Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Classroom Issues/Group Work

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How can resistance to working with others be overcome?
Peer learning has been suggested by many as an educational innovation that can transform students’ learning experiences.

—Blumenfeld, Krajcik, Marx, and Soloway, 1996

Multiple studies have demonstrated the success of working in groups for the benefit of the student. Group work to be effective has to be integrated into the classroom on an everyday basis. (Chowne, Baines, Basset, Blatchford, and Rubie-Davies). The idea of group work arises from a general movement toward student-centered learning and partly from the recommendations of social constructivist research whereas it is becoming important to provide students with an opportunity to articulate and reflect their own ideas. (Bennett, Campbell, Hogarth, Lubben, and Robinson, 2005). Lectures are no longer considered a sufficient means to instruct students. Although group work is important in the classroom, it should be considered a part of the instructional method...not a replacement. Student to student interaction helps improve attitudes toward school, develop thinking skills, foster achievement, and assist in improving relationship skills. (Blumenfeld, Krajcik, Marx, and Soloway, 1996).

Collaborative Learning[edit]

Collaborative learning is a method in which students are organized together to explore a question or create a project. It can happen anywhere or at anytime when a group of students work together. There are numerous ways to structure group work even though the end goal is academics and/or improved people skills. The activities can range from highly structured when the students learn skills and definitions to open-ended when the students have to synthesize a question or identify a problem and then solve the question. Ultimately, the activities "center on the students' exploration or application of the course material, not just the teacher's presentation, or explication of it.” (Smith and MacGregor, 1992).

Collaborative learning is based on assumptions about the learners and the learning process. Whereas learning is an active, constructive process that requires the student to work actively and integrate new information with what they already know. They are synthesizing something new with the information and ideas. Learning depends on contexts in which activities begin with problems that the students must gather facts and ideas to solve. This technique challenges the students "to practice and develop higher order reasoning and problem solving skills.” (Smith and MacGregor, 1992). Learners are diverse and each student has a different perspective to bring to the classroom based on their backgrounds, learning style, experiences, and aspirations. Lastly, learning is inherently social. Student interaction stimulates new thought and feedback that often leads to a better understanding of the subject for the students.

The benefits to small group learning can include celebration of diversity, acknowledgement of individual differences, interpersonal development, actively involving the students in the learning process, and the opportunities for more feedback. (Thirteen Ed online).

Cooperative Learning[edit]

Cooperative learning is a specific type of collaborative learning in which students work together in groups on a guided structured activity assigned by the teacher that improve their understanding of the topics explored. Three conditions are necessary for cooperative learning to work a) students feel safe and challenged; b) groups need to be small enough so that everyone can contribute; and the tasks assigned must be clearly defined. (Thirteen Ed online).

The characteristics of cooperative learning are:

  1. Learners actively participate
  2. Teachers learn and learner’s sometimes teach
  3. Respect is given to every member
  4. Projects and questions interest and challenge students
  5. Diversity is celebrated, and all contributions are valued
  6. Students learn skill for resolving conflicts when they arise
  7. Members draw on past experience and knowledge
  8. Goals are clearly defined and used as a guide
  9. Research tools like the internet are valued
  10. Students are inverted in their own learning. (Smith, and MacGregor, 1992)

Elements of Cooperative Learning[edit]

It is under these conditions that cooperative efforts may be more productive than individually.

  1. Positive interdependence means that each member's participation is required. Each member has a unique contribution to make an effort because of his/her resources and/or role and task responsibilities.
  2. Face to face interaction is important for the concept of teaching each other's knowledge to the other, discussion of the concepts, checking for comprehension of the topic, and the ability to orally explain how to solve problems.
  3. Individual and group accountability means that no one student has to do all the work. The intention of this condition is that groups are kept small intentionally to maximize group accountability. Additionally, each member may be required to present their groups work in front of the class. Members may also be observed and recorded with the frequency of his/her contributions to the group.
  4. Interpersonal and small-group skills are important to develop the social skills or leadership, decision -making, trust building, communication, and conflict management.
  5. Group processing is the final step when members discuss how well they are achieving the goals set and maintaining equal partnership in the group. If they see unequal distribution of the workload now would be the time to make a decision about what could change or continue. (Kennesaw State University)

Examples of Cooperative Learning[edit]

According to Prince George County Public Schools, there are many examples to get a teacher ready to use cooperative learning in the classroom. These examples are listed below.

