Group work 

Group work. Love it or loathe it, the concept is ingrained within thousands of teacher’s tool-kits, within every school and college across the globe. Why is it that many get it so terribly wrong – myself included?

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The things that go wrong tend to include:

  1. A selection of learners not participating fully (social loafing).
  2. The more able learner doing the work alone and not taking input from the others.
  3. The task being given too much time.
  4. The tasks lack challenge.

I truly believe that group work can be useful and with evidence from Walberg (1984) giving co-operative learning an effect-size 0.76 (pretty high), there has got to be something about group work that makes it an effective learning tool. Let’s look at some of the things that might make group work a useful thing:

  • Learners collaborate with one another: In working in a group, learners get to work in a team. Being able to work well in a team is a skill that many jobs will require, so in learning together, they are forming the foundations for this.
  • 2 heads are better than 1: Pooling together knowledge and understanding has got to be positive right? Learning with and from one another.
  • Learners develop their oracy skills: Knowing when and how to speak and listen to one another is an essential life skill. Working in a group provides opportunities for learners to hear different views, articulate their own and discuss these.

The aforementioned are just a few of the benefits, yet thoughtlessly throwing a group activity in every lesson is not going to mean these will occur. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain (2003) inform us that group learning activities work well if learners are working as a group, not just in a group – i.e. they share a common goal and if there is individual accountability so that the best learning efforts of every member of the group are visible and quantifiable. This increases learner motivation to contribute and support one another. With this in mind, I suggest that if you plan to use group work as a learning activity, then you consider how you can ensure a common goal and individual accountability.

Mesch (1991) suggests that the ‘jigsaw approach’ to group work ensures that all learners have accountability. An example of this is where learners are placed in teams of 4 and numbered 1-4. All of the number 1’s work together to learn something, 2’s together to do the same and so on. Upon completion of the tasks, learners then come back to their original groups to teach their peers. The danger with this type of activity is that you’re relying on learners teaching information correctly. Though an abundance of research suggests an average effect-size for peer tutoring, two recent EEF projects actually found that peer teaching had little to no impact on learner attainment. The inconsistency here demonstrates that the approach needs to be managed effectively in order to work well.

Slavin’s (1995) review of cooperative learning studies found that in those studies that used group rewards based on the aggregated learning of individual members had a significant positive effect on learning. For example, learners are more inclined to support one another to make improvements if their group learning is rewarded by giving the group a score based on the lowest individual test score within a group. Learners become more accountable for one another’s learning, whilst also sharing the same goal.

In summary, if you use group work in your lessons, it is essential that you design the group work task to incorporate the above, manage it carefully within the session and expect that sometimes it may not work. It is a case of examining the opportunity-cost when considering group work to improve learning.

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