The dynamics of group work

Problem: Whenever I assign a group work activity, the classroom turns into a disorderly panic-stricken place. How do you manage to control yours?

Step 1-Before starting
Before starting a group work activity, we should make sure our students are aware of the benefits of working together and relate this to real life: we can start by telling a relevant story or a local proverb. Group work is a kind of social interaction. Therefore, we have to make sure our students can communicate with each other in English. Relevant questions that are going to build the students' interactive skills include:
What do you think of...?
Do you think that...?
Why is it important to....?
Do you agree that....?
What is your opinion concerning....?
Do you share his opinion?
These questions are only examples. What students will need depends on the task in question and their level.

Step 2-Assigning Roles
For our task to be successful, we have to make sure that nobody is left out of the group and that everyone will have a simple defined role: many teachers have come up with different names for those roles but they are basically the same. Here are a few:
Note Taker or Secretary
Presenter ,Spokesman or Reporter
Idea Generator
Noise Watcher
Speech Organizer
One can use these or invent her/his own roles. Nevertheless, we should always make sure that the roles do more or less fit the members' personality and level and that they are not similar. Asking the shyest person in the group to be the spokesman may not always the best bet.

Step 3- Tolerating Some Degree of Noise
Noise is not always supposed to be negative. In fact, it can be tolerated as long as it is kept to a low level. If it interferes with and annoys the other groups, one group is said to be "negatively" noisy.The noise will be there inevitably. But it has to be controlled and kept to a minimum. One good way to reduce noise is to ask one of the members to be the noise-watcher. The student will keep eye contact with the teacher and tell the group if they are exceeding the permitted limits. Some teachers keep a whistle to signal the level of noise is too high. Keeping colored cards to draw attention to the level of noise is also another conceivable option. A red card means the group is too noisy.

Step Four- Less Interference is Better
While the groups work, we should try to keep our presence as imperceptible as possible. Interfere a lot and you will make the groups less concentrated on their task. Interfere less and they are more productive. Does this mean we just sit down and "let the kids play"? No, the teacher has to go from group to group, listening, helping, giving feedback and making sure they are not loosing interest or ignoring the activity. We may want to be unobtrusive because we want to make the students take responsibility for their own learning, interact using English, and try to solve their problems by themselves. We may want to be there, however, in case they began to loose focus, they need more clarification, or have problems that they cannot resolve by themselves.

Step Five- Time management
It is important to set a time limit. We ought to make sure the task is feasible within that time limit. Doing a group task that will never be presented to the class because the bell rang is as detrimental as doing nothing at all. So we must let it be clear that the students have to finish in time. When they finish, the reporters will "report" their work to the rest of the class. After that, we can thank the groups for their efforts and make them see the worth of their cooperation. This will encourage them to make more effort and enjoy it when you decide to do more Cooperative Learning later.

Step Six: Fair grading
Fair grading is a major concern for teachers especially when using Cooperative Learning. How can we decide whether all the members worked evenly during a group activity? What should we really grade, the students' work as a whole or their individual contribution to the group work? Generally, group work should not only be about the product. It is also about the process. We shouldn't only grade the product because it may not reflect the members' contributions to the group. We have to make sure to include a kind of peer assessment form using a simple point system. The students are required to assess the involvement of their peers but they may also be asked to assess themselves. This will help the teacher to decide whether the grades are consistent later. Having our own group assessment form with the names of the groups and the members and assigning points as we go from group to group will also help us get a more accurate grading system. This, added to the product itself, will make a good basis for a fair grade.

Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching by Diane Larsen-Freeman (Second Edition)
(For a short and snappy explanation of what Cooperative Learning is about + a practical example)
Cooperative Learning: Resources for Teachers by Spencer Kagan
Cooperative Learning (Second Edition) By R. Slavin
A Guidebook for Cooperative Learning by D. Dishon and P. W. O'Leary

Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, "Commonly Asked Questions about Teaching Collaborative Activities

From the Internet:


Viktoria said...

Thanks It was a really useful tip because the group work so far is the most difficult method for me to use in the classroom.. There are some problems when providing it e.g. how to enable students to use only English during the work? maybe there are some interesting tips how to do it? Thanks for helping young teachers!

The Tunisian English Teaching Forum said...

To encourage students to use Englsh and make them refrain from using their native language, you may tell your students they will only get points if they use English.
Keep a checklist/ form (grading/points) and go from one group to another to make sure they do use English.
Remember that you can model this by encouraging your students in English when you go from one group to the other. By habitually doing this, your students are more predisposed to learn it.

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