Think-Pair-Share
Students listen to a proposed question. They then think of a response to the question. Next they pair to discuss the response and then share their responses with the rest of the class.
Three-Step Interview
Students pair up in groups and one person is the interviewee and the other is the interviewer. Then students switch roles. They can then share with the class what their partners had to say about their interview topic.
Roundtable
Students get in groups of three or more. They are then given a question to answer and a piece of paper is passed around the table until time is up. Once time is up, the group with the most correct responses wins.
Numbered Heads Together
Students are all given numbers in a group, and then they are given a question to answer. Once time is up the teacher calls a number and only that number can answer the given question.
Pairs Check
Students work in pairs to answer questions on a given worksheet. They then work together with another pair of students to check the answers. Answers are checked to make sure that everyone in both pairs agrees.
Send a Problem
Each team writes review questions on flash cards. After everyone in the team agrees on an answer to the question, they write the answer on the back of the card. They then pass the groups of cards onto another group. If a group doesn’t agree with an answer then they write down the alternative answers. At the end of the discussion, students can discuss the alternative answers that were given.

Project-based Learning[edit]

Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats.

—Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for teaching

Project-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method in which students collaborate. PBL differs from the inquiry-based cooperative learning because it requires the students to actively think. Students instead of answering a predetermined question are required to ask their own inquiry and then research the answer that they perceive from what they already know.

Students pursue solutions to problems by asking and refining questions; debating ideas; making predictions; designing plans and/or experiments; collecting and analyzing data; drawing conclusions; communicating their ideas and findings to others; asking new questions; and creating models/concrete evidence. (Global SchoolNet Foundation).

Four features that facilitate the use of project-based instruction in K-12 classrooms are:

  1. A “driving question” that deals with a real-world problem and encompasses multiple content areas.
  2. Allows students to research in order to learn concepts, apply information, and represent their knowledge
  3. Collaboration between students, teachers, and others outside of the classroom so knowledge is diffuse into the “learning community”
  4. Use of technological tools in the learning environment that support student’s representation of ideas: computer laboratories, hypermedia, graphing applications, and telecommunications.

How Groups Work[edit]

The art of cooperation is established when the teacher organizes the groups and then assigns role. The group is held accountable for learning all the information they find within the group and any additional information that may be presented by the other groups. Overall, students will be graded both as a group and individually. This type of grading addresses the concerns that both the student and the parent have about working in groups. The students’ grade will not be pulled down because of the group they were in.

Research has shown that successful groups promote(a) student exchanges that enhance reasoning and higher thinking;(b) cognitive processing such as rehearsing, organizing, and integrating information;(c) perspective-taking and accommodation to others' ideas; and(d) acceptance and encouragement among those involved with work. (Bossert, 1988-1989).

The teacher is a facilitator for group work. The idea of group work is not the replacement of the teacher, but rather integrating this instructional method into the classroom to assist in demonstrating ideas. For group work to succeed ultimately, teachers need to consider 1) norms, 2) tasks, 3) help giving and seeking, 4) accountability, and 5) group composition. (Blumenfeld, Krajcik, Marx, and Soloway, 1996).

Norms[edit]

Group norms have to be established in order for there to be effective group work. Students need to have guidelines stated that will promote the sharing of ideas, taking risks, disagreeing with and listening to others, and generating and reconciling points of view. Since students are used to working by themselves, it is difficult to know if they will actually cooperate with one another. Problems such as a member not participating and leaving the work to the others while still earning the same goal should be prevented along with the domination or rejection of group members. It is up to the teacher to promote positive norms that include teaching the concept of cooperation including the art of listening and resolving conflicts, teaching students to appreciate the skills and abilities of others and using incentives that promote interdependency.

Tasks[edit]

Tasks assigned by the teacher need to be problem-solving ones that may have more than one right answer. Students connect with each other to explain their solutions and discussion will lead to more elaborate responses to help others understand the perspectives taken. These types of tasks promote student interchanges and the possibility for learning which in turn results in the sharing of ideas, accommodation of others’ perspectives, and the giving and taking of help. It is the teacher’s job to facilitate the process of argumentation and consider other alternatives not yet thought.

Giving and Seeking Help[edit]

The giving and seeking of help are the main purpose of group work. Help giving and seeking is only useful if it is timely, elaborated, comprehensible, logical, and correct to avoid erroneous beliefs. Students may need assistance to elaborate their thinking and teachers can help the students create good explanations with giving examples, creating analogies, and using multiple representations. The troubling problem is that some students will not or cannot recognize that they have difficulties because they do not know how to ask or if they do ask for help it may be misconstrued as incompetence. A teacher needs to foster in the classroom an environment that students can come to each other for help.

