Educators have learned much about the benefits of using projects for learning, and collaboration is easily recognized as an important skill for students to build. There are very few arguments against having students do group work together in class and on certain assignments. However, the challenge facing many educators lies in figuring out how to group students together in the most effective way. The following simple guide can help.
1) Do: Consider distance and access to online collaborative tools. If you are assigning a larger project that requires teamwork outside of the classroom, it is important to group students in a manner that allows them to meet easily if needed. If all your students have access to one another online, then great! Usually, though, some may need to meet in person.
2) Do: Group students according to ability. Depending on the assignment, you may want to consider ability grouping. In multi-level grouping, “weaker” students can easily fall by the wayside and rely on the stronger students for answers and to lead the project. Allowing “stronger” students to work together can push them further, and the “weaker” group can benefit from the teacher’s support.
3) Do: Vary between teacher and student chosen groups. Students often prefer to choose their own groups so they can work with friends, but this does not always result in the most productive learning environment. Allowing students to occasionally choose their own groups will keep them happy, while you can focus on putting their learning first most of the time by assigning groups.
4) Do: Consider common interests. Students often don’t realize how much they might have in common with classmates outside of their own little circles. Teacher groupings can provide the chance to keep building the classroom community by helping students build new relationships. Pair students with similar interests on a project and the results may surprise you – and them!
5) Do: Group students according to a skill that needs development. If you have several students that need to work on a certain skill, you may want to group them for an assignment and create a focus on using that skill. In mixed groupings, a student who is strong in an area will tend to take the lead, but if the group is more equal in regard to a skill, they will need to work it out together.
6) Do: Create completely random groups at times. There is no reason you can’t acknowledge that we sometimes need to work with all kinds of people at random, and although this includes people we may not have chosen in life, it is a very important thing for them to learn how to do.
7) Don’t: Use the same grouping method every time. Students need to learn to adapt to changes, and also have many different skills that they need to work on. Mix things up!
8) Don’t: Avoid using group work. Your students will never learn to effectively work in groups if they rarely do it. Collaboration is very important, and although students working in groups can be more chaotic than when they are alone at their desks, it is definitely worth doing. For certain projects, students can learn more from each other than they could by working on their own.
9) Don’t: Use group work to solve personal conflicts. Class assignments are not the time to force students to get along. Personal conflicts should not get in the way of their academic success, so don’t set them up for failure.
10) Don’t: Be rigid or overcommitted. Sometimes a group just isn’t going to work. You need to be willing to accept this and be open to changing things. Be open to modifying groups as needed. Split them up, merge them with others, or allow for individual work if the situation calls for it. If you do it right, you are even modelling something very important for your students–the ability to recognize when something needs to be changed and actively changing it.
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