Instructional Pitfalls #5: Garbled Group Work

For this final installment of the ‘Instructional Pitfalls’ series, we’re focusing on group work – something we all use in some format and that usually goes wrong without clear routines and procedures.  Here’s what often happens: we tell students to talk at their tables about something or to complete an assignment together, and as we look around the room we see a couple of groups collaborating well (yay!), but inevitably we also see some groups just looking at each other reluctantly, other groups where one person is doing the lion’s share of the work, and a couple of tables where one student is working (or not working) completely independent from the rest of the group.  The risk of group work like this is that the resulting student learning is very uneven.  A handful of students get the high-level understanding we aimed for, but some students end up with no learning at all.  Worse, if they complete their work as a group we may not even know which individual students don’t understand until the next quiz, possibly days later.  Here are some ideas to ensure our group work isn’t garbled:

  • Incorporate independent writing – Writing equals thinking, so if everyone is required to write their answers independently and in complete sentences, you can be confident they’re processing the information (as long as they’re not just copying what their neighbor has!).  Better yet, have everyone start the assignment by completing an initial question/task alone for 2-3 minutes to make sure everyone is equally engaged.  This also gives the less assertive students some think time to gain confidence in their ideas.  Then have them come together to discuss and move forward in the assignment.  At the end, have another 2-3 minutes of independent writing time for them to sum up or explain their ideas.  This processing time solidifies their learning and gives both the student and the teacher a record of their learning.


  • Have a go-to routine – Design a basic group work routine that fits your class and subject.  This way, you can teach it to your students so that 1-2 times per week when you use it they can immediately get to work and you can circulate and monitor their understanding instead of monitoring the process.  If the procedures for group work are always new, they can take a long time to explain and distract from the task.  If you don’t have any procedures and just say, “work with your group,” you’ll spend the whole time reminding kids to work together, stay on task, include everyone, not work alone, etc., which means a lot of wasted time for you and the students.


  • Assign predictable roles – As part of a go-to routine, having predictable roles they rotate through can help make sure all students are participating actively and know exactly what is expected of them.  For example, you might have a ‘leader’ to introduce each question, an ‘includer’ to make sure everyone is sharing, a ‘questioner’ to prompt people to explain their thinking or ask ‘why?’, and a ‘summarizer’ to make sure there’s clarity on each question before moving on.  Notice these roles are all substantive, as well – kids aren’t simply time keepers or supply runners since those don’t require students to be actively processing and interacting with the group.


  • Routinize even short interactions – Even for those times you just want students to quickly talk at their tables or with their partners for a moment, having a routine the kids know can mean the difference between having immediate, meaningful conversation and having them fake it or hesitate and waste the allotted time.  Try having people assigned already as partner A and partner B so that after you ask a question you can tell them which partner should start, which cuts out any confusion over how to begin.  Depending on the age and make-up of your class, having sentence starters for these quick conversations can also help.  When you ask a question, you could prompt them with, “I think the best way to solve the problem is…partner A, go!” and then the students would be taught to repeat that phrase to begin their conversation.  This can help get the ball rolling and also helps younger or English language learners find the words to express their thinking in a complete thought.

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