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Group Work

The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that paired and group activities can increase pupil success, but to work together effectively pupils need guidance, support and practice. It also states that teachers should learn how pupils are grouped is also important; care should be taken to monitor the impact of groupings on pupil attainment, behaviour and motivation.

The use of cooperative learning groups in instruction is based on the principle of constructivism, with particular attention to the contribution that social interaction can make. In essence, constructivism rests on the idea that individuals learn through building their own knowledge, connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge and experiences to form new or enhanced understanding (Bransford, et al., 1999). The consideration of the role that groups can play in this process is based in social interdependence theory, which grew out of Kurt Koffka’s and Kurt Lewin’s identification of groups as dynamic entities that could exhibit varied interdependence among members, with group members motivated to achieve common goals. Morton Deutsch conceptualized varied types of interdependence, with positive correlation among group members’ goal achievements promoting cooperation.

Lev Vygotsky extended this work by examining the relationship between cognitive processes and social activities, developing the sociocultural theory of development. The sociocultural theory of development suggests that learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level with the support of their instructor or their peers. Thus both the idea of a zone of proximal development, supported by positive group interdependence, is the basis of cooperative learning (Davidson and Major, 2014; Johnson, et al., 2014).

Cooperative learning follows this idea as groups work together to learn or solve a problem, with each individual responsible for understanding all aspects. The small groups are essential to this process because students are able to both be heard and to hear their peers, while in a traditional classroom setting students may spend more time listening to what the instructor says.

Cooperative learning uses both goal interdependence and resource interdependence to ensure interaction and communication among group members. Changing the role of the instructor from lecturing to facilitating the groups helps foster this social environment for students to learn through interaction. You can read more on this here.

In the article "Group Work: How to Use Groups Effectively" by Alison Burke in The Journal of Effective Teaching it is discussed that group work has been found to be good for students and good for teachers. Employers want college graduates to have developed teamwork skills. Additionally, students who participate in collaborative learning get better grades, are more satisfied with their education. Whilst this article focuses mainly on students in higher education, the strategies within it can be applied to many different contexts.

Group work can be an effective method to motivate students, encourage active learning, and develop key critical-thinking, communication, and decision-making skills. The University of Waterloo makes some excellent suggestions for implementing group work in their blog article

Edutopia suggest the following practical tips for groupwork:

1. Ask yourself: Does this assignment actually need to involve group work? Can the tasks be broken down into meaningful, equitable parts? Before anything else, decide exactly what you want students to learn and make sure it’s suited to group collaboration. If the work doesn’t break down easily (and equitably), maybe it’s worth considering a different route.

2. Break down the work for students ahead of time. Effective group work takes a lot of scaffolding. Don’t expect students to know how to divvy up the work on their own. Working together to break down and delegate responsibilities is one of the most challenging tasks for any group, even for adults. Breaking down tasks ahead of time models for students how it can be done. Over time, consider transferring some of this responsibility to them.

Make sure the distribution of work—what each student’s roles and responsibilities will be—is very clear to everyone. Do your best to create tasks that are interdependent—the kind that require kids to work both independently and together.

3. Give students a framework to understand their roles and responsibilities. Traditional group work roles (think: timekeeper or note taker) tend to be administrative. While that division is well-intentioned, the roles don’t (usually) serve our learning goals directly and fall short of supporting true collaboration.

What if we structured the roles differently? When students share ownership of what they’re learning, everyone should have multiple roles to play: one task to own individually; a role in supporting a peer; and the responsibility to assess both themselves and someone else in their group. Interdependence is key. You can check out this graphic organizer for an example of how this might look in a group of four students.

The work of collaborating in groups can be difficult to coordinate and challenging to complete. But it’s also a great opportunity to practice communication and collaboration skills. Visual brainstorming tools, such as mind maps and virtual corkboards, can help students get organized and comfortable sharing their ideas.

Using a digital tool can be a big help. The three online tools below are specifically for group brainstorming. Kids can add text, videos, and images at any time (remotely or during class). And by organizing group work visually, students will develop valuable presentation skills while working creatively as a part of their team.

Mural: Designed for multiple users to share ideas, Mural allows kids to work together on projects in class or remotely. Students can watch their boards grow as group members add text, videos, and images. In addition, they can move and revise items during the brainstorming process as if they were moving Post-it notes around. The paid version allows teachers to create secure rooms, or folders, to house mural boards and control sharing.

MindMeister: Great for older kids, this mind-mapping website has a simple interface with extensive sharing functionality. Students can browse through premade templates or build their own map by choosing a main theme and building out nodes with notes, images, attachments, and links. Bonus: Any node can contain team assignments, due dates, and email reminders, so groups can easily visualize and organize their interdependent responsibilities.

Stormboard: Students create and add “stickies” to a virtual whiteboard where group members (or a whole class) can comment and vote. These stickies can be text, images, or videos, and users can color-code and rearrange them on the board to easily organize ideas as they brainstorm.

The Confident Teacher also has some great suggestions on how to effectively implement groupwork.

Care and consideration must be taken on how groups are formed, to ensure that we are safeguarding our children and that all are included. There are some excellent tools and strategies out there for creating groups, TeachHub have some great suggestions as does ClassCraft.

Further Reading from the ECF

[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Alexander R.J. (2020) A Dialogic Teaching Companion, London: Routledge.

*Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014) What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK. Available at:

Donker, A. S., de Boer, H., Kostons, D., Dignath van Ewijk, C. C., & van der Werf, M. P. C. (2014) Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 11, 1–26.

Donovan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (2005) How students learn: Mathematics in the classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58.

Education Endowment Foundation (2016) Improving Literacy in Key Stage One Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/ [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Elleman, A. M., Lindo, E. J., Morphy, P., & Compton, D. L. (2009) The Impact of Vocabulary Instruction on Passage-Level Comprehension of School-Age Children: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1–44.

Hodgen, J., Foster, C., Marks, R. & Brown, M. (2018) Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three: Evidence Review. [Online] Accessible from summaries/evidence-reviews/improvingmathematics-in-key-stages-two-and-three/ [retrieved 22 October 2018], 149-157.

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