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Teaching Collaborative Group Work: Day 1

The Need to Change

I’ve noticed that my student project teams don’t always do group work together as well as I think they should, given that they are university students. Haven’t they had lots of opportunity to work in groups before? This shouldn’t be anything new.

What I’m learning, however, is that students need explicit instruction on how to work as a group, since productive group work is not the default. I’ve been working with resources from Edutopia, The Buck Institute for Education, the Productive Group Work book from ASCD, and this handy paper by Phipps and Phipps on Group Norm Setting. I’ve learned that, much like my classroom, it’s important for groups to articulate the norms and values that they want to see from their group members.

The Group Work Lesson

We started with the daily Do Now, which was a survey on Socrative asking students three questions:

  1. Think of some bad experiences working with a group. Why was it a bad experience? [Short Answer]
  2. Think of some good experiences working with a group. Why was it a good experience? [Short Answer]
  3. Generally, how do you feel about working with a group?
    • I love it.
    • I like it, but it’s not my favorite.
    • I don’t feel good or bad about it.
    • I don’t like it, but I can do it.
    • I really hate it.

I use the bell ringer question of the day or short survey to get students thinking about the topic of the lesson, and also to activate the vocabulary they are going to need to work through the day’s tasks. As I work teaching ELLs, our primary goals are language goals, but I try to address content and 21st century skills as much as the language itself. Many of the students have a wide receptive vocabulary, but lack opportunities and experience to turn their receptive skills into productive ones, which is where the Project Based Learning aspect of the class comes in. Today we’re working on collaboration and Social-Emotional Learning to build a solid foundation for their coming group work.

The next task was to put students in groups (redacted), and see how they functioned together. I used today’s class as a test to see how this particular grouping of students would function for the upcoming group work. I was satisfied in general, although there is one student I’m considering moving.


The group development task that we shared was to build a house of cards that would hold a film canister with some 100-won coins in it for weight (they are comparable to a quarter in size).





Groups started with individual work, where students drew up a design individually for three minutes, and then presented their ideas to their groups. Groups then negotiated on the best way to proceed before being given their cards.

This idea came out of a video on TeacherTV on teaching STEM to middle school students. The teacher for this video is Donna Migdol, and I thought the ways she handled group work were effective and worth trying out, so I’m working on some of that in my classes. I didn’t have time in today’s lessons to work on the “chiming” activity that she used, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point in this project.

So after the introduction, students got to work with 27 plastic-coated cards and 15 minutes of time. They tried, failed, negotiated, tried new ideas, and the winners will get some homemade chocolate chip cookies next week.


In the next segment of class, we reflected on our survey questions from the beginning of class, and thought about how we really wanted groups to work. This is an activity taken from the Setting Group Norms paper by Phipps and Phipps.

Phipps and Phipps (and others) argue that it’s better to articulate group expectations and norms than to let them evolve on their own, as this can have negative outcomes. They also emphasize distinguishing norms from rules, as the latter has a top-down approach, whereas norms come from collective participation.

The activity involved large sheets of paper being hung around the room for each group to use to document their thinking in each of the three categories that Phipps and Phipps outlined: How individuals interact, how individuals act toward the group, and how the group acts toward individuals.  The paper by Phipps and Phipps included a lengthy list of idea from students in California, while mine were a little slower due to working in a second language. Their ideas, however, were the same, and it all comes down to mutual respect.

We wrapped up the activity by talking about consensus vs. majority rule, and why that was important to having a healthy group. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we may do some role playing and acting in class to demonstrate what the behaviours look like.

Class ended with our usual Exit Ticket, also on Socrative, with an opportunity for students to give a little extra feedback to me on their feelings about working in a group now they they’ve worked through some activities and talked about how they want groups to operate. I think I may make a poster for the class that includes the results of their first survey with anonymous quotes so they can see their own voices and the opinions of others together. The feelings are repeated by all class members, so seeing the consensus in the classroom may help them understand better that they aren’t alone.

Up Next

Next class I’m planning to have a lesson on group roles and how they function differently but all help move the group toward a common outcome.

Your Thoughts

Have you done any explicit training  on how to work in groups? I’d love to hear about your experiences so that I can learn from how things went in your classroom or group environment. Please leave your comments below.

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