Every year I start with the best of intentions. I promise myself that I will use more interactive methods of teaching in my classes; that I will incorporate group work into at least some of my lectures; that I will encourage students to collaborate and learn from one another; that I won’t simply lecture from the front of the class.
Every year I seem to fail. As the semesters drag on, I get increasingly discouraged from incorporating group work into my teaching. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it is actually pretty hard to design effective group work exercises, particularly ones that work in the large classes I teach (sometimes with upwards of 150 students). As other pressures pile up during the course of a given year, I find I have less and less time to design such exercises and so I eventually stop using them. The other reason is that if the first attempts don’t go well, I tend to retreat to my comfort zone, which is to just lecture at groups of students. I’m particularly tempted by this retreat in the larger groups, where students are often more reluctant to cooperate and it can be difficult to manage and organise group-work.
But I don’t intend for this post to be a confessional — as cathartic as that may be. I’m saying all this merely to underscore the fact that I don’t think of myself as being good at using group-work in my own teaching. I struggle with it. But I want to learn how to get better. So I’m going to educate myself in public by reviewing some of the tips and tricks from James Lang’s book On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Along with Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, this is one of my favourite books on teaching: it is resolutely practical in its focus, but engages with just enough of the empirical and theoretical literature to give it a firm grounding.
In this post, I’ll focus on Lang’s tips for managing informal group-work in the classroom.
1. Defining Informal Group Work and Overcoming Resistance to It
I’ll start with some definitions. Lang draws a distinction between two kinds of group work:
Informal Group Work: This is where you form ad-hoc groups during a class session (lecture, seminar) and get them to perform some task within that class session. The task does not count towards their final grade.
Formal Group Work: This is where you form groups for the duration of a module and get them to perform some task (e.g. group report/presentation) that will require them to meet and coordinate their actions outside of class. The task will count towards their final grade.
The distinction is somewhat procrustean: you could have in-class tasks that count towards the final grade and out-of-class task that do not. But I think it is useful nonetheless. In this post, the focus is purely on informal group work. There are two reasons for this. It is the type of group work I am more interested in because it is the type I find most difficult to manage and incorporate into my teaching. Furthermore, formal group work has its own challenges — challenges that warrant independent consideration (Lang discusses those challenges in the book; I might do so on another occasion).
Before looking into the practicalities of informal group work, it is worth asking the question: why would you bother? This is something I often ask myself and my propensity to ask it probably drives some of my reluctance to use it in my classes. I am a very reclusive and independent-minded person. Although I do work with others, I generally prefer working by myself. When I was a student, I found that I learned far more by independent research and reading than I ever did in class or in conversation with others. Consequently, I used to dislike group work exercises, finding them to be a waste of time and effort. I still find this to be the case. I am currently taking a course on teaching and learning in higher education that features a good deal of informal group work. When engaging in this group work, I rarely find the exercises to be useful. At most, I think they break-up long class sessions and restore concentration.
One of the nice things about Lang’s book is that he recognises and responds to this sort of resistance to group work. Indeed, he suggests that it is very common among academics. On average, the people who become academics are the people who most enjoy learning via independent research and writing (possibly more true in certain humanities subjects than in the sciences). So, somewhat ironically, I may be part of a self-selecting group that is less receptive to this style of teaching. I shouldn’t take my own experiences to be representative of my students. Some people really do enjoy the collaborative mode of learning.
Lang offers three further reasons for adding group work to your classes:
A. Students will end up working in careers that require collaborative work so you may as well prepare them for it.
B. Studies (cited in Lang’s book) suggest that students retain more from collaborative exercises than they do from lecturing and, as a nice bonus, they tend to give better feedback.
C. Knowledge is collaborative anyway: it emerges from a consensus of peers. Group work adapts students to this view of knowledge.
I have mixed feelings about these reasons. There is something to be said for each of them. The first is certainly true: students will have to work in teams in pretty much any career they hope to enter. But I suspect formal group work is better at preparing them for this than informal group work. The second chimes with my experience. Even though I don’t always enjoy the informal group work I do as part of my current course, I do find that I remember some of the conversations I have had with other members of the class during such group work far better than I remember what was said by the lecturers. Furthermore, the student feedback I have received for my own courses suggests that they really do enjoy these kinds of exercises and do give better feedback when they are included. The third reason is too philosophically-loaded for me to accept in its current form. Suffice to say I think it gets at something true, but I doubt the value of informal group work in adapting students to this view.
