Math Class Drops the Mic

A blog about teaching, with an emphasis on math.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ten Tricks for Effective Group Work

When I first considered putting students in small groups to work on missions the biggest fear was that students would run amuck, losing focus and wasting time when they weren’t being told what to do. Even more, I was worried that some elements of the activities not might not work, and imagined the exhausting challenge of dealing with the pandemonium of various groups variously confused. It would be so much easier to simply keep a tight reign on a quiet class as I gave them a solid and entertaining lecture. And yet it seemed that group work provided an opportunity for students to engage in the risk-taking, creativity, conversation, failure and recovery which gives students greater ownership over learning. Was I willing to take the personal risk to give up some control and allow students to become the principle agents of their own success?

Once I answered that question reluctantly in the affirmative, the question became, what structures and expectations could I put in place to facilitate effective group work? Below is my list of the most important elements which make group work work. Note that these are biased towards my personal experiences teaching high school math. I’m sure you’ve got ideas as well, so put them in the comments section!

1) Determine groups yourself, but mix them every couple weeks. As best as possible each group should represent diversity in current capacity, work ethic and social confidence.

2) It can take some groups a while to establish a work culture. Interventions can vary beyond talking to a student who is being a distraction. After class I may ask a stronger student to help focus the group, guide a peer more directly or encourage a peer to be more vocal. Or I may have a conference with the whole group to talk about their challenges, reset the guidelines for them and let them know I believe they can succeed.

3) Try to be a facilitator, and carefully observe and praise the quality of student collaboration and the vigor of their effort in addition to their problem solving. Occasionally pull up a chair with a group and observe, help or ask questions.

4) If needed, give an impromptu mini-lecture to a small group on a nearby whiteboard or a portable whiteboard. Sometimes a student will say something intriguing and I’ll give a mini-lecture that extends on their comment, even though it’s not in the activity they are working on.

5) Pause the whole class a couple times to share a short visualization, praise a group or share anonymous observations, explain how to avoid a common error or allow groups to share out in response to a question.

6) Give a mini-lecture near the beginning and end of class to frame the day. Short.

7) Set the expectation that students begin work immediately when the come in to class, picking up where they left off yesterday or starting the next activity before you deliver any introduction. Students should also work to the end of class if there is any time after your wrap up.

8) To whatever degree possible, allow groups to work at their own pace, sometimes over more than one class period. Groups that finish early can work on the practice problems towards the end of assignments, extra practice you give them, correct their work with the answer key or move on to the next assignment with their group.

9) Give group assessments. How to design and grade them is a topic for another post!

10) Enjoy your rapport with students!

That’s how I get the most out of group work with my students. Do any of these resonate with you? What do you do to maximize the effectiveness of group work?


  1. Great tips, based on experience and observation. Thank you for sharing. We want to implement these kind of approach on our new born school, Escola da Paz.

    1. I'm glad you liked them! Starting a new school means you get the great honor of defining a school culture at the beginning. Enjoy the adventure!

  2. Helpful tips! I agree with trying to act as a facilitator as students organize and learn on their own. The more that they work in groups, the more efficient independent workers they become!

    1. I'm glad that you found the ideas helpful! I'm also stoked to know that you are like minded. I guess you could say we are on the same teamwork team!