I just read Dave Lanovaz’s request for help making group work in a math class effective, and I was writing a comment when I realized it was going to be a long one, so I decided to blog about it instead. I use group work in my math class a fair bit so I have some suggestions for Dave.

1. The assignment students are expected to do must obviously break down into separate discrete tasks that each person can work on. You can’t assume that a task that 1 person could do will be more efficient because 4 people are doing it.

2. The tasks need to be things which can be worked on in parallel. The worst type of group work is done in series with each person contributing part of the work one after another.

3. Use a system which makes each student contributing to the project independently easy, like Google Docs for example. This way the students will have to do less managing of meeting to do the work and passing around paper.

4. Google Docs has the added advantage of revision history so you can actually tell which students have contributed to the work, and which students have not. Make sure students know in advance you will be looking at the revision history…

5. You can’t really use a mark from work assigned in a group and use it as an assessment of an individual student’s progress. My recommendation is to make sure that there is some other reason why the project needs to be done, some other motivator besides grades, and don’t grade the assignment at all.

6. Initially, you should be in charge of the groups. Students who aren’t used to working together are not likely to choose the best people for their group. Once students develop some proficiency and cooperation skills, you can let them mix and match more often. Yes, this isn’t very democratic, but then if you’ve ever witnessed question period in Canada, you’ll know that democracy != cooperation.

7. Small groups work better than large groups. 2 or 3 people working together is easier to manage than 4 or 5 people. 

8. Discuss your expectations ahead of time. "What are our beliefs? Why are we doing group work? How will this help us learn?" Make sure the kids understand the purpose behind the group and make sure YOU understand the purpose behind it.

9. Watch your colleagues who use group work a lot and see what they do. They’ll have picked up tricks and tips I haven’t mentioned, and can support you in making group work a useful part of your teaching repertoire.

10. Keep trying. You won’t get group work to be effective the first time you do it, or possibly the 10th time you try it. It’s not easy to manage, but you get better at it, and once you have students working together effectively, there are lots of learning dividends. Think of the time you put into learning this instructional technique as an investment in your pedagogy.