First, let me make clear my position. I’ve been in groups since high school where I did all the work and everyone else got the same grade. It happened even when the teacher knew that someone in the group did nothing. So I’m not a big fan of group work for grades.
I know that the “real world” (because of course academia, which can take up most of your life for sixteen years, isn’t real) requires group work. I figure that my students should have to deal with the frustration only when it’s necessary. It’s not necessary in my classroom and I try not to create a situation where it would be.
That said, however, there is still a place for group work.
Students like to work in groups. Humans are social creatures, even most introverts enjoy spending time with people special to them.
Students like to talk. We all like to talk. And we like people to listen. Always lecturing in class indulges us as teachers, but it doesn’t give the students a voice. But having group work, where the students are not only encouraged but expected to talk, allows them to take the stage in their education. It’s a useful place for them to be.
Students need involvement with the academic community in order to succeed within the academy (according to Tinto, writing on student retention). Putting students in groups in class makes that connection between students more likely to happen. Being in a group won’t guarantee that any student will finish their degree, but it does, at the least, give them a place to talk about your class.
Group work that really works.
I like to assign in class group work. Let the students be doing stuff together in a place where I can see who is and isn’t doing something.
Assign jobs. Have one person be the secretary and another be the speaker, when the group work is done to say what their group did.
Make the groups small. Big groups encourage the extrovert and hide the shy student. That’s not what we’re looking for. I like groups of three, but will accept four if there is a need to get everyone in a group.
Have the groups write down who did what. You’ll get a consensus if everyone worked and if someone didn’t, you’ll probably hear about that too.
Suggested group assignments.
After an in-class reading, put the students in a group to answer the questions. At the end, either take up answers or give each group a different question to answer aloud or both.
Assign a short reading to the group and have them tell the rest of the class what they learned from it. You can have questions, or not, to get them started.