Accountability[edit]

Incentives can influence group interaction, and whether or not there is cooperation among student groups. Evaluation needs to be based on both individual performance and group performance. Individual accountability means that no one person will do the whole groups work. However, giving the group one grade means that the members have to cooperate with each other. The downside to individual grading is that the student will perceive participation in the group as wasteful and will not interact. Furthermore, giving the group a single grade can translate into the blame game and ill will toward other members who did not work as hard. Therefore, combining the two will result in the greatest possible outcome that high achieving students will not get a bad grade as a result of the group, and low-achieving students may get a confidence boost with a higher grade than usual.

Composition[edit]

The composition of a group is important to its performance overall. The variety of achievement levels, race and ethnicity, and gender has an impact on how students interact, who benefits, and whether or not students engage in serious thought. Low achievers and special education students are stigmatized in some groups; high-achieving students may dominate; and low-ability students may lack skills and misinterpret the task. The function of a group is successful when members are drawn from either high and middle or low and middle achievement levels. The mix affects peer acceptance, encouragement and interaction. It is prudent for the teacher to address the issues prior to creating groups by using techniques like having a low-achievement or minority student teach a concept they received prior instruction on to high-achievement or majority students and using tasks that require multiple abilities/skills so that all students can contribute (Blumenfeld, Krajcik, Marx, and Soloway, 1996).

Assessment[edit]

Assessing students in cooperative learning activities can be challenging, especially when there are many groups in a classroom. According to Regina Public Schools and Saskatchewan Learning(2003), there are different ways to assess students in a cooperative learning group.

Reflection Journals
These can be used during the closing of a lesson or activity period to allow students to reflect on their experiences, understandings and group work. The journals provide a record of accomplishments and one more resource for evaluation and assessment.
Group and Peer Assessment
Prior to the activity or project, a list of descriptors is provided for or brainstormed by the large group. Throughout the activity or at the end of the activity, each member of the group provides an assessment of their effort in the assigned task. A rating scale or mark is accompanied by the student's explanation for the rating. Group members can also provide a rating for another group member and give a reason for the rating.

Conclusion[edit]

The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, 1831

Group work is an integral part of the instructional method. Teachers need to embrace this concept and understand the advantages to it. Group work allows the student to play an active role in the learning process instead of just being passive. It has been proven that students learn more if they participate in an activity rather than a lecture. Additionally, group work motivates students who are otherwise low-achievers. The diffusion of ideas allows the students to better understand the concepts that are being taught. After all one way of explaining an idea might not be as good as another way of explaining.

Teachers need to recognize that they need to make conscious decisions about how to promote group norms, help students develop skill and habits to learn with peers design and select tasks and group students in a way that promotes learning and determining ways to hold students accountable.

The skills that students will acquire in group work should serve them as adults. In the workplace, it is essential for workers to be able to cooperate on projects, just as it is essential for students to learn the skills in school.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Mrs. Wilson is planning to teach a module on dinosaurs. She intends give the students a worksheet to be completed in groups. What type of learning is this?
A. Collaborative learning
B. Project-based learning
C. Cooperative learning
D. Lecture/multimedia

C. Cooperative learning

Sara is a high achieving student, what type of group might you assign her to?
A. A middle and low achieving group
B. A high and middle achieving group
C. A high achieving group
D. A high and low achieving group

B. A high and middle achieving group

Mr. Myer's class is studying World War I. What method allows groups of students to ask their own questions?
A. Collaborative learning
B. Discussion groups
C. Cooperative learning
D. Project-based learning

A. Collaborative learning

Group learning is not important for which reason?
A. Application in the real world.
B. Diffusion of ideas based on diversity.
C. Development of interpersonal skills.
D. Social connections for the future.

D. Social connections for the future.

Mrs. Patterson previously has allowed students to form their own groups, but she now realizes that she shouldn't because...
A. All the students are failing.
B. There is a unequal distribution of skills and knowledge and conflict within the groups.
C. Every group is participating at the same level of proficiency.
D. All the students are achieving above expectation.

B. There is a unequal distribution of skills and knowledge and conflict within the groups.

Reflection journals can be used for cooperative learning activities as assessment of students. When are they best used?
A. They are best used before the group activity begins.
B. They are best used during the group activity.
C. They should not be used, because they have no educational value.
D. They are best used during the end of the activity.

