Teaching Profession

High School Students Say Student-Led Discussions and Group Work Often Go Awry

By Madeline Will — June 03, 2016 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Veteran education columnist Maureen Downey wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week about “what teens resent” in school. The answer might surprise you: disrupted learning and wasted time in classes and group projects.

Downey interviewed several groups of Georgia high schoolers and repeatedly heard that students don’t like it when “teachers don’t intervene when students commandeer classroom discussions or divert them.” She wrote:

Repeatedly, students told me they could learn twice as much in half the time if teachers rein in their rambling peers. The kids described unproductive classrooms where too much time is sacrificed to irrelevant chatter or tangents. A boy sheepishly said he would deliberately derail his Spanish teacher, a recent college grad struggling with classroom management, with meandering comments and 'sort of became famous for it.'"

Student-led learning has been a popular instructional strategy as teachers move away from lectures to student-directed discussions in order to let students take more control of their own learning. But clearly it can be a problem if not managed effectively: The students told Downey that when “kids decide how much and when to talk—the students end up being in charge, not the teachers ... lead[ing] to diminished learning.”

Meanwhile, the students also said they hate group projects. They complained about having to rely on flaky peers, and they agreed that “the smartest kids do all the work because the grade matters to them.”

One so-called “academic striver” told Downey that he usually dreaded group assignments where less-motivated students would slack off and leave him to do the bulk of the work. But when he did group projects in advanced classes, he learned to like it: “When you work with someone who wants the A as much as you do, group projects can be pretty fun,” he said.

Like with most things, both student-led learning and group projects have benefits despite the negative opinions. Group work is meant to teach students collaboration, and when teachers take a step back to let students initiate the class discussions, it can empower students. In her column, Downey questions the effectiveness of student-led learning when “a few extroverts reduce discussion to recitation,” but when implemented correctly, there are real benefits. Students are often more engaged, which can lead to a deeper learning. But as the stories Downey heard prove, it’s not as simple as letting students take over the class discussion without teachers stopping any irrelevant tangents. It’s also important for teachers to make sure all students feel comfortable to participate in the discussion.

In a Teaching Channel video, a high school English Language Arts teacher shares how she gently guides a student-led discussion while letting her students take ownership of their learning. For teachers wondering how to implement student-led learning in their own classroom without getting the kind of student reaction Downey heard, it’s worth a watch.

It seems like good classroom-management techniques can make all the difference — Teachers, how do you assign group work? Or make room for student-led learning?

Read More:

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.