Anyway, enough of the preliminaries. How do you successfully incorporate informal group work into your classes? Lang breaks it down into four main steps. They are illustrated in the diagram below. I will elaborate in the ensuing text.
2. The First Step: Develop the Task
The first step is to develop the task you are going to get the groups to perform. If they are going to be working together during class, then they better be working on something valuable and important. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of setting superficial tasks. I know I have fallen into this trap. You get students to discuss something among themselves for a few minutes, partly to break up the monotony of a lecture, and partly to delude yourself that you are including some meaningful group work into your teaching. This is not the right approach to take.
Effective in-class group work should be concrete and should require the students to produce some sort of definite output within the allotted time. Lang suggests that informal tasks should take a maximum of 20-30 minutes and should require students to produce some sort of written output. The written output need not be elaborate: a sentence or paragraph of text; a diagram; a list of keywords etc. You just need to have it so that their minds are focused on doing something particular. Without it, students might feel lost and temptated to distraction. He also suggests that the task might work best if it is divided into solitary and group work phases. In other words, you get students to work on their own initially and then, after a definite period of time, get them to work with the members of their group. This advice is echoed by many others (e.g. Eric Mazur in his ‘peer instruction’ model).
I think organising the task around some concrete written output is a good idea. My own forays into group work have foundered when I simply ask students to ‘debate’ or ‘discuss’ a topic among themselves. This often leaves them uncertain as to what they should be doing. My better attempts have required them to do something specific. For instance, one of my more successful informal group tasks required students to read a short article in advance of class and then identify the major premises and conclusions in the argument presented in that article in class.
With any task, the devil is going to be in the detail. What you want students to do will vary depending on the discipline and subject you teach, and the time at which you introduce the task. Very generally, Lang suggests that any task you might assign students for homework (or in my case for tutorial work) can be adapted for informal group work. Some examples include:
Getting the students to draw a diagram representing the relationships between the characters in a novel.
Getting the students to identify the major issues and areas of law raised by legal problem question (i.e. story about someone’s legal troubles).
Getting the student to identify and (if time permits) query the experimental protocol in a scientific paper.
[As I said above] Getting the students to identify the premises and conclusions in an argument presented in a passage of prose.
The latter of these is definitely my favourite type of task because I think it translates to many different disciplines. It also has natural ‘extensions’ built into it. I’ll come back to that later.
3. The Second Step: Form the Groups
Once you have developed the task (which should of course be done in advance of class) you then need to form the groups. There is a surprisingly large literature on the optimal way in which to form groups. Many authors recommend that you ensure diversity and balance within the groups. Lang suggests that this might be more appropriate when doing formal group work and I tend to agree. I think for informal group work you just want a method that won’t take up too much time. The two methods I use are:
Pairing: Get students to pair-up with the person sitting next to them or, if you want them to form larger groups, with the three or four people closest to them. This is the simplest and quickest method. I use it whenever time is at a premium (e.g. if the task I want them to perform should take no more than 5-10 minutes). Using a more elaborate method for short tasks seems counterproductive to me because you end up spending as much time forming the groups as they do performing the task. That said, pairing obviously has its drawbacks as it can lead to self-selecting groups.
Number Lottery: Go through each seated row of students and assign each student a number up to a given limit (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Once you have completed this for every student in the class, get them to pair up with those who were assigned the same number. This may be my favourite method of group formation as it has an air of randomness about it. I’ve often used it to establish formal groups too.
Lang suggests that groups shouldn’t be too large, four to five students max. I tend to agree that this is preferable. On a few occasions I have formed larger in-class groups (up to ten students) but it’s definitely messy and at that size it becomes too easy for individual students to hide (or free-ride) within the groups. I’m often tempted to do so because I teach large groups of students and if you limit group size to a maximum of 5 you can end up with a lot of groups (30 if your class is 150). This can be a bad thing if you want all the groups to feedback to the class as whole, but there are ways to avoid this problem (see step four, below).
