Classroom Management English Group Work Language Arts Learning Teaching

Group Work: don’t drink from the wrong cup

Group work. When you are in your teacher training classes group work seems like the Holy Grail of teaching. Most of your classwork is done in groups and you are encouraged to use group work in your student teaching. Observers seem to love group work, because when it is done well it shows a high level of student engagement and it’s nerve-wracking being in front of the class all period during an observation.

But actually implementing group work successfully is like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You know the scene where if you pick the right cup you will have eternal life and if you pick the wrong cup you DIE.  You plan your group activity and hold up the completed lesson plan. It looks so pretty, so perfect.

Hmmm maybe this isn’t going to work out quite like I thought.

I want you to pretend I’m the old Grail Knight and I’m delicately trying to point you in a safer direction. Maybe I’m wrong… but I haven’t died in class yet.


So I have always had a love/hate relationship with group projects. There were times as a student I loved them because if there was a strong student or two in your group you could coast and talk to a friend, but if YOU were the strong student then you did all the work, but everyone got the same grade. Ugh.

I love group projects because:

  • They create energy in the classroom
  • They encourage leadership and social skills
  • They allow students to see how other students work and think
  • They can promote student engagement

I hate group projects because:

  • Some students seem to do all the work
  • Lazy students can find ways to slack and not suffer a consequence
  • They can be all fluff and no buff
  • I ended up doing all the work
  • They can result in hurt feelings and social conflict

So here is what I do:

  • Groups are never more than 3-4 students ( I find smaller groups encourages engagement)
  • Groups are always given a challenging task with multiple talents needed to complete it
  • Groups are given too little time at first to push them and then more time, if needed, to make it special/memorable
  • Group work counts for less of my grade (and yet they love doing it just the same)
  • I give two grades for each project. A group grade using a rubric just for that project and an individual grade based on the four following questions.

And here are the questions that I use to grade individuals after a group project. Every student answers these questions and turns them in and then I use these answers to generate an individual grade for the group project.  Each student starts with the grade of their group component and then I move the grade up or down based on these answers. (Students answer these questions quietly at their desk and turn them in without discussion- these answers are private and just for me)

1         What are the first and last names of everyone in your group? (This shows whether they even bothered to get to know each other) Tell me one fact about each group member besides their name.

2         What grade do you deserve and why? Give me specific examples of what you did to help your group complete their project.

3         If anyone in your group deserves extra credit, who is it and why? You may not put more than one person down for this answer. The person may be yourself and you do not need to put anyone down if you feel that everyone contributed similarly. (If I see the same student’s name two or more times I know they made a big difference and deserve a bump in their grade)

4         Here are four components of group leadership: considering these components how did you show leadership in this group project? If you didn’t show leadership, how will you show leadership next time?

  • Making the hard choices- keeping control and focus- guiding your group in one direction
  • Creating a positive environment-making sure conflicts are resolved- lowering stress levels.
  • Making sure everyone is involved- getting people to use their unique talents to help the group-finding talent in each person
  • Organizing the task- making sure people get done on time, roles are defined and needed materials are at hand


Question 4 is the critical question for these reasons:

So many teachers try and force engagement by assigning various roles to students: the facilitator, the communicator, the writer, the time keeper etc… some of these roles are almost demeaning in their nature, and there is little attempt here to have students do what they do best, or encouraging the flexibility to try a new role based on their current group dynamics.

By asking students to write about their leadership role, and having a discussion about leadership roles, and having a question that will appear each time about leadership in the group, you will encourage students to become more active and perhaps to consider what they can bring to their group next time.  (Yes that was a long sentence, but I was fired up about the topic and I ran with it.)


If you have any suggestions for changes I should make to the leadership descriptions or any of these group assessment questions please leave them in the comment section below.



UPDATE: Now that Google Docs are so prevalent here is an easy way to check on group work. Have your students make a screen grab of the revision history and place it as an image at the end of their project. Then have them write a quick reflection on the meaning of the revision history as it relates to their work.


  1. Well written and so thorough. Agree group work/collaboration becomes a given methodology. Saw it arise during my post-secondary teaching career. To accommodate made group (small as you suggest) optional but still OK to do assignment individually. There’s some whose work/school/study/family schedule just did not fit with group work expectations. I like how you try to find a way to ensure contribution evenly distributed. That’s the tricky part.

  2. I too have sometimes let students do work individually. In fact sometimes I need to do that because of a disruptive student or a gifted student who just wants to do something differently. Thanks for your comment I appreciate it because it keeps me from feeling like I’m talking to myself and it’s nice to hear from another teacher that I’m perhaps on the right track.

  3. I certainly agree with the love/hate relationship you have to group work. You have summarized all the problems well. Early in my career, group work was part of the student’s overall grade. Now it is not evaluated in Ontario. This is both a good and bad thing as you can imagine. I still use it for discussion purposes and sharing ideas or answering questions. I tend to stick to groups of 2 and 3. Roles work in some classes ( we have a math teacher who has seen the light and uses groups every day in her class) but as you point out the roles are silly in some cases or juvenile. I think groups work best in a critical thinking type exercise e.g. getting them to evaluate something.

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