Teaching Letter to the Editor

When Can ‘Group Work’ Be Productive?

January 17, 2023 1 min read
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To the Editor:

I have a suggestion for the author of the essay “I’m a Student. Here’s Why Group Work Feels So Unfair” (Nov. 11, 2022).

In Don Meichenbaum’s and my book, Nurturing Independent Learners (Brookline Books, 1998), we reported observations that students who helped their peers and planned together had better problem-solving skills and more self-directed thinking. This was true for less advanced students as well as more advanced students. However, less advanced students rarely had opportunities to assist others in classrooms.

Graduate student Alison Inglis completed a Ph.D. thesis in 2002 on putting less advanced 4th grade students in helping situations with 2nd grade students during math lessons, which led to substantial gains in math problem-solving for 30 students. Teaching students to help was necessary to obtain gains in problem-solving; just tutoring others without support did not have the same effect.

As one byproduct of that project, I began assigning group projects for my own education students. Initially, they worked in groups of four or five. However, as the writer of the essay reported, much of the work seemed to devolve on a few—not real collaboration. I then shifted to teams of two. The problem of who did the work vanished, and a lot of real collaboration and thinking resulted.

Andrew Biemiller
Professor Emeritus
University of Toronto
Barrie, Ontario, Canada

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A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as When Can ‘Group Work’ Be Productive?


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