Troublesome students in group work

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 19, 2009

There was an interesting discussion on a college level email list recently about classroom management, where an instructor was trying his darndest to create a group learning environment in his classroom, but ended up with a bunch of rowdy off-task students.  A whole plethora of responses flooded in with personal experiences on classroom management and tried-and-true tips for getting these active learning strategies to work in practice.  Here are some snippets from that conversation.

The original question (from Paula Engelhart) was:

The pedagogy works great and the students really seem to get a lot out of it but…. what I’m having difficulty with is controlling the amount of social interaction that is occurring in the second semester class.It wasn’t very difficult to keep them on task the first semester in part because they wanted to know the answer to the activity.  Moving into the more abstract ideas of the second semester they don’t really seem to care as much and also many of them were together last semester and know each other.  Some days I have a very hard time getting them to stop talking at the beginning of class to get class going.

Julie Libarkin had similar problems in a large (275 student) class.   She felt the group work was very useful, but had trouble getting them to stay on task during the activity and then struggled to bring them back together afterwards.  She posted a query to the Chronicle of Higher Education and got some useful suggestions:

1) Establish a standard routine for group work. For example, always let the students know before group work begins what the purpose of the work is, tasks they should plan to do during the activity, and products they should expect to have completed or close to completion at the end of the activity. Set a time limit for the activity – you can always add more time if the class wants it. Write everything on a slide that is displayed during the group time.  For longer group work, have some mechanism for grabbing attention about mid-way through the activity, like a clicker question geared towards the first part of the activity or a brief discussion of common problems you have observed cropping up in groups.

2) For me, the hardest thing was getting students to settle down when it was time to finish up the activity and have a class discussion. I got this great advice: Have a slide (mine has cartoon images that move randomly around) start playing 2 min before groups should be done. Have a countdown clock on the slide. This worked like magic for my class, especially since I told them about it ahead of time, and we even practiced the whole quiet down thing. If your class is really hard to settle down, you can also have music that plays and which gets louder and louder as the end time approaches.

3) For engaging the class in discussion: I assigned my students to group numbers, mostly as a mechanism for handing back assignments. Each group has a folder which they pick up and return themselves at the start/end of class. Even though my groups are not formal in the classic sense, the group numbers help with discussions. If I ask a question about the activity, and no one responds, I shout out a group number. Someone from the group always pipes up. If no one from that group is in class that day (happens occasionally), then I write it down. I don’t actually do anything with this information usually, but the rest of the class is empowered to speak up if they think not speaking up is somehow detrimental.

Melissa Dancy shared this advice (which was seconded by Chandralekha Singh)

One thing I’ve found that does help is to walk up to a group that is not on task and start asking them questions to force them to engage in the material.  This works if the class is small enough that I can visit each group regularly but for my larger class the time it takes me to get from one group to another means they can spend lots of time off task.

This is a good use of Learning Assistants — a model created at the University of Colorado (where I’m at) where good undergraduates are given the job of helping to facilitate peer discussion by circulating the room during lecture.  They help students learn, get good experience themselves, and can also help with these classroom management issues.

{ 1 comment }

Mrs. CH May 19, 2009 at 11:24 am

Great advice. I’m currently taking a teaching course, and one of the papers we had to read was “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams” by Oakley et al. (2004). It was a great paper that describes the benefits of group learning, negative situations and how to deal with them. If you want, I can email you the paper!

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