Despite these frustrating responses, group work is something your kids are going to have to do. Why? Because I have to participate in group work and I've graduated the 18th grade. It doesn't go away, especially when you're an adult. They need the skill of cooperation. Moreover, they need to learn to not respond in such frustrating ways! From a pedagogical standpoint, group work is also very valuable for student learning in general. When done properly, Student A can learn from Student B how to do skill. Student A gets help on a skill and Student B just cemented that skill by teaching it to someone.
So what's the secret to doing group work properly? There are a couple things that will make your group work lesson run much smoother.
- Don't use a new skill. You don't need the blind leading the blind on this. Use group work as a way to drive home a skill you've been working on for awhile. Try using group work to review skills that are going to appear on an upcoming assessment.
- Keep extensive notes. Have an entire binder or notebook devoted to group work activities. Walk around and write down everything you see. You might see Little Tommy sitting back while his group does all the work, but when it comes time to put it in the grade book, you might forget and give him full credit! Group work is not time to sit back and get some grading done. You need to be up and moving the whole time. Let the kids know that you're keeping notes, too.
- Assign roles. If there are four people in a group, give all four of them different, specific roles. Make sure that each role has some type of way for you to check to see if it's done. Here are some examples: The Writer/Scribe - the person who writes down the actual answer, The Passage Picker - the person who picks out parts of the text that support their answer, The Speaker - the person who presents for the entire group and The Word Wizard (corny names make me happy) - the person who selects valuable vocabulary from the passage that helps them understand. There are other types of roles depending on your content area, but these roles make sure that everyone works. If someone is not working, it becomes obvious who. If there are group members not working, that is on them instead of affecting the grade of the rest of the group. Everyone who works gets their points. Those who don't work miss out. The smart kid can't do ALL of the roles. There wouldn't be enough time to even try.
- Have them evaluate themselves. Move them out of the group so that they can reflect honestly on the group and themselves. Make the student explain exactly what he or she did. You can compare this with your notes from the day. I also have students give themselves a grade for the activity. You'd be amazed at how honest they'll be.
Group work is a learning process. The first time may not go too well, so you need to prepare for that. Stick to the same routine throughout the year. You'll find they'll fall into the roles much easier the third or fourth time they do a group activity. As with all classroom activities, doing group work too often can be a bad thing. Make sure you're using it to drive home those key concepts and giving good, honest feedback on their performance.