-task conversations.

This may entail a graphic organizer that every student should complete or a graffiti-like poster in the middle of the classroom table wherein everyone records ideas.

If each student is doing their version of the task, don’t forget to announce that you will be collecting one paper per group, which will be revealed at the end of the group work. Once the time is up, use random criteria, such as the “person whose birthday falls in September” or “the student with C+ grade in Chemistry” to determine whose paper it will be.

Provide Students a Framework to Understand Their Responsibilities and Roles

Conventional group work roles, such as note taker and timekeeper, tend to be administrative. Although these roles are well-intentioned, they do not usually directly contribute to learning goals and fall short of supporting genuine collaboration.

The solution, therefore, is to structure the roles differently. When students share ownership of what they are learning, every person should have multiple roles to play. There should be one task that a student to own individually, another task that supports a peer and the responsibility to evaluate both themselves and other members of the group.

Incorporate Community Builders

Group work can sometimes falter simply because students do not respect, like or know one another – yet. As a facilitator, consider suggesting every student begin with an opening prompt.

Here’s an example you can use: “Before we begin with the activity, share your favorite milk tea flavor.” Alternatively, you can ask students to fist bump each other when they finish each step of a task.

You could also display entertaining anchor questions for students to discuss once they are finished. This type of question prevents students from drifting into unchartered conversations or work while offering a structure that allows students to go beyond the content to uncover connections with one another. You can make these questions related to the task or content. Here is an example anchor question: “Where have you seen this particular topic portrayed in the media or real life?”

Give an Easy Task First, Then Make It Challenging

When you are giving a group work, provide an easy task early in the activity. This will help arouse the interest in group work and push students to go further.

Collaborative exercises, in most cases, should be challenging and stimulating. By pooling resources and tackling differences of opinion that arise, groups of students can develop a more sophisticated output than they could as individuals.

Think About the Size of the Group

The size you pick will depend on various factors, including the task you assign, the variety of voices required within a group, the size of the classroom and the number of students. Groups consisting of four to five students tend to balance the needs for cohesion, active participation, productivity and diversity. You should consider keeping the groups small if the group members are less skillful.

Group work in the classroom can be more meaningful with the right management strategies. Take note of these tips to improve engagement while keeping chaos at a minimum.

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