D. They are best used during the end of the activity.

What is one of the benefits of using reflection journals during cooperative learning activities?
A. They do not have any benefits. They are just busy work for the student.
B. They are considered a record of accomplishments for the student and the teacher.
C. They keep the students occupied at the end of the activity.
D. They reveal which group member participated in the activity.

B. They are considered a record of accomplishments for the student and the teacher.

During group and peer assessment, students...
A. Rate their own effort in the assigned task using a rating scale created by the class.
B. Are rated by the teacher during the activity using a teacher created rubric.
C. Rate only the students in their group by writing one sentence about each student.
D. Rate other students only if they had a positive input to the project.

A. Rate their own effort in the assigned task using a rating scale created by the class.

If Bobby, Jenny, and Stacey, three students in Ms. Jones’ class, are given a question to think about and then share their answers with one another before sharing them with the class. Their teacher is practicing what model of cooperative learning?
A. Send a problem
B. Roundtable
C. Think-Pair-Share
D. Pairs Check

C. Think-Pair-Share

Ms Trent cause collaborative learning to help her class ___________.
A. Become more diverse.
B. Sit together at lunch.
C. Form teams at recess.
D. Play games on the computer.

A. Become more diverse.

The Assignment that Ms. Caine gives her class requires them to sit down and form groups to share information with one another. This is an example of what?
A. Cooperative Learning
B. Forming Cliques
C. Separating students based on abilities
D. Grouping students by grades.

A. Cooperative Learning

When Mrs. Smith uses face-to-face interaction, what is this an element of?
A. Cooperative learning
B. Accountability
C. Project-based learning

A. Cooperative learning

When Mr. Jones asked his students to pursue solutions to problems by asking and refining questions and debating ideas, what does this represent?
A. Dialogue
B. Multi-channel
C. Project-based learning

C. Project-based learning

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

How would you implement group work into a classroom and why?

Project-based learning is a great tool for the classroom. Students are organized into groups and have to synthesize a question within the parameters of the module. For example, World War II, the students could synthesize numerous questions. The goal of the group is to create a question and then with their shared knowledge come up with and answer. The next step would be that they research the question they have and see what information might confirm or disprove the group’s conclusion.

The teacher would grade the student as an individual and as a group; the group could grade each other on participation. The individual student needs to be able to report to his/her group and then the group has to understand the individual well enough to present to the class. Accountability is everything within a group and if students feel that they will not be brought down by the group, cooperation is maximized.

Instruction is evolving with technological advancements and with the availability of the internet, information has become easier to find. Students do not have to gather information just from the teacher; now the student can explore topics and subjects of importance on his/her own. Moreover, students need to learn these skills now in order for them to function in the real world.


In a high school math class I would use group work to give the students a chance to have a better understanding of what they are learning. I think the students will need a little bit of time to process the information they just learned on their own, first. After teaching a new subject I could first assign homework on it to let the students try it on their own. The next day in class I would put the students into small groups of maybe 4 and have each student, one at a time, explain to the rest of the group how to work a problem. By saying the process out loud the students are more likely to retain the information. When you talk out loud about what you have done to solve a problem, you are reinforcing the information and maybe even getting a deeper understanding of it. The students in the group who are listening to the speaker may have questions. By thinking about these questions the speaker will be forced to think of something that he or she had may not have thought of when working the problem by his/herself. Everybody in the group benefits by having a deeper understanding of the topic than they did before the group work. You have to be careful using group work with younger high school students. They are more likely than, say, the seniors to get off the topic and turn group work into socializing. Group work can still work for these younger students, you just have to watch them more carefully to make sure they are staying on track. —Vanessa White


The reason I would implement group work is to give children an opportunity to learn in a different way, to communicate with others, and to solve problems with their peers. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect a child to sit quiet and work independently on lectures or practice day after day. I think there is a lot of benefit to group work in the classroom, for the student and the teacher if implemented well.

I am a first year teacher, moving into my 8th week of teaching, so my credibility is limited. However, my traditional setup in the classroom is to have peer to peer practice on a regular basis. I find I lose some control in full group situations, but pairing works really well and is much easier to maintain a civil environment. A traditional day in class would include a session of note-taking and class discussion, followed by a quick lab (if I have one, which is not too often right now), and then they pair up and practice. We have had some opportunities where the children wrote notes on flash cards instead of paper, and they practiced with those. I have been experimenting with the children writing their own questions (about 5) and then pairing up to ask those questions. If we have more time, I let them switch to a new partner.

