Group Contribution Reflection
The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
There are many benefits of working with groups in the classroom. Students can practice oral language skills as they talk and listen to each other. Groups can collaborate to create complex products, drawing on the strengths of all the participants. Some students find peer relationships to be highly motivating and will do anything to work with a partner or a group. In ideal environments, groups find harmony and synergy, embodying the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If only students could learn to work together without bickering.
Some teachers just naively expect students to play nicely with others by default. At the other extreme, teachers limit or dismiss all group work as untenable and a waste of time. A happy medium does exist, and a tool that teachers can use to leverage social interactions is a group contribution reflection. Whether it is before, during, or even after engaging in group work, students can become more tolerant and productive if given a chance to consciously think about how they work with others.
Why It Works
The workforce of the 21st century is different than that of the previous century. As society progresses, educators must examine which era their instruction is getting students ready for. Will the majority of students spend their working days on an assembly line, repetitively performing the same tasks again and again? If so, the traditional schooling method of worksheets, sitting in rows, and completing timed math fact quizzes is perfect. Most agree, however, that a new paradigm has overtaken the factory model of education.
Students in the modern era should be adept in the four Cs of 21st century learning, commonly agreed upon as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity (National Education Association, 2012). These soft skills aren’t grown in an incubator. Instead, learning tasks should be done with others more than they are done alone. Maintaining a need for individual accountability does not exclude the possibility of learning with others. More and more workplaces are collaborative environments, utilizing teams and synergistic thinking to get the job done.
Yet working with others, like any other cognitive skill, is learned through experience and explicit instruction. Students must be taught to listen to others, to compromise when more than one opinion is put forth, and to create a consensus. Group work is a valuable tool for teachers to utilize but should be monitored and assessed just like any other content. When students know the components of how to productively learn with others, they not only have an opportunity to understand the content more deeply but also prepare themselves for a successful future.
Grouping students to learn cooperatively is not as simple as it may seem. Before you tell your students to work with a group, consider the following points.
1. Group work, just like any other teaching strategy, should be purposeful rather than random. Some tasks work well within a group context, some are indifferent, and others cease to be functional when more than one student is involved. Consider the task and content standard before grouping students together.
2. When creating groups, keep in mind the physical layout of the classroom. If students already sit at tables, use the size of the tables to determine the size of the groups. If they work at desks, can the desks be moved to create groups? If so, will these arrangements be temporary or permanent?
3. The composition of the groups should also be taken into consideration. If the students normally sit at tables, and the activity is relatively short, they can simply work with those at their tables to complete the task. If it’s more protracted, and/or some students might benefit from seeing some fresh faces, consider how to regroup the students so old antagonisms don’t flare up.
4. One of the main areas that teachers should be aware of is the ability levels of the group members. Ideally, students are placed in heterogeneous groups that include a good mix of high-, medium-, and low-ability students. If a group consists of mainly low-ability students, they might not be independent enough to complete the task without assistance.
5. Clearly communicate group contribution expectations to students before embarking on collaborative learning. Instead of generic platitudes such as, “Treat others how you want to be treated,” and, “Get along with each other,” be specific with what you want to see. Give students a few key areas, such as focus, listening, or contribution to keep in mind.
6. If time allows, ask students to assist in brainstorming the qualities they expect from their teammates when working in a group. When students have a hand in setting expectations, they are more invested in policing themselves and others.
7. Don’t give up if it doesn’t go well the first (or second, or third) time. After the group project is complete, take a few moments to debrief as a class. Discuss what went well and how they think they can improve their contribution the next time.
The students in Ms. Nagy’s class were anxiously awaiting their group assignments for their upcoming project. They hoped they got to choose their groups since they had spent most of the lunch period negotiating with each other about who was going to work with whom. Some didn’t mind too much who their partners were as long as Ms. Nagy didn’t put certain students together. There were definitely some people that should not be in the same group.
