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When Things Go Wrong

Handling problems during in-class group work

A pair's figure skating accidentMany problems associated with in-class group work can be prevented with careful preparation, specific instructions, and appropriate facilitation. Consult teaching tips sheet “Implementing Group Work in the Classroom” for important guidelines and suggestions on these issues. However, when your students do not respond as you had hoped they would, here are some ways to respond.


Students are resistant to group work

  • Reiterate your reasons for using this particular small-group task. Emphasize ways in which the resistant student(s) will benefit, and be as specific as possible (e.g., business students will need facilitation skills in their career).
  • Have students complete a brief questionnaire in which they reveal why they are resistant to working in groups.
  • Hold a plenary discussion about small group tasks and allow students to air concerns developed in response to experiences in past courses. Then outline how your tasks are different.

Student talks too much or dominates the group

  • Talk to the student privately. Explain that while you are pleased he or she has a lot to contribute, you would like other learners to have more opportunity to think for themselves. Sometimes the student just needs to be made aware of the situation.
  • Even if you had not planned to assign roles to group members, do so at an appropriate point during the group task, either for all groups or for only the one(s) with a dominant student. Ensure that some roles require significant periods of silence (e.g., summarizer, detective, recorder, observer, timekeeper, liaison to other groups). Alternately, speak privately to the dominant student and give him or her one of these roles.
  • Ask the entire group to reflect on how it is functioning with questions such as: how well did you complete the task as a group? Did someone take the lead, and if so, how did this come about? Whose ideas are most strongly present in the solution to the task? Was there anything you thought but didn’t actually say?
  • During long periods of group work, call for regular periods of reflective silence (e.g., after every fifteen to twenty minutes) in which students think (and write) about the points that have been made, contradictions that have surfaced, omissions that should be added, and where the discussion should go next. When signalling for the discussion to resume, invite students who have said little to read out what they have written.

Student talks too little or is “freeloading”

  • Speak to the student privately to determine the reason for lack of participation, e.g., introversion, fear of looking stupid, feeling unprepared, fearing a trap, feeling unwelcome, past experiences, trying to be cool, lack of reward.
  • Consider using even smaller groups. Quiet students may feel more comfortable participating in this situation, and “freeloading” students will be less able to coast on the others’ efforts.
  • Ask students occasionally to hand in their group work notes or their preparation notes.
  • As when handling dominating students, assign roles to one or all of the group members (see above). Some roles that require active vocal participation are spokesperson, skeptic, organizer, facilitator, liaison to other groups.
  • Suggest go-rounds (or circle of voices), so that each group member has to contribute.
  • Offer a general reminder, either to the whole class or to a group in particular, that every student has valuable input and that there are no poor questions. Be sure to respond appropriately, then, when students have comments or questions.
  • Recognize that quantity is not quality. There is a place for silence in discussion.
  • If the students are shy, consider incorporating an electronic discussion into the course. Students may find it easier to contribute on a class bulletin board, chatroom, or listserv.
  • Remind students that the content of the group work will be tested on a quiz or test. You could design a test question in which students must summarize their group’s results.

Students are not on task or are chatting inappropriately

  • Don’t assume that all chatter is inappropriate. Often there is a good reason, even if it is not apparent or immediately connected to the task at hand. One student might be explaining a concept to another student.
  • Remind students that their time limit for the group task is approaching. They generally expend the greatest energy as the deadline approaches.
  • Ask before the time limit which groups need more time. Consider observing aloud that most students seem finished (or unproductive), and so you will shorten the amount of time originally given.
  • If students do not seem to be making progress on the large task, divide the task into smaller tasks, and ask for reports on these subtasks throughout the class period.
  • Praise groups publicly that are acting appropriately, pointing out behaviours that are particularly effective.
  • Move closer to the chatty students. As a last resort, confront them directly about their chatting, but always give them a chance to explain.

Student is disruptive

  • Check that the student truly is disruptive and not just momentarily expressing a strong opinion. Also recognize that disagreement is a learning opportunity and is natural and healthy in group functioning.
  • Speak to the student privately in order to determine the reason for the disruption.
  • Confirm that the disruption is not due to unclear instructions. If group members are disagreeing about what they are supposed to do, clear up the confusion.
  • If the disruption persists, change groups regularly in future classes, so that the disruptive student is distributed fairly across a wider range of learners. The problem may disappear with a new group dynamic.

Students are not listening to fellow group members

  • Comment on the issue in the general class setting.
  • Tell students that in the plenary session, you will call on one member of each group (your choice) to summarize the group’s discussion or answers.
  • Call a time-out, and restructure the activity so that all students must connect what they say to what the previous person just said.

References

  • Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Gross Davis, B. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Race, P. (2000). 500 Tips on Group Learning. London: Kogan Page.
  • Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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