5 Ways to Keep Secondary Students on Task During Group Work - Room 213

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5 Ways to Keep Secondary Students on Task During Group Work

Most kids love to do group work. Not only does it break up the routine of a typical class, but it also allows them to be more social, to chat with their friends. That last fact is why some teachers shy away from collaborative work: the classroom gets noisy and students get off task. 

Noise is not always a negative thing, however. In fact, noise can be an indication that a lot of learning and engagement is happening in your classroom. Imagine if all of your students were involved in an activity that required critical thinking, discussion and debate. There would have to be a certain level of noise, right? In fact, a steady din can be a sure sign of learning.

I know, I'm talking about teenagers, most of whom love to socialize. I'm no fool - a lot of the time spent in groups is not focused and on task. It can be a struggle to make sure they do the work you want them to do. However, I believe so much in the power of collaboration that a little effort to make it work is very much worth it.  Below you will find five strategies that work (most of the time) in my classroom:

As a rookie teacher I made a lot of mistakes, and one of them was just sending my students off to do group work and expecting them to do it. It wasn't long before I learned that they needed more guidance. Now, before they ever work together in groups, I make it very clear what I expect. The first thing I tell them is that it's ok to chat and socialize -- as long as the task is complete. I point out that if they focus and get the job done, then they can relax for the remaining time. I also take the time to set the routine I'd like them to follow: pick up the desks when you move them so you don't disturb the class under us, appoint a group recorder to take down your answers, be sure to refer to your discussion starter bookmarks, etc.

One strategy I've adopted that makes a huge difference is modelling what an effective discussion looks like. I carefully choose some volunteers to help me with this -- a few keeners and a few quieter students. I put them in a circle in front of the room, and I lead them in a discussion. If students aren't contributing, I'll ask them what they think. When someone gives an incomplete answer, I'll ask for elaboration. And, if I disagree with one of them, I will do so 
Free discussion starters for group work
politely and tell them why. After a few rounds of this, I'll ask the class what they noticed: how did I act as an effective group member? They are always able to point out everything I tried to model. 

What is easy to see in others can be difficult to do on your own, however, so I give them each a copy of these "discussion starters" they can use it as a bookmark and refer to it when they get stuck. If you'd like to use these with your students, you can grab them for free here. They're editable, so you can tweak them to work with your students.

We do a lot of small group discussion in my class when students are trying to figure out a complex text or issue. When we do so, I want them to follow a process that not only gets them thinking, but also requires all students to participate -- I don't want one or two dominating while the others sit back and let them do so. Also, if I'm not clear about what I want them to do, they won't be very focused.

I've learned that I can prevent that by being very explicit in my instructions. I usually ask them to start with individual reflections, so everyone is engaged, and to share those ideas with a partner. After that, they engage as a whole group to complete whatever task I've given them.  I've just recently formalized some of these instructions on "collaboration placemats." I loved putting them together and I know the kids will get a kick out of using them too. You can grab them out here.

Collaborative placemats to guide student small group discussions

It's hard to argue with this one: if students find the topic engaging, they are far more likely to focus. If you give them a hot topic to discuss like legalizing marijuana or gun control, they will probably have a heated discussion. But, let's be honest, analyzing lit together is not always high on their fun-things-to-do list. However, if you give them the skills they need to do the work and provide them with a task that's challenging - but not too difficult - they will usually engage. I've written about ways I scaffold the skills my kids need to be successful before - you can read about it here.

I think this is THE most important thing you can do to ensure successful collaboration among students: it's crucial that you circulate among the groups, quietly listening and participating. Do so in a way that seems like you want to be part of the discussion, rather than evaluating it. If you hear something interesting, wait your turn and add in your two cents. If you want to steer them in a different direction, throw something out there that will shift their course: That's an interesting theory, but what about this? Have you thought about why character X did this? It's actually one of my favourite things to do, because not only can you help your students do better work, you can also get to know them better.

So, that's what I do in Room 213 to get quality work out of my students when they work together. What about you? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks.


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