Teacher Tips: Growing Your Group Work Strategies

September 24, 2021

We have the Pivot Interactives Co-Lab feature, which allows group work. But, how do you do group work? How do you organize groups and get the kids TO TALK! That’s the focus of this Teacher Tip with Linda Detwiler. 

Remember breakout rooms? They’re one of the best features for group discussions online. I even prefer the breakouts to IN CLASS small group (it's quieter!). But, just sticking students into a breakout room doesn’t mean that they’re suddenly going to stay on topic (or even talk at all!). 

To get the conversation started,  something I like to do is to set roles. My typical roles:

  • Leader: This person introduces the questions set in the discussion guide and always starts off the topic.
  • Secretary: This person takes notes on what is said during the group meeting. When you’re using this with Co-Lab, this is the student who is typing the answers into the lab.
  • Timekeeper: This person watches the time and makes sure that no one group member talks for more than 1/2 of the time. 
  • Contrarian (optional): This person is meant to play "devil's advocate." Their job is to try to prove an argument wrong. So, if I say "groups should only have two people," then this person would say, "why? I think groups should have three people because, with only two people, you're going to run out of stuff to talk about."(As you’re reading this, I bet you already have that perfect student in mind.) This is a more advanced role, and I only use it with my students once they’re comfortable talking in groups. I encourage this to go to my argumentative students because it keeps the conversation from stagnating. 

These roles help students feel like they have an expectation, and it helps to guide the first few discussions. 

I also like using a group discussion log. This is the one I used, but feel free to tweak it and make it best for your students. When you put the students in discussion groups, they need at least one specific question to discuss at all times. Don't just say "go discuss this;" that only works if the students feel confident in their understanding. But, if they have a question to answer, like "how could we improve our data" or "what is your hypothesis to the question." the students have a grounding point to talk about. Discussion time is 30 seconds per student per question. So, if you have three questions to discuss and four students in a group, that's 6 minutes in the breakout room. Remember that recall questions, such as the speed of light, are not good discussion questions since there is nothing to discuss; the answer is either right or wrong. So, usually, 2-3 application or creation questions are good. If you NEED to talk about a recall question, pair it with an explanation prompt. So, rather than "what is the chemical name for NaCl?" I would ask "What is the chemical name for NaCl and FeCl2? Why are they different?" or "Simon says that the name for NaCl is sodium monochloride. Simon's answer is not correct. Create a way to tell Simon that his answer is not correct. Explain to him why his answer is incorrect and how to avoid the mistake in the future. During your discussions, I will come into your rooms and pretend to be Simon, so you will need to deliver your answer during that time!" 

Now comes the hard and tedious part: you have to teach students to talk in a group. This is gonna feel childish and elementary, but it really helps. I use the "I do/we do/you do" method for all of my teaching. I'm going to explain this lesson using this method. 

I would teach a lesson on how to work in groups. Your discussion questions for the lesson will be:

  1. What is the rule we are trying to create, and why is it needed?
  2. What will it look like if someone is following this rule?
  3. What will we do if someone is not following this rule?

Also, before you get into the discussion, you need to think about the expectations you want in the groups. Mine were:

  1. Everyone participates in the conversation.
  2. No one "hogs" the conversation; no one person is allowed to talk for more than 1/2 of the time.
  3. Conversations should be connected to the original questions. If you get off-topic, you need to be able to explain how you got off-topic. 
  4. The discussion log is 5% of the assignment grade OR 100% of the participation grade for the day; if it's not completed, all group members will receive lower marks. 

Those are entirely up to you. Change them to work best with your style and your students. Also, you won't present this list to the students; pick one. You're going to make your kids come up with the others on their own by guiding their discussion to "discover" those points that you want them to have. It helps them to think that it was their idea, so they stick to it more.

I would start the session with everyone in the main group. Explain that you want to make the small groups more effective because you dislike the workload of students working independently, and a few students have approached you about going back to small groups. [Doesn't matter that they probably didn't say it; they were thinking it. This is the 'buy in' step.] From there, tell them you want to work with your students to create a new method for hosting small group time. Set a limit to the rules, maybe 3-5. Tell them that everyone will follow a single method: you're going to use roles and a log. Explain the roles and explain the log. 

Tell the students that you’re going to model all four of the roles for the first rule. 