4. The Third Step: Manage the Groups
Once you have formed the groups and explained to students the purpose of the task, you need to let them at it. At this point, you have to manage the groups to make sure they get some value out of the exercise. Lang suggests that you give them some space initially. Don’t be too eager to jump in and direct their conversations. This seems like obvious and sound advice to me. I like to hang back for the first few minutes of the group task and then go around to each individual group (if feasible) and see how they are getting on. But I think I am often too interventionist in this regard and that I tend to do the work for the students once I get involved. I’m going to try to be less interventionist in the future.
There are four main problems you can encounter at this stage in the process:
Silent Groups: Some groups might fall silent and be unsure about the task. You can usually set them right by clarifying the output they need to produce and by asking them more specific questions.
Silent Members within Groups: This is a common problem. Some students will take a back seat within their groups, allowing others to do most of the work. I’m unsure how important it is to address their silence. Sometimes it is driven by laziness or resentment; sometimes it is strategic. Certain people like to wait before offering their opinions. If you feel someone really is disengaging from the task, you can try to involve them by directing specific questions towards them (e.g. “What did you think of what student X just said?”), or by assigning them the role of official group recorder. This will force them to pay attention.
Off-track Groups: Inevitably, some students will be distracted from the assigned task and start talking about something that is off-topic. You can usually bring them back on track simply by hovering next to them, or by intervening and attempting to bring them back on track (which strategy is more appropriate depends on how exactly they have got off track).
Fast Groups: Some groups will finish the task with alarming rapidity. You can deal with them by planning for obvious extensions to the initial task. For instance, if you start by getting students to identify the premises and conclusions of an argument in a passage of prose, you can extend the task by asking them to evaluate individual premises or assess the logical strength of the argument. This is a natural (and oftentimes rich) extension and it is one of the reasons why I like this kind of task.
One other point, which I think is important, is that you should time the tasks appropriately. You should allot students enough time to complete the task but not too much that they are tempting to go off track. But once you have set the time limit, you should stick to it. It can be quite annoying to be told by a teacher that you will have 10 minutes for an exercise only for them to call a halt to it after 7 minutes because they get the ‘sense’ that everyone is done.
5. The Fourth Step: Process and Feedback
Once the allotted time has ended, and students have produced their definite output, you’ll need to process that output in some way and give some kind of feedback. The demand for this in informal group work is less stringent than it would be in the case of formal group work, but it is still important. It will help to combat the sense of pointlessness and futility that some students might feel when they are asked to engage in these tasks (remember: I tend to feel this when I’m asked to engage in them).
Lang suggests three simple methods for processing and giving feedback:
Group Reports: Get each group to report back to the class on the results of their discussion, then offer some comments and feedback. This is the simplest method of processing the outputs, but it has two major drawbacks: it can be overly time-consuming, particularly if you have a large number of groups; and it can be repetitive and boring if groups are all saying the same things. It really only works well if you have a small number of groups or if you randomly select a small number of groups.
Pump-priming: Use the group work as a way of ‘priming the pump’ for larger class discussions. In other words, the specific output should provide the students with the material they need to contribute to a broader discussion about the task (e.g. a discussion about the structure of the argument they were supposed to identify), once you start that discussion you just allow them to spontaneously add their contributions. I think this is nice when the stakes aren’t too high (as is usually the case with informal group work).
Follow-up Task: Use the group work as way of preparing for a follow-up task, one that you either get them to perform in-class or as homework/tutorial work.
In some disciplines, a very simple way to provide feedback is simply to provide students with the ‘answer’ to the question/task they were assigned. This allows them to check whether they were on the right track. Obviously, this only works where the discipline lends itself to such feedback. In mathematics, for instance, there will be definitive answers to a problem question. In law (which I teach) this isn’t really true, but oftentimes legal problem questions do lend themselves to general answer outlines that are more correct than other possibilities. Sketching those outlines for the students can help them to check their own progress with the material.
Anyway, those are all the tips on informal group work. Hopefully you find it to be of some use. Writing about it has been useful for me. It has enabled me to identify some of the flaws in my previous strategies and to reduce my own resistance to the practice.