Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Student-Teacher’s Concerns about Group Work: Three Quick Solutions

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
newjgea@aol.com

The “bubbly” Beata, one of my former student-teachers, regularly avoided incorporating group work activities into her lesson plans. She thought of group work as a fail-proof recipe for a classroom fiasco. She considered facilitating pair work now and then, but never quite incorporated it, nor did she include any group work activities in her plans. However, after a brief pep talk one day, one in which I laid out some of the advantages of student collaboration, Beata agreed that her hardened aversion to group work was more reflexive than rational.

Concerns about Facilitating Group Work

When asked why she resisted group work activities, Beata shared the following concerns:

1. that students would not want to talk
2. that students would never finish their task on time
3. that most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations

Overcoming the Problem: A Little Nudging

Since people often learn well by experimentation, I resisted equipping Beata with a set of ready-made solutions, thinking that I would deprive her of instructive experience. Instead, I suggested that she simple change the “would” in the expression of her concerns to a less pessimistic “may.” I also encouraged her simply to experiment some with group work techniques as the teaching practicum continued.

Basic Quick “Fixes”

In the end, to encourage Beata to start testing out her ideas for group work, I did provide her with a few basic quick “fixes” to the classroom problems that she feared were likely to occur.

Concern #1: Students would not want to talk.
Quick Fix #1: Bring a CD Player.

“Controlled noise” seems to get group discussions going. Background music (played at a relatively low volume) tends to come in handy when students feel self-conscious about being heard by the whole class. One of my college professors would often turn on the radio as soon as he asked us to do a group work activity; it worked like magic.

Concern#2: Students would never finish their task on time.
Quick Fix #2: Bring an Alarm Clock.

Deadlines for group work completion seem to be respected more regularly if students are aware of how much time is remaining. Often, actively involved in discussions, students lose track of time. Putting on the board updates on how much time is remaining, or setting an alarm clock to go off five minutes before the task needs to be completed, often does the trick.

Concern#3: Most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations.
Quick Fix #3: Keep a Physical Distance from the Presenter.

Often, student-presenters speak to the teacher, not to the whole group. The closer the teacher stands to the presenters, the quieter their performance becomes. All that may result in students’ losing interest in what is being shared. I’ve noticed that either by sitting together with the non-presenting group or simply by standing as far from presenters as possible, I, as the teacher, have “blended in” and thus encouraged the speakers to address the whole audience.

I’m wondering if any of you have worked with student-teachers who expressed concerns about facilitating group work. If so, what were their worries about? Did you have similar concerns as you were beginning your teaching careers?

Comments

Comment from Debora
January 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Hello Ela:
I am a student-teacher from South America. I really liked your article about Group Work.
There is one thing I wonder when planning activities in which I use Group Work.
In my experience as a student and teacher, there are always students who plan and organize tasks they do, and then they just work straight away. They really worry about the task. The problem is that there are always those who just seat on their chairs to just talk and not do anything. Assigning roles is a good solution for that situation but do you have any other idea?

Comment from Ela Newman
January 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Dear Debora,

Thanks for contacting us. I'm glad you liked my latest article. You are right. facilitating effective group work can be quite a challenge, and the problem that you mentioned is probably near the top of typical "group work woes."

Let's see what I can suggest…

To make sure everyone contributes to the task, whenever possible, I try to create group work projects in such a way so that they require everyone's input. Any task totally based (and dependent) on students' experiences usually does the trick. Everyone in the group must share ideas, etc. for the group to be able to complete the project.

Surveys work as well. I often use questionnaires to which everyone in the group has to respond. Those are good conversation starters.

Another method that I've used focuses on observing students' contributions (or lack thereof) and then asking the least active ones to participate in final presentations.

It also helps to find out why some students don't engage in group work. I'd talk to those least active ones to see where the problem lies. Sometimes showing them that we've noticed their somewhat passive behavior does the trick. Sometimes they just feel shy or self-conscious, and we can help them deal with those issues.

Hope those suggestions help a little.

Good luck! Let us know how things are going.

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