I never realised that doing group work could be such a controversial activity in teaching until I discovered Twitter! This post is not going to consider if you should use group work, but how to do it effectively should you choose to use it as part of your teaching repertoire.
As a science teacher, group work is a given. It just isn’t practical to equip every student with every piece of equipment they need to complete an experiment on their own. There is also the issue of time, space and safety, all of which, I feel, may be compromised if you have 28 overenthusiastic students trying to do an experiment at the same time.
The first thing to realise about group work is that, initially, it needs a lot of planning. Group work should never be something you just decide to do on a whim. Students need to be grouped appropriately, drilled in the routines of group work and given tasks that are enhanced by its use. In this post, I am going to explain how I set up and introduce group work in my classes, the routines and resources I use and the tips for making group work successfully.
Setting Up Your Groups
I don’t set my groups up until the October half term. By this point, I have had 8 weeks of lessons with the students and have a pretty good idea of the types of combinations that work, and more importantly that don’t. I export the class register, plus all available contextual data (FFTD, FSM, SEND, PP, EAL ETC..) into Excel. I have 3 groupings that I use. The first is equipment groups. Students are grouped according to who I think would work well whilst completing practicals and are mixed ability in nature. Each group is named after a piece of science equipment. The second is scientist groups.
These are my literacy groups and allows me to provide differentiated reading and writing material based (loosely) on student reading ages. The final group are my elements. These groups are named after the first 7 elements on the periodic table. These are based on the NFER non-verbal score for each student and so are technically ability groups in nature. I use these groups when completing exam style questions or APP tasks. I am flexible with the data. I don’t stick rigidly to the school policy of “boy-girl seating” if it means grouping students together would cause problems. I also recognise that data is not always correct and I may have to adjust my groups accordingly. Once the groups are set, they rarely change throughout the year. It is consistency in this approach that is key.
On the spreadsheet I note which group each student is in for each category. The data sort feature can really help with this. For example, you can sort students from highest to lowest reading age and then group similar students together. I am then able to use the mail merge features of Microsoft Word to import all the group information onto stickers. The stickers are then placed on the front of the student exercise books for future reference. Of course, you could use the old-fashioned method of writing it onto their books or planners with a pen!
Students need to be taught how to get into their groups and what to do once they are there. This will save you time later when the students are able to get into their groups quickly and settle down to work. It also saves you planning time later. By having pre-established groups you can plan any appropriate activity knowing that you won’t need to waste time telling them which group they are in or where to sit. You also won’t need to spend time making sure the groups are mixed ability or set as you have already set this up.
I spend one lesson teaching these specific skills to my classes. I do it in the following way. I let the students come in and sit in their normal seats. I hand out the sticker sheets and use my model exercise book to show where the sticker is to be placed (amazing how many of them don’t know where the bottom left is!) I then explain the system as follows:-
“I have placed you into three different types of group. The first one is your equipment group. We will use these when we are carrying out practical lessons. The second one is your scientist group and we will use these when we are doing projects or written work. The last group is your element group and we will use these when assessing exam questions and key pieces of work.”
I show the students my group cards. These consist of 7 A4 cards folded in half. Each card has a picture as well as a written representation of the group name. So, for example, my first card will have Hydrogen (1st element) Bunsen Burner (equipment) and Curie (scientist). My second card will have Helium (2nd element), thermometer (equipment) and Darwin (scientist) and so on. As I move around the room, I place the group cards in predetermined positions (i.e planned by me in advance deciding on how I want the groups positioned in my classroom). I tell the students I want them to move to their equipment group. Students check which piece of equipment they have and move to find the card that has this picture. So a student in thermometer group will move to the card with a thermometer on it. Once they are sat down check how they are seated.
Students will tend to sit in a straight line (especially if you have rows) or they will sit with their backs to you. You will need to drill them to sit as a group and to turn so they are facing you when you are speaking. Students also tend to cart all their possessions with them if you don’t have a bag box or place to put their bags. In order to speed up the transition from one group to another, you need to decide what students are going to do with their things. If I know I am using group work, I prep them as they walk in to hang up coats and put bags at the back of my room. You get them to change to their different groups 2 or 3 times. It usually doesn’t take too long for them to get the system and you can have the entire class seated and ready within a minute. It is important that you correct their position as necessary.
Each time you move them you can give them a different activity to complete so they don’t spend the whole lesson just practising moving from group to group. It is really important that you place the group cards in exactly the same position every time you use them, otherwise, the students will get confused and go to the wrong place. Once you have put the cards out for that lesson they don’t come back in until the group work is finished.
Group Work Activities
Now you have your class set up for group work. Some key tips to ensure it is successful.
1. Make ALL students accountable for the work produced by telling them you will call on one of them at the end of the lesson to answer a question or explain a concept just don’t tell them which one
2. Give groups a different activity/topic/ concept to discuss or research and then mix up the groups (refer to Group Work for ways to do this) and get the students to summarise their old groups’ discussion points. This will allow those students less sure of answers to gain confidence by being able to report something to a new group who didn’t see where their answer came from.
3. Give each group a different colour pen so if working on a bigger piece you can visibly see how much each group has contributed.
4. Don’t use group work for the sake of it. Ask yourself if the same outcome can be achieved without doing it in groups. Group work should be used to enhance the learning of students.
5. Establish group work ground rules (no more than 5) and have it printed/stuck on the back of your group cards. That way they are always there as a reminder.
6. ALWAYS have success criteria for the group work activity. This will make the outcome and the route much clearer and increase the likelihood of success.
7. Get the group to #RAG123 the group learning and then their individual contributions to the group. This will help you get a clearer picture of those students who didn’t understand the task, didn’t do their fair share and those that worked really hard. (Check out these blogs @listerkev and @benneypenyrheol if you need more info on #RAG123 marking)
8. Start using this system with your BEST class. Give yourself a chance of success and to straighten out any kinks before you attempt it with a more challenging group.
A couple of examples of how I use this approach to group work in class. The first is when completing a practical. I had 6 groups of students and 3 different practicals investigating resistance. Each group completed one practical on resistance and then I mixed them up into new groups that had at least one person from each of the practicals. Each person fed back on their practical and supported the group in answering questions in resistance.
The second example I use when practising exam questions. Each group is given an exam question placed into the middle of A3 paper. They annotate the sheet with the science they think is relevant to answer the question, explaining command words or tables and graphs. Then one person from each group passes the sheet on to the next group. When the group receive the next exam question it has annotations on it. Students then add their own or correct what is already there. Each group uses a different colour pen so additions and changes can be tracked. There is one more round of annotations and then at the final pass the group uses the annotations to answer the exam question.
Group work can be a useful and effective tool if set up properly and planned correctly. To summarise:-
1. Set up the different groupings you want students to work in throughout the year and help them remember by noting it/sticking it in their exercise books or planners.
2. Using group cards, practice getting students to move into their different groups around your room until they can do it in about 1 minute.
3. Plan to try this out with your BEST class first so you can get used to the system and iron out any kinks.
‘Puzzle pieces’ image by Franky242 on freedigitalphotos.net