Ms. Nagy addressed her students. “Class, I know you’ve been looking forward to working in groups for our assignment that starts tomorrow. I’ve set aside ten minutes of today’s class period for selecting groups. As long as we don’t have any major arguments, I’ll let you all work together to form groups of four. When there are only two minutes left, I’ll start putting stragglers into groups and settle any disputes. From the report I got from the lunch room aide, this shouldn’t take too long. I heard that you spent the entire lunch period trying to figure these groups out.
“There is a slight catch, however. As Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility.” Her students groaned at the Spiderman reference, knowing that the superhero movies were a passion of hers. Ms. Nagy smiled and continued, “In addition to the project rubric, which I’ll pass out tomorrow with the instructions for the task, you’re also going to be judging yourselves on how you work together with your group. As you can see, there are four major areas I want you to think about as you choose your groups. You’ll judge yourselves on the quality of the work you contribute, your focus on the task, how much assistance you provide, and your listening abilities.
“If you believe that one or more of these areas might be affected by the groups you’ve preselected, you might want to rethink your choices. And here’s the final twist. The project rubric will also have four points with four categories. I’ll use that to grade the product your group puts together. Once you have judged yourself on the group work rubric, I’ll share my project rubric grade with you. You will then have the choice of which one to use for your grade. You might want to make sure that the group you choose is the best one for you.”
The students spent a few minutes looking over the rubric before finalizing their groups. Though the selections made during lunch held for the most part, there were a few significant alterations. Ms. Nagy was pleased to see some, though not all, of her students make a few changes to their grouping preferences. It encouraged her to see her students reflect on how their group members were going to help or hinder their final performance.
Students that evaluate their group contribution might not fully understand what is expected after a brief class discussion or examination of a rubric. Instead, they might benefit from a fish bowl experience. This technique brings one group into the center of the room to serve as an example. The rest of the class gathers their chairs around the central group and observes, as if the group in the middle were in a fish bowl, and watches how they work together to solve a short problem. After this demonstration, the class then discusses what was seen by referencing an actual, rather than just a theoretical, example of group work.
If the fishbowl activity would cause too much distraction if viewed live, it could be prerecorded. Students could then view the video, focusing more on the group interactions than the content of the discussion. By referencing an exemplar, the teacher and students could agree upon objective examples of helpful group work. These could then be referenced later as students complete a group contribution effort reflection on their own performance with their groups.
Sometimes the best of intentions get lost in the hubbub of class activity. If several groups seem to be losing focus during an activity, take a moment to pause and reflect during the middle of class. Rather than waiting until the group task is finished, a reflection can be taken midstream as an opportunity to redirect students before things get out of hand. Ask them to quickly rate their group contribution at the moment and then again at the end of the lesson. The change (or lack thereof) can be a wonderful conversation point for reinforcing behavioral expectations.
With the proper setup, students can even rate each other on their contribution to the group. Instead of using it as punishment, it should be viewed as a way for students to hold each other accountable. Using the example on the next page, you’ll see that a component should be included to keep students from being overly harsh or permissive without cause. Setting one score as a default and requiring some type of justification for moving away from the default helps curb these tendencies.
Once students are used to reflecting on their contribution to the group, they can begin to consider which grouping option would work best for them. Students can elect to work alone, with a partner, or with a group on daily activities provided they justify their reasoning. For example, if students want to group up to tackle a task, they can write or verbally communicate a short rationale as to the benefits of working with others. When they see it as a tool that can assist their learning, students take more responsibility for their actions within a group.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
Any time that you want to collect simple self-reported student data, Google Forms or some other type of survey tool can be utilized to not only gather the data but also to manipulate and display the results. These data would be a great conversation starter for a large group reflection as you lead your students into identifying norms and expectations to make group work more profitable.
When teaching virtually, utilizing breakout rooms in Zoom is essential. If your account is not the licensed version that has that ability, there are some work arounds. In Microsoft Teams you can create channels and sub-channels for students to use as they hop in and out of large group and small group video chats. Even Google Meet can be utilized for breakout rooms with a little bit of preparation. Create a Google Doc with hyperlinks to the breakout rooms, create names for each room, and then place https://meet.google.com/lookup/ before each name. This creates multiple meeting spaces that your students can use to meet together.