Group projects are a wonderful way to build the social-emotional skills of your students. They can learn basic concepts like sharing their opinions and feelings and develop life-long skills like conflict resolution. Through group work, even the youngest students can master skills that many adults struggle with.
However, not all group projects are effective. You need the right group size, a clear structure and purpose, and a signed contract between team members to hold social loafers accountable.
Focus on Small Tasks First
The first time you introduce group work shouldn’t be for a major project worth a significant part of your student’s grades. Instead, start with basic group activities that serve as training opportunities for bigger tasks.
There are different ways to do this. Students can review each other’s papers in English class or discuss how they feel about various historical events in a civics class. Small group activities only take a few minutes but can build healthy foundations for the future.
“I start with the expectation of collaboration from day one,” says Rob Niedermeyer, a middle school engineering and design teacher. “I have students work together in small scavenger hunts or jamboards and then work up from there. After the first week, students understand that work will rarely be done in an isolated environment.”
You don’t even need to create new, in-depth lesson plans for your group work. You can use collaborative learning as a way to reflect and reinforce what students have already learned — and as a way to break up the school day.
“Bouncing ideas off of one another or figuring out problems with a little give-and-take will help your students build understanding and confidence,” writes former elementary school teacher Elizabeth Mulvahill at WeAreTeachers. “When your class is cracking up and getting wiggly, taking a five-minute chat break is a great way to hit the reset button.”
Keep in mind, however, that both giving instructions for collaboration and bringing your students back into one group takes time — especially for younger learners who are excited and easily distracted.
“It’s important not to rush into group work activities and to be realistic about the amount of time they are going to take,” says Judson Wright, an English Language Fellow for the U.S. Department of State. “If you want students to participate in a five-minute discussion task, then preparation for the task and feedback after the task is likely to require at least ten minutes or more of classroom time.”
Get the Right Group Size
Another way to set your groups up for success is to find the right group size for different projects. Smaller groups can create intimacy when working on different projects, while larger groups allow you to increase the scale of the work.
“What if we take away high stakes group projects and focus on the power of small groups?” asks Caran Howard, instructional development specialist at the University of Northern Iowa. “Targeted, small group check-ins can provide the means for peer engagement and for relevant social and emotional learning, both of which contribute to student retention and success.”
Finding the right group size involves some trial and error. Teacher Trevor Muir says his first group project was with eight students per group. Half the students were talking over each other while the other half were sliding under the radar and not participating at all. Since then, he has shrunk his average group size.
“Groups of three are small enough to remain conversational but large enough to have varying perspectives,” Muir writes. “Students can accomplish more by collaborating, but do not have so many group members that some can sit around with nothing to do.”
Other educators have experienced similar results. They juggle having a collaborative environment without letting group sizes get out of hand.
“It just seems plausible that we can track an online conversation among the five of us,” says educator and author of “The Goldilocks Map,” Andrew C. Watson. “More than that will get hard to track. Fewer than that will get awkwardly quiet.”
Decide How Groups Will Be Formed
Along with group size, you also have to determine how students will form partnerships. You can let them choose partners, assign the groups randomly or strategically pair students. There are pros and cons of each option.
“If you want to help struggling students improve their understanding, look for some mixture of ability among students,” says educator and researcher Michael Ralph. “If a goal of the activity is to target different ability levels to maximize the desirable difficulty for the most students, group students of the same ability levels together.”
Randomly assigning groups creates a sense of fairness. Students realize they were placed in a group randomly and won’t complain that they were paired with someone they didn’t want to work with.
While many teachers worry that letting students choose their own groups will create cliques and distract students, there are times when this option is the best for your classroom. Most students feel safer around their friends than with other peers who might not accept them.
This can be especially true in theater classes. “Students might feel shy or scared to do the vulnerable work in drama class with people they are less familiar with or don’t know,” says Kerry Hishon, a theater artist in Ontario, Canada. “Despite the fact that they will eventually present their work in front of the rest of the class, it can be hard for students to open up during the work portion of the assignment.”
Naturally, each class is different. How you divide the groups will be determined by the type of class you teach, the grade level, and even the individual assignment. What works for one instructor isn’t always the solution for another.
Teach Students To Start Off on the Right Foot
Group work is a process. Students need to learn how to work together before they can dive in and complete the task. At the start of the year, look for ways to create healthy group work habits that students can take with them to more advanced grades. First, let students get to know each other a bit before the instructions start.
“When projects or study groups involve classmates you don’t know well, spending some time at the beginning for introductions is important,” writes the team at The American Academy. “In addition to learning names, introductory conversations provide an opportunity to find out how people like to communicate, how familiar they are with the assigned topic, and what their comfort levels are with certain tasks.”
This process allows students to establish an understanding of each other. They can form a team and a collective goal, where each person wants to see the others succeed.
Next, look into creating group contracts that the students can follow. These explain the rules and policies that each group member will follow.
“At the beginning of the project, have the group create a norms sheet that they all agree to and sign off on,” says science teacher Rebecca Fanucci at Science Lessons That Rock. “If any students are breaking the norms during the project, they should be able to more effectively monitor themselves when they have a signed document to refer back to.”
Eighth-grade math teacher Trisha Burns provides a template for teachers to use when introducing group contracts to the classroom. It covers group contact information and the role of each student, such as facilitator and team tutor. Rules are also set out, like what happens if work is missed, what happens during an absence, and when a group can approach the teacher with a problem.
Test Different Group Lesson Plans
As you develop your lesson plans, look for new ways for students to collaborate and build each other up. Some lessons are more naturally suitable for group work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t expand your efforts to different tasks and ideas. The main thing to remember is that group work is collaborative. You don’t want four students working independently next to each other.
“In [project-based learning], there needs to be authentic collaboration and teamwork, not just ‘doing school’ or being efficient about completion,” says Gavin Tierney, assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton. “There should be intentional distinctions between individual and group work.”
That means having students complete a worksheet in pairs rather than individually isn’t necessarily project-based learning. Instead, consider using group work as a way to introduce new topics and ideas. This allows some students to showcase what they already know while creating a soft introduction to new material.
“Collaborative learning works best when brand new material is being taught,” according to the team at Resilient Educator. “Ideally, the material should be easily divided into roughly equal parts.” For example, you can divide a country’s history into sections, with a different student group presenting on each era.
Additionally, you can use group work to take classroom ideas and apply them to real-world use cases. This works to apply the lessons and reinforce the value of the material. “Try building the confidence of the young people in your life by giving them real problems to solve and creating incentives to work with — not against — each other,” says psychologist Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO at Character Lab.
Finally, allow students to reflect on what they learned and seek help on filling in information that they forgot or aren’t sure about. “Peer reviewing in a group allows for more diverse feedback, which in turn can really provide more meaningful next steps for a student,” says Selena Carrión, an English language arts teacher. “Group peer review allows students to think about a multitude of ways that they can improve their own work and deepen their learning.”
As you can see from these three examples, group work and project-based learning can be applied before, during and after instruction. There is never a bad time for collaboration.
Many adults don’t have fond memories of group work in the classroom. With a clear structure and purpose and contracts to hold social loafers accountable, however, group work can be a positive experience, beneficial to students in the long run.