Having students work in groups lets them practice the skills they are learning. Speaking in front of the whole class can be scary, and combined with the tension of speaking to the teacher, the situation can be downright terrifying to students. Breaking them up into groups not only develops social skills useful in the professional environment for which they are training, but gives them a chance to perform in a supportive environment before a test or even before having to do homework on the topic on their own.
Organizing the Groups
Keep in mind the following elements of group work when selecting the appropriate type of group work for your class.
- Size: Two to six people in a group is ideal. The smaller the group, the more likely each student will be to contribute to the discussion. Groups of two or three students are sufficient for simple tasks for which consensus should be reached quickly. Groups of four to six are better for more complex tasks in which a greater number of ideas may improve the final results.
- Selection: You should either assign students randomly to groups or select students so that each group has an equal distribution of talents. Do not let students choose their own teams, for they may team up with friends or form cliques that can get off topic. Video on group formation (running time 4:57).
- Duration: Use the groups for a brief discussion in class or for all semester. Long-term groups work more substantively and less superficially.
To derive the greatest benefit from the group interaction, you should spend a few minutes clarifying the students’ roles and the expectations for the group’s work.
Designating Roles in Groups
Groups that are created for in-class discussion can be easily organized around a four-person model based on roles. Each member of the group plays a specific role that supports the team’s collaborative effort. These roles include:
- Leader: Responsible for keeping the group on task, maintaining the schedule (meetings, deadlines), and maintaining contact information (phone numbers, emails).
- Encourager: Encourages conversation and inclusion of all opinions, and guides the discussion toward consensus.
- Prober: Ensures that the assumptions are correct and that there is sufficient evidence for the solution.
- Recorder: Writes down the group’s solution that will be submitted for the group grade.
While some people will tend to lead and some will tend to follow, everyone should be willing to compromise and modify their ideas in the interest of group unity. If the groups are going to be working together on a long-term project or multiple tasks, you may wish to modify these roles to emulate roles that one might encounter in your discipline. Ensure that the students rotate through these positions. Try to break a long project into at least as many tasks as there are people in each group and have the students rotate through the roles each time they start a new task.
Sharing Group Results
Students should share the results of their group with the class at large. This holds them accountable to show their work. Having to show the other groups what they did can increase their motivation to produce higher level work. While in the past, instructors were used to having groups report out their work either verbally or on newsprint posted on walls along with a walk-around format, for long-term projects, many social pedagogies now exist that can be employed, such as Prezi presentations or having students create a Public Service Announcement (PSA), blog, or a web page of their results. Do not forget to debrief students about the lessons they might have learned from the group work.
Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design
Discussion can motivate students, especially when the activity involves authentic learning—that is, real world and messy—allowing students to collaborate, reflect on, and synthesize their learning. When planning the structure for a discussion, look for one that will hold students accountable to their peers, not just the instructor, in a public way (Bass & Elmendorf, 2011).
IDEA Paper #49 Effective Classroom Discussion
This paper sets out basic principles to create the expectation for student discussion, as well as the role of the instructor in fostering discussion in class.
Team-Based Learning is an advanced form of group work in which content coverage is pushed outside of the class, with students using precious in-class time to take quizzes to show they have mastered the content and then practice the application of critical disciplinary skills such as problem-solving and argumentation. For more information, go the TBL website, which has many videos, including ones on forming groups, the difference between groups and teams, and peer evaluation of team members.
Who Is Doing This at IUB?
The National Study of Student Engagement data show that 68% of IUB seniors engage in class discussion. Many IUB professors commonly use various discussion techniques. Some specific examples are listed below:
Prof. Jill Robinson (Chemistry) uses small groups for problem solving and “clickers” to collect student responses to get students to think deeply about fundamental chemical principles that can influence our climate. She does so even though she is teaching a large class (140-student C118: Principles of Chemistry and Biochemistry) and often teaching in a challenging classroom space.
Biology Professor and Carnegie Scholar Whitney Schlegel leads students to learn with their peers by engaging in discussion, problem-solving, and inquiry by using team members as a resource in classes of over 100. She utilizes a high-tech classroom so that students can show the products of their group work during class.
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