Teaching Opinion

Making the Most of Group Work Time

By Starr Sackstein — December 13, 2018 5 min read
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Group work has the positive benefit of allowing students to take ownership of their learning and also develop collaboration skills while they work productively to problem solve and grow as learners.

But it doesn’t just happen that way.

When we are developing projects for students to work on, we have to make sure to have the end in mind, considering the skills and content we want them to master and then we should backward plan from the end. This way, we can figure out the mini-lessons we will need to teach for the whole class and also predict some potential stumbling blocks.

It’s also a good idea to try doing the project as it is written before you assign it to students. Where do you feel challenged? How can you adjust the directions for more ease in the process?

Once the project has been designed, which skills the students will be using, and how it aligns with the standards, we must determine how much time should be allotted for the learning, how students will be grouped, and how success will be determined?

In a perfect world, students are a part of the design of the project as well as the success criteria, and even bringing them into the standards alignment, helps them understand the expectations before they get started. The more control they have over the learning, the more control they have over the outcome.

From there, teachers can make the most of how the class time runs.

Here are some things teachers can do while students do the heavy lifting of group learning and collaboration:

  • Gather data: During this time, teachers can create data-collection sheets that align with the particular learning targets for the day. If students are working on finding textual evidence in a group jigsaw, then one data point you can collect is what kinds of evidence are they selecting and how well does it align with their topic. Having a ready-made class roster in a doc, with the flexibility to shift the way the columns look daily, can make data collection a breeze. Grab your handy clipboard and your most up-to-date data-collection sheet and walk around making notes. Finish up the data gathering with the information you learn from the exit ticket, which should also be aligned with each day’s learning target.
  • Small-group instruction, pull-out: While groups are working, this is a great time to do small-group instruction that reinforces skills that may need to be retaught. Once you’ve gathered the data, you can pull a small group for five to eight minutes to reteach something that will help them be successful on the current project.
  • Small-group instruction, on the spot: As you’re walking around, it is likely there are times students may need help with the specific challenges of the new assignment. As you walk around the room, you should be checking in with each group, answering questions as you go. Sometimes you may hear different students asking the same questions, and this could be an opportunity to stop class for a second and answer the question for the whole class. With this clarification, you may save yourself some time in the process. Always make sure to make a note of where these questions are arising so that when you plan again in the future, you can pre-emptively head off a problem.
  • Individual conferences: Group work is also a great time to do individual student check-ins or conferences. If it is near the midpoint of a semester or the end of a marking period, it’s great to schedule time with each student to talk about his/her progress and/or goals. This reflective conversation helps both you and the student really recognize progress. It helps to have a schedule ahead of time so that students can prepare for the conversation and time isn’t wasted in class.
  • Small-group observations: Teachers can use this time to watch students interact with each other. Who is doing the lion’s share of the work? How do they interact? Is there a leader? Were roles selected? Are all students on task? What kinds of body language are students exhibiting and what does that tell you about their engagement in the activity? We must be actively watching what is happening in the classroom to ensure that we made good groupings, that time is being well-spent, and that students are being respectful of each other’s learning. The more vigilant we are, the more likely fewer students will fall through the cracks.
  • Provide feedback: This is a great time to provide substantive, formative feedback throughout the process to make sure that students do their best work. That doesn’t mean solve problems for students; it just means provide specific, strategic, constructive feedback that will help them stay on track and push a little harder.

Although the teacher won’t be at the front of the room for much of the group work time, the teacher shouldn’t be at the desk doing something else. We must be able to ensure that the learning is happening and make adjustments as we go. No matter how well planned a project is, adjustments will almost always need to be made based on the different learners in our groups.

Always make sure that students know why they are doing the projects, what they are learning, and how they can be successful. Check in on them and make sure they can speak to those questions throughout the project time in class and then take the data you observe or discuss and use it to plan future lessons.

If the project is going on for multiple days, students should have clear benchmark goals and exit tickets or goal reflections daily. This can be another way to monitor learning and provide additional support the next day. If students are using a platform like Google, make sure they share their work with you right away. This will be another way to provide feedback and monitor progress along the way. This can also help you fill out the data sheet at the end of a class period to help you decide who will need additional help the next day.

One of the best parts of orchestrating great group work in class is the amount of flexibility it gives a teacher to really work with students where they are. It also allows students to work at an appropriate pace, learn how to collaborate, and collectively problem solve.

How do you make the most of group work time in your classes? Please share

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