  • Start by setting a time for this intro part. I suggest 5-7 minutes. Say, "I'm going to be the timekeeper. It's my job to make sure that this discussion doesn't go over the time limit. My time limit is ____ minutes, so I'm going to set a timer on my phone to make sure we stay within that time limit." 
  • Then say, "Now I'm going to be the leader. It's my job to read the question and to introduce my idea first." Then, introduce the first rule. This is your non-negotiable rule, like my first rule (#1. Everyone participates in the conversation.) I would also take this time to explain why you picked that rule. 
  • Then say, "I'm the secretary; I'm going to log the answers to the discussion in the log. Since I'm also all of the other roles, I'm not actually going to do this because it's hard to talk and write at the same time. Because I'm writing everything, I may be quieter than the other students; that's okay, but I still need to talk at least a little."
  • Then, you're going to be the contrarian. Say, "I'm the contrarian; it's my job to argue against what people say. This can be a hard role, especially if I agree with their point. But, I need to try my best to present a counter-argument." Then, pose a counter-argument to your rule. If it's my #1, I would say, "I like that everyone is talking, but what if the secretary is busy talking? How much can they really participate? Should we expect them to talk as much as everyone else?" 

Yeah, in these first few minutes, you look and feel crazy. You're four talking personas. It gets better, I promise. Once you have gone through all of this, ask the students for questions. Stick hard to your time. If it goes off mid-word, say, "as the secretary, it's my job to end the conversation no matter what, so this discussion is now over." Ask for questions before the next step!

Then, give everyone 2-3 minutes to brainstorm a new rule. Have them write their brainstorm in the chat or on a whiteboard or post-it note, but don't "submit" the chat or share their rule until the time is up. When time is up, everyone submits/shares their rule. 

My students sat in tables of four, so they were kinda “grouped” already, but you may need to physically group your students before this. If you’re still online, have the students read the chat to themselves. Read/listen to the suggestions and select your favorite suggestion. It’s probably going to be one similar to one of your “premade” expectations. Now you will use this suggestion to do a we-do modeling. 

  • Ask for three volunteers (two if you're not using the contrarian) to be your "group members." These will probably be your chatty students who answer everything, and that's okay. Tell all of the students that are not in the "group" to listen; they will need to find trends in what is happening. 
  • Assign the roles; let them pick their role. 
  • Then, use those roles to answer the three questions about this rule. (What is the rule we are trying to create and why is it needed? What will it look like if someone is following this rule? What will we do if someone is not following this rule?)
  • When you're done, ask the students who were observing, "What did you like about this discussion? What would you want to change about this discussion?" Discuss those answers whole group; don't forget to give them a minute to think up an answer before calling on them!

Now, the students will be trying this on their own by discussing the remaining rules. 

  • Split up the remaining rules so that each group has its own rule. Pick the ones closest to your rules; also, if you are missing a rule, suggest the missing one or pick a similar rule and tweak it to match yours. 
  • Ask them to answer the discussion questions for their rule. Bounce around the groups and spot-check their discussions, making notes of the quiet and talky kids. I do this by printing a roster and putting a check by the chatty ones and an x by the quiet ones. When making groups, put no more than one quiet kid in the group and encourage that student to be the secretary; they can be quiet while participating. If you notice a bunch of quiet, shy ones who might be friends, pair them together. They talk differently when they know everyone. Just observe and give brief suggestions as you go. After that time, reconvene the main group.

Have the students share their rules and as they're sharing, ask them, "should we keep this rule?" In the end, you'll have a shiny list of rules for discussions. 

For your next lab, deliberately reteach the rules and check-in with the groups often. Make sure that they're working to answer those questions. Ask time goes on, you can check in less and less. Before you know it, you'll have some free time while they chat! 

Other tips:

  • Keep discussion groups the same for a single unit. These people are their lab partners for that unit, so they do everything together. At the end of the unit, make new groups. I would be deliberate about the first grouping. Split up your strong students to be leaders. Don't bunch all of your strugglers together. I did mixed ability groups (one high, two mediums, and one low). For the next two, I would randomly assign groups using www.random.org. There is a "list randomizer." Put their names in there and count off by 4s to make your groups. Spot check for clumps of low students or clumps of high students. After that, it's full random. 
  • Encourage them to rotate roles. Everyone needs to try being in each role. It's how they learn.
  • Listen to the students; if they say, "I don't like being in this group for X reason," move them. Tell the students that you will always listen to requests to move but that you are not required to move them. And, "I wanna be with my friends" is not a reason to move; make new friends. It's how you meet people.
  • I was never one to force a student to answer; if a kid is quiet, I talk with them to find out why and I address that issue. This can be done in office hours or during "lunch with the teacher." I would invite the kid to join me for a chat during lunch. While in school, I bought the kid pizza and soda, but I may just use it as a get-to-know-you time on Zoom. We'd chat about school, hobbies, music, movies, whatever. You learn a lot about the student, remove the "fear" of talking, and you may find a legitimate reason as to why that kid is quiet.