During this time, I walk around and give suggestions for how to recall or understand a concept, I listen to make sure they are on task and trying, and finally I assign a grade right then and there for class work. No additional paperwork or late night grading required. The students give me a lot of positive feedback on being able to talk and work together. This setup seems to work especially well in my inclusion classes with special education children. —Stephen Edwards


I believe students should work in small groups at least three to four times a week. My teaching experience has been in Reading, Writing, and Science. Students often read in groups or with partners. This can be helpful for some students simply because it is different from silent reading and the teacher reading to the class aloud. When students have a writing assignment, peer editing can be a wonderful example of group work. Students need to learn to give and get feedback from their peers. As they further in their education, constructive criticism will play a major role. In a Science classroom students working in groups may be more familiar for both students and teachers. Students perform scientific experiments, collect data, and make predictions. When I taught Science, I remember how engaged students became while doing experiments on friction and electricity. Not only were these activities fun for the students, but it also kept each student wanting to participate.

Teachers should consider collaborative and cooperative learning in every content area. Students working and creating together can be a great learning experience. When students work together each group member can contribute something both different and helpful. While working in groups children can learn to respect one another as they combine multiple ideas and opinions to form one product. It's important to remember that grouping students of different learning styles together can be difficult at first, but as the students become comfortable expressing their own ideas and accepting of their peers' ideas they will thrive. The positive aspects of students working in groups will outshine any negative aspects. —Amanda Foster


Group work in the classroom is an efficient way to reach all students regardless of their learning type. Group Work cultivates a more active learning process, through exposing students to different techniques and ways of thinking, while learning to work with other students. When working in groups, students can feel a sense of belonging, and this gives students an opportunity to learn and teach one another. Research and experience shows that students’ often learn better from each other than they do from a teacher. That is why as educators we should utilize group work in the classroom, keeping in mind certain guidelines.

There are different learning goals that one can achieve through having students work together in small groups or pairs. I would put the students in small groups so they can review problems for exams, compare and contrast ideas, solve problems, and summarize main points. Consider what your goals are for the activity and what you want the students to get out from the activity. You can structure these groups either by assigning them, randomly, or once you know your students pair them up accordingly (weak students with a strong student) and so fourth.

As the teacher I would respond through involving all members of a group in hands-on learning activities where students are assigned roles. For instance one student could be the recorder, another in charge of materials, and one could perform the activity. These roles should rotate so that each student is involved in every part of the process and has a chance to play different roles.

The reason group work is important is because students are observing and also contributing to the task. Students can learn from each other in the group. Students will learn to work together and to contribute to the group success, and how to express their opinions and accept their peers’ opinions. —Christine Murray


I would implement group work in the classroom to create a workable environment for my students. By having the input of their peers, they will be more alert and open to other ideas and viewpoints. It was interesting learning about Project based learning activities. I love doing projects and I definitely plan on bringing them into my future classroom. I will put them into groups and have them work on something interesting. In my classroom, I would have them pair up into groups on a weekly or daily basis and mix up the groups’ every time. I think by mixing up the groups, they are less likely to form clicks. In the groups I’d assign each person to a different role. For example, there would be a leader, recorder, writer and researcher. They eventually would take turns by changing roles. By changing roles, the students will learn a little more about the assignment from a different angle and promote interdependency. With group work, the students will be forced to actively participate and contribute the group at some point. Every classroom should be organized into groups at all times. Throughout the school year, I would rotate the groups to ensure that everyone works together at some point. —Maxine Sharpe


To implement group learning in my classroom I would begin by organizing my students into groups. The groups would be balanced based on the strengths and weaknesses of my individual students. For example, the highest achievers would be with the lowest achievers, and in the middle areas students would be grouped based on other determining factors. Each student would have a role within the group, and each project I assigned would make sure that each student’s role was utilized so that each student made meaningful contributions to the project.

The projects would vary in their objectives. Some would be open ended and have the students make their own investigations and discoveries and present their final viewpoints to the class. Some projects would require a more concrete and determined result. No matter what the project the objectives would be clearly stated and understood via a rubric, so that the students could gauge whether their work has been done to the necessary standards for completion.

Grading would be both individual and group based. The students would receive two grades per project, one for individual participation and one for the group’s final result. The students would provide each other’s grade for individual participation – there would be a grade sheet each student would turn in that would be filled out by each teammate. This would also weigh in with teacher observations of participation to prevent unsatisfactory grading based on attitudes or personal issue between students. The group grade would be assesses based on performance as guided by the rubric for each project.

Having students complete projects in group learning situations will foster social interaction skills and allow them to see different perspectives aligning towards achieving the same goal. —Michelle Wood

References[edit]