Group work can be an effective way for kids to learn together. But just putting them in groups doesn't mean they'll automatically have the skills they need to plan, stay on task, and cooperate.
For a successful group project, remember that your students will need help on both the "group" and the "project" parts. This is a lesson I learned from watching my own kids handle group assignments.
Further reading: How to Manage an Overcrowded Classroom
Working Alone in a Group
Years ago, my fourth-grader and four other classmates were assigned a presentation on England. They had to make a poster, talk about the country's history, and bring a national food for the class to share. One day, she came home completely upset. The project was due the next day, and nothing was done. They'd met a couple of times, but the report wasn't finished, the boy who said he'd make the poster had been absent, and nobody could bring in a national food.
"So what are you going to do?" I asked. "Well," she said, "Myra said she'd work on the report tonight, and I said I'd make the poster and that you'd help me make a food." I quickly asked her how the other group members were going to contribute and she shook her head. "You can't count on them, and we all get the same grade. I don't want an F."
So we went to the store and bought poster board and markers. While she worked on the poster, I baked biscuits, which she was going to call "scones." The next day, the group presentation was a success, and everyone, even if they weren't there, got an A.
Calling It Group Work Doesn't Make It So
Fast-forward two years. My younger daughter was now in fourth grade with the same teacher and the same project (her country was Switzerland). Recalling her sister's experience, she took a more pragmatic approach. She made a poster the first weekend, checked the internet, cobbled together a few paragraphs, and bought chocolate bars. She knew the drill: if you're assigned to a group, just do it yourself. But I highly doubt that's what their teacher had in mind.
Just dividing a class into groups doesn't necessarily mean they'll be doing group work. In fact, instead of learning how to work cooperatively, some kids develop a lifelong suspicion of group projects. And the formula I learned as a new teacher to make all groups "equal" (one above-average kid, one below-average kid, and two to three average kids) doesn't always help.
How to Make Group Work More Effective
Working together effectively is not just a school skill; it's a life skill. Kids can learn how to divide up tasks, set deadlines, and keep everyone involved. Try these three key instructional steps to improve the experience.
1. Reiterate Overall Goals to Students
Explain that the project has two components of equal importance: the final product and the group experience itself. Review the decisions the group has to make regarding responsibilities, deadlines, and presentation roles. Convey that the students are in charge of the project. If problems arise, it's their duty to solve them—though you're always available for a group consult.
2. Keep Students Aware of the Time Frame
Give students a deadline, but help them reach it successfully by adding benchmarks along the way. For example, if the project is due in three weeks, check their progress each week. I've found it useful to simply sit in on progress meetings with students and observe or ask questions.
3. Make Students Responsible for Their Grades
At the beginning of the project, give students two evaluation rubrics: one for the final project itself and one evaluating how students worked together as a group. The project rubric might include standard items like "The poster was clear and attractive with no spelling errors," while the group rubric might evaluate whether everyone contributed something to the final presentation.
I've found that telling students they'll grade themselves is effective. When the project is finished, I ask them to meet, review the rubrics, and come to a consensus on grades—not everyone has to have the same one. In my experience, students are extremely candid and much harder on themselves than I would be!
Further reading: How to Encourage Participation in Your Classroom
After implementing these tactics, I've found that students get much better at working in groups. I've also learned to ignore the old rule for assigning groups and either choose groups randomly or allow students to group themselves. Because working well with others is such an important skill, taking time to help kids learn how to do it really pays off.