Ep 76 How to upgrade your group work strategy

Many teachers have students work in groups on assignments, but there are also quite a few that limit it. They don’t like the potential for chaos and bad behaviors, so for the most part, they avoid it. However, it’s impossible to keep students on-task and in silence for an entire class period. Those students may seem like they’re paying attention but are in fact playing the role of a student who’s working. They’re tuning out from the lack of opportunity to talk to their peers. This is where group work also helps!

In this episode, I discuss the pros and cons of cooperative learning, as well as my tips for how to make it not only just WORK in your classroom but increases student achievement.

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Today in episode 76, I’m discussing how to get students to successfully work cooperatively with their peers. This is just a fancy way of working in groups! Many teachers have students work in groups on assignments, but there are also quite a few that limit it. They don’t like the potential for chaos and bad behaviors, so for the most part, they avoid it. In this episode, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of cooperative learning, as well as my tips for how to make it not only just WORK in your classroom but increases student achievement.

I’m definitely excited to do this episode for you because I truly believe in the power of group work. I’ve even converted reluctant teachers who now have fully embraced it.

It’s impossible to keep students on-task and in silence for an entire class period. Those students may be playing the role of a student who’s working, but in reality, they’re tuning out from the lack of opportunity to talk to their peers.


  • Multiple brains are better than one. Students struggle through an activity and fill in each other’s gaps in knowledge
  • Teach each other. Students inadvertently teach each other and help clear up misunderstandings
  • Productive struggle. When students are trying to problem-solve together, there’s a sense of we’re in this together that helps them push through
  • Life skills. It’s obviously important to be able to work with other people. While there are solo jobs especially in a gig economy, everyone has to work with others at some point in their adult lives.
  • Tolerance. It can be hard to work with someone that you don’t get along with, but you have to learn how to compromise. Students learn this well in groups


  • More assertive or alpha students take over. Even if that person is incorrect, they want to lead and have everyone follow them, even if it’s off a cliff
  • One person could end up doing all of the work, and not always by choice.
  • Depending on the grouping, a student could end up having to teach the content to everyone and not be stretched or challenged.
  • Can be difficult to manage. Some teachers are uncomfortable with the controlled chaos involved with any type of group work.
  • Not all students can handle it. For some students, the moment you have them do group work, they want to goof off.
  • Introverts don’t have a say. They often either secretly work alone or get pushed around in a group.

So you have to decide if a certain assignment would benefit from cooperative learning or not.

For me, when students are first learning a skill or concept, we do it together as a class, and then they work on it in groups. When everyone is fumbling around trying to work it out, it’s less threatening if they make a mistake. So a lot of class time is spent on working cooperatively in groups.

In terms of grouping, 3-5 work best. Fewer than 3 is just either a partner or working individually, and more than 5 is a mess. Someone always seems to be left behind and forgotten larger groups, so keep the size manageable.

In terms of how to group students, I’ve observed a few things.

First, I think it’s important to give introverts a choice with whom they work. It’s already exhausting for them to interact so much, but they’ll have an easier time speaking up if they’re friendly with their group members. In fact, there have time been times when I’ve grouped them together. It felt strange and I felt bad because everyone around them was talking excitedly while working. I thought they weren’t as engaged. But upon talking to them, they were really grateful to be able to have the headspace to work without a more gregarious group member taking over or talking endlessly.

Something else to consider is grouping students by ability. This is probably controversial and you’re thinking, seriously Kim? But hear me out. We’ve ALL been in a situation where there is a low, medium, and high student in each group. The higher-level students tend to take over and resent having to teach everything to or slow down for the other students. The lower students are too embarrassed to ask for help because of all of the students that “get it” and are taking the lead on the conversation.

But if you group by ability, you can differentiate accordingly. So if you have a lower group, you could do small group instruction or review and scaffold accordingly. If you have groups that excel, you can give them supplementary work to stretch them.

Regardless of which you choose, PLEASE don’t punish your conscientious students by putting a problem student next to them. It really sucks for them and they’ll resent you for it. The more studious student will also be stifled by the lower-level student. It makes sense though, since that higher student has to slow down and reexplain things. It probably seems like suicide to put more disruptive students with their disruptive peers, but you can still put them in a different group that 1) is more on their level, and 2) would be willing to advocate for themselves.

When it’s time for me to assess their progress, they work alone. I don’t grade group work, only work they do alone. This is so that a student doesn’t just copy what everyone else says and pass it off as their own. I need to see what their level of proficiency is, and that’s mainly what I put in my gradebook.

If you are going to have your students work in groups, know the difference between cooperative and collaborative work. If they’re working together but producing their own work on their own worksheet or device, then it’s cooperative. If all members are contributing to a final product together, then it’s collaborative.

If they’re doing collaborative work, how will you track who did what? What I love about using Google Classroom to disseminate assignments is you can track who edits. So if all students are working on a presentation in Google Slides, you can see who did what.

I also recommend having students put their name on the products that they create themselves or specifically worked on. So this would mean that if I worked on slides 3, 12, and 22, then those slides would have my name either directly on them or in the speaker notes.

You also want to check in with them every day to see who’s accomplishing what. Keep a clipboard or an online spreadsheet for keeping track. You could assign daily points if that makes it easier.

Plan out how the work will be divided. Students don’t naturally know how to do that, and either the alpha will take over or the students will waste time with indecisiveness. So split up the different tasks for them and then let them decide who is going to do what. A way of keeping everyone working is to have an individual part that all students must work on, a partner section, and then maybe checking/assessing somebody else’s. So each person contributes their own plus a collaborative effort.

Make it so that you can grade in a fair way. You might consider assigning an individual part, like a reflection, research, or analysis that you grade based on your standards or skills. Then have them apply that part to the group project, which can be worth less since you don’t really know who did it.

A lot of teachers like to assign roles in groups, such as a scribe, timekeeper, materials person, leader, etc. If you do go this route, assign roles that are meaningful. For example, if students are working on a collaborative project, a timekeeper can be handy, but a product checker is a boring job if they don’t get to do anything until the end. 

If you’re going to go this route, it helps to have visuals so that students can regularly refer back to what their role is. This means some kind of poster or handout that describes the role. You then want to check in regularly to be sure that students are following their roles. It takes some training, but students get the hang of it quickly.

My students mainly work cooperatively and are discussing together but working individually, so I don’t give out roles. I’ve tried using roles in collaborative groups, but I find that some students get stuck with a role because they spoke up last, or they forget that they have a role and just dive into the conversation. 

Whether or not students have roles, it’s important that they come up with norms. You can either do this as a class or have each group do it. Reminding them of these norms helps with accountability and staying on-task. Some good norms involve staying on task, contributing fully, or putting your full effort into your part of the assignment.

Just as teachers need norms when working together, so do our students. They too would rather socialize, doodle, or play games. Many teachers are on their phone, grading, or playing games during PD or staff meetings (you KNOW you’ve seen someone do it!). So teach students how to set norms and self-monitor to see if they’re following them.

If you have students that refuse to work with their group, deal with them individually. I actually find this a lot in my accelerated classes. Those students tend to like to work alone because they can get their work done faster. However, faster isn’t often better and those students make mistakes without knowing it. They only find out if we correct the assignment in class or in a week or two when I return the assignment. So talk to those individuals and not in front of their group.

You may find that you also have a student that demands to have their own way and won’t cooperative unless they get it. While I appreciate their passion for their opinion, these students might need to work individually on that assignment for certain parts. You also need to talk to them and coach them on how to be a good group member.

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