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Making Group Work More Effective (Part 1)

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

I’m sure at this point we’ve all experienced being on a Zoom webinar or workshop and then getting placed into randomized groups with perfect strangers and being asked to work with them. This is difficult for us as adults, and even more challenging for our adolescent students, especially those that struggle with anxiety. This brings us to our first obstacle to effective group work.

Working with random strangers is difficult. We must be actively looking for ways to reduce social risk.

In my experience, students must know at least two or three basic things about the people they’re working with in order to feel comfortable sharing their mathematical ideas later on.

Tip #1: If students are in new groups, provide a structure for students to introduce themselves and answer a question.

I use a 2 minute timer and ask groups to go around in a circle and say their name, and answer a couple questions (What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream? What’s the best thing that happened yesterday?) Both of these questions are incredibly low-floor and include little to no social risk. Although I personally love questions that require deeper thought or some imagination, I find they are best saved for when students know each other a little better. Having to think hard about an interesting answer leads too many students to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an answer” which works against our purpose of hearing every group member’s voice. It may sound minor, but these kinds of responses already send a subtle signal that some group members are less likely to make valuable contributions to the group. The first interaction with a new group should be an equalizing one, every student should be able to participate easily, without exposing or enforcing patterns of dominance or subordination. The goal here is not to form deep relationships but to decrease social risk and set the expectation that everyone contributes.

On the second day with a new group, say names again and ask a different question. On subsequent days, you can omit saying names and ask slightly more personal questions; we’re not getting deep here, but I encourage students to tell about an event that happened or an experience they had, or describe something about themselves. The response is more than a one-word answer, but still comes to mind quickly. They often include a short anecdote. (What was the worst thing you ever made in the kitchen? What does your perfect Saturday look like? What’s a place you never want to go back to?). For more ideas, check out this list of my favorite ice-breaker questions.

Tip #2: Play mini-games

On days when we don’t want to do icebreaker questions, we play mini-games. There’s nothing like a little competition between groups to get students to demonstrate some intense loyalty to their group members. I am floored by how well this works and how easy it is. Last year I tried playing a little game at the beginning of almost every class period. I had a rotation of about four or five different games depending on the day of the week (basically modified versions of Family Feud, Scattergories, and Catch Phrase). They took less than two minutes, and every day the winning group earned a point. At the end of the quarter (or semester, or unit, or before a break, or on a random day), the group with the most accumulated points got a prize. The next day each group started again from ground zero. What was funny is that many students didn’t even faithfully keep track of their points because they played these games on scratch pieces of paper that ended up getting recycled. But it didn’t matter. The points were always secondary to the true intent of playing these little games--to build camaraderie and community within a group. The students LOVED it. Their ability to transition to the lesson for the day and feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking each other questions made this small classroom routine entirely worth it to me.

In my class, I try to form groups that are diverse, by mixing sophomores with juniors and seniors, and mixing students of different academic backgrounds and interests. This means I have to be a little more intentional about getting the groups to gel and feel comfortable discussing with each other. The games have been particularly helpful for these groups because by competing and laughing together, students instantly feel a small sense of connection, even if their social circles would otherwise never cross. I remember a day when I let students choose their own partners or small groups to complete an assignment. Two of the girls in the class were best friends but were in different groups. On this day, one of the girls was overjoyed to get to work with her BFF and walked over to ask her if she wanted to work together. To my GREAT surprise, the other girl said she was going to stick with her group today, voluntarily choosing to work with a group of people she had seemingly nothing in common with. (They won the mini-game that day, so I think serotonin levels were high!). I could have cried.

Tip #3: Have students talk within the first 5 minutes of class.

I read this somewhere and put it to the test in my classroom and it is absolutely true. The sooner students are asked to talk (about anything), the more natural it feels to keep talking about math. If students sit and are silent for the first half of class, and then are asked to talk to their groups, you will find a general reluctance to do so. It’s even better if you can get them up and moving around and talking, because blood is flowing and there’s been research done that sitting increases anonymity whereas standing fosters participation.

Once students feel comfortable with each other, what's next? Check out Part 2 of our Making Group Work More Effective series!

At this point you may be thinking: "But I only have 45 minute class periods and have more standards to cover than I'll ever be able to get to---"

Is this worth the class time?

Yes, I believe so. Although it cuts out a few minutes of class time at the beginning of the hour, I more than earn this back with students’ decreased time-to-task (the time it takes students to actually start a task once it's given to them) when we begin the "Experience" part of the class period. Students get through activities faster because there’s less of the initial awkwardness and more of a willingness to share ideas, ask each other questions, and in general talk to their group. Part of the reason is also personal preference. Teaching through a pandemic has taught me to think more deeply about students’ experience in my classroom--how it makes them feel, how much they enjoy it, how risky it is, if they feel safe. When a student who has always struggled with math and still considers it her least favorite subject tells me she loves coming to my class, I count that as a win. Even if that leaves me with only 93% of class time to talk about derivatives.

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