Learning in groups

Group work  unleashes brain power, writes Nancy Walser  in Harvard Education Letter.

Done right, group work can harness the natural propensity of humans to interact, and—most important—make learning for a wide variety of students more engaging, memorable, and equitable. While it is more difficult to do than traditional lecturing, teachers say, most of the hard work is in the preparation, and the payoffs make the time invested well worth it.

On Out in Left Field, Katharine Beals is dubious about the ability of children on the autism spectrum to benefit from group work.

Walser quotes Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher, who says group work can “work against factors known to inhibit learning, such as the fear of making mistakes or becoming discouraged.”

Group work can also increase engagement because individuals can be assigned roles that allow them to be “experts in something,” so that they can be challenged at a level appropriate to their understanding, she says. To discuss and present various theories for why the Jamestown settlement failed or why the dinosaurs became extinct, for example, more advanced students may be “producers” charged with stopping their group periodically to summarize what is being said; those with attention deficits might be assigned to be “prop directors” to keep track of supplies needed to make a chart for the final presentation. 

Beals responds:

And the shy, socially awkward child could play the part of the quiet guy who keeps to himself and is shunned by the rest of the community.

And the child with Asperger’s could play the role of “little professor”, who spends the entire time lecturing his group mates. Unless that’s somehow contrary to group-centered discovery learning…

On Kitchen Table Math, commenters note that students shouldn’t be discussing the reasons for the failure of the Jamestown settlement because it didn’t fail. That was Roanoke.

About Joanne


  1. When will teachers be allowed to do their job – which I thought was teaching? The more I read about the profession the more it seems that teachers are expected to be sociologists and psychologists first and teachers last. There seems to be a direct correlation between decreasing expectations in behavior and work ethic for students and increasing expectations of teachers in being therapists.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Done right, group work can harness the natural propensity of humans to interact, and—most important—make learning for a wide variety of students more engaging, memorable, and equitable.

    Done right, ballet is beautiful. That doesn’t mean every teacher should do ballet with every student. In fact, since “done right” is so difficult, it should only be done sparingly.

  3. Because the group learning tasks that are invented for most K-12 classrooms are very artificial, most children learn more from the group projects they are involved in outside of school than the ones that are (supposedly) teaching them the curriculum. I’m thinking of tasks along the lines of telling a group of siblings to clean the basement/kitchen/entryway; organizing a neighborhood block party; raising money for a cause; and I would add a very few in-school group learning experiences like Model UN.

  4. Productive Group Work by Frey, Fisher, Everlove is a good resource for designing group work. And yes, it has to be done carefully with certain types of students. Not something to be done every day, and I never use it as a major assessment, but it can be designed well to provide guided practice in certain skills.

  5. All good posts, especially from Roger and EB.

    A highly programmed group structure called “Reciprocal Teaching” is rather impressive but it takes a great deal of teacher training and teacher commitment.

  6. From what students tell me, group work in most of their classes devolves into off-task chit-chat. Furthermore, in middle school especially, a small group can permit the flourishing of toxic peer dynamics that get suppressed during whole class instruction. Sadly, group work has become an end in itself, so it doesn’t matter that it might be a poor method of transmitting civilization –which is what education is about.

  7. I loved group work when in school. You got to mess aroung with your peers. We usually only attempted to complete the work when we had a specific deadline and would throw something together at the last minute or depend on the serious student (not me!) to do all the work.

    In my high school AP English class, our teacher assigned groups and a Chaucer ~ Canterbury Tales like poem from each group. We paid one girl in the class, a poetry enthusiast, to write them all.

    If you give kids enough undistracted time away from technology and friends the are amazingly creative on their own. We homeschool and every afternoon between 2 and 3:30 my boys have quite time. Time spent either in their bedroom or outside, weather permitting, doing whatever they please minus all technology. Over the years they’ve come up with some mind boggling “projects”.

    I don’t assign projects as school. We read, discuss, write, concentrate on specific skills and content. For us, life is a group project.

  8. Cynical says:

    Apropos the English teaching thread:

    every afternoon between 2 and 3:30 my boys have quite time.

  9. J.D. Salinger says:


    I’m sure Stacy is appropriately chastened and everyone will ignore what she writes from now on.

  10. Mom of 2 says:

    “For us, life is a group project.”

    I LOVE that!

  11. SuperSub says:

    Ok… as I see it.

    Group learning can be an effective teaching tool. So can direct instruction, project-based learning, etc. The key is to successfully match the abilities and resources of the teacher, the nature of the content, and the characteristics of a class with the teaching strategy. If all can’t be matched (which is likely most of the time), you go with the best available option.

    Teachers who advocate a one-size-fits-all education fail to recognize the realities of the classroom.

  12. I’m disappointed in you Cynical. You missed ..”theY are amazingly creative on their own.”

    You need to sharpen your editing skills.

    You know what they say: those that can’t do – teach, those that can’t teach – edit.

  13. SuperSub, well said.

  14. patricia says:

    I HATED group work as a kid, because I was the serious student Stacy writes about. I always did everything, because I was the only one who cared enough about the grade. (And it didn’t involve getting paid by my classmates, either!) Often a group exercise was a thinly veiled attempt to get the serious students to teach the other kids. I don’t actually recall any group project that was interesting, fun and got the job done as far as teaching me something goes. Possibly high school chemistry, where my lab partner was as serious a student as I was.

    I like what SuperSub posted.

  15. So, all the students get “roles” – the distractable students become props-masters, the organized students become the taskmasters.

    And the students like me, who gave a damn about getting a good grade but kept getting paired with slackers (in some kind of, I suspect, social-engineerey thing to get me to get them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps) would up being the ones who did all the work and worried about the grade.

    It was almost a game of chicken, sometimes: would the slackers actually listen to my requests to get something done, or would I just cave and do their part of it?

    Again: it’s one-size-fits-all to say that group work is FANTASTIC and all kids should do it. Not all adults are in careers where they have to “collaborate” as part of a “team” – and many who are, are miserable, because of the same slackers who learned they could lean on the diligent students in school.