Reducing Coasting in Group Work

group workThe 15 minute forum tonight was led by Emma Mason, our Deputy Leader in Maths & Assessment Without Levels Leader.  Emma shared her thoughts and strategies about how we could make group work more effective. Group work is an interesting one.  In certain subjects like PE, it’s an essential part of the subject.  Likewise in aspects of other subjects, where students have to work together on practical tasks, such as science, working as a member of a group is important.  The issue comes when group work is introduced into other classroom based subjects, that don’t lend themselves naturally to group work – like maths.  If the activity is not planned well and there’s no thought given to why students have been asked to work in a group, the outcome often resembles the picture above – and learning is limited.   So for example, if you are using group work for students to ‘find out’ some new knowledge, it’s unlikely to be successful.  If however, following some teacher input, group work is used to discuss an issue, evaluate something or solve a problem by practising a previously taught skill, then you are more likely to have a successful group work experience – with some careful planning. group1 Emma had been reflecting on her own practice as a maths teacher along these lines.  Her gut feeling was that group work didn’t really work.  At best the group would produce work that was substandard, compared to what the individuals could have produced.  At worst it was chaos!  Emma wanted to see if there were ways in which she could develop her practice, so that everybody in the group was involved in producing a high quality outcome. group2 From reading around the topic, Emma found a variety of benefits to group work discussed (see above).  From her experience, she claims that there are two that really stand out for her:

  • Using the knowledge of others as a platform – students bring a range of prior knowledge to lessons.  Eliciting this from them can act as a stimulus for others.
  • Encouraging students to verbalise their ideas to others, broadens and deepens their own thinking.

These benefits have been enough to convince Emma that group work is not entirely fruitless.  Whilst she doesn’t use it every lesson, she thinks it’s definitely a strategy worth using from time to time.  If it’s going to be done effectively though, it’s worth considering some of the factors that make students take a step back from group work, and trying to eliminate them. group3 Overcoming some of these issues

  •  At the start of the academic year, when you are stating your expectations, include norms for group-work.  Emma does this by prioritising  a list of group norms with her classes:


  • There has to be a purpose to the activity.  It either has to link to the work that has just been done or lead into new work.  It can’t just be a stand alone activity e.g. in science having looked at the science behind genetic engineering one lessons, students could work in groups to discuss the moral issues and viewpoints associated with this.  This could then lead on to an individual piece of work, e.g. a piece of extended writing on the advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering.
  • Don’t expect students to learn new and important knowledge in their group – that’s your job!  Group work should be about developing ideas, practising strategies, solving a problem etc.
  • Avoid the trap of ‘at the end of the activity, every group will present to the class’.  Not only is it very time consuming, it’s also very dull – for the students and the teacher!  Instead of this, inform the class that at any point, students will be stopped and a group will randomly be asked to share what they have been discussing/doing.  This will keep them on their toes.
  • Award cumulative points for groups who are working well and putting in a great deal of effort – not just for the finished product.
  • Invite the ‘big wigs’ in to see them working as a group e.g. Head of Department/SLT.
  • Don’t overdo it and don’t do it for the sake of it – do it if there’s a good reason for doing it e.g. it will be useful to share ideas, approach a problem together etc.
  • Put the groups together carefully – not with their friends and keep any potential troublesome individuals apart.  A mix of ability is also good.
  • Think about the arrangement of the seats – try to avoid anyone facing the back.
  • Think about the task – low threshold but high ceiling – so all can access and be stretched.

group work pie chart Strategies to address some of the other issues….. Lack of direction/authority

  • Give an overview of the task and what the expected outcome is e.g. by the end of this task I expect each group to have….. .To avoid confusion, give 1 or 2 specific instructions at a time.
  • Assign roles of responsibility within the group.
  • Keep the tasks time limited, to avoid groups drifting off task.
  • Give the group a writing frame for taking notes – gives structure and direction to the activity.

Lack of confidence

  • Snowballing is great for this.  The task is introduced and students have a set amount of time to work on it individually.  They then have 2 minutes to share what they have done with a partner.  Following this, they then have to work in a group of, say 4, to collectively tackle the problem and come up with and agreed solution.  The advantage of this is that it gives students thinking time, ahead of the group task, so that they feel better prepared for it.


  • Publicly praise the efforts of the groups that are doing well – the whole group and individuals.
  • A&B – call half the class A and the other half B.  As are given one task to do individually and the Bs another.  The As then have to pair up with a B – and they discuss/share the task that they have both done with each other.
  • If students are working on a task, as a group, that requires them to give a viewpoint on something each member of the group is timed for 1 minute to give their view.  After this, the other members of the group have to ABC respond to them i.e. accept, Build upon or challenge their view.

In summary

  • Think carefully about why you are doing group-work – is there a good reason for it?
  • Don’t use it impart new knowledge – use it for sharing viewpoints, solving problems using existing knowledge, discussing issues etc.
  • Don’t use it all the time.
  • Plan it really carefully and give the activity a clear structure.
  • Make it clear what your expectations are, in terms of how students should work in a group and what the outcome should be.

Further Reading

Supporting effective group work in the classroom Sapuran Gill

This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Reducing Coasting in Group Work

  1. Mark Bennet says:

    There is a difference between a hockey team and a chess team. In a hockey team, the teamwork is on the pitch. In a chess team, any teamwork is in the preparation [and in the debrief and preparation for the next match] – come the game you are on your own. We use the same word for very different things and that can be hugely deceptive. This is an example from a conversation with a colleague from a few years back – not on the subject of teaching, but I thought readers of your thoughtful post might reflect constructively on the differences.

  2. Sue marooney says:

    Excellent session Emma, packed with practical strategies
    Thank you

  3. Reblogged this on WHAT SEEMS TO WORK AT QE and commented:
    This blog is full of practical suggestions to make group work much more effective.

  4. CHIC TEACHER says:

    Some great insight to the group work psyche.

  5. Pingback: Day 1 -Great Group Work | LAT @ Lincoln College

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