November 4

Teacher’s guide to effective group work

Students need to work in groups. This is something that adults have to do all the time within their work, and a skill that employers are telling us that is both necessary and absent from the current generation of students coming out of schools.  The problem is that throwing students into groups and letting them learn through failure, while ultimately (with appropriate analysis and reflection) is teaching them how to facilitate group work, it is a very slow and heartbreaking process. In addition, this is the quickest way to get student complaints about how the group is functioning. And, by the time that you have gotten through the process of working through and adjusting and negotiating for students, you are tired, and you have decided that you will never ever do group work again.

 Dr Bruce Tuckman published his model of group dynamics in 1965 and this is still relevant today. Think of a group that you have ever worked in while looking at the Tuckman model.  Firstly, a group forms. This is the initial process, where groups are created, introductions made and ice breakers (either formal or informal) are conducted. This is the happy family stage, where everyone is being nice to each other, as, essentially the group are strangers, and generally, as a human race, we are polite to strangers. This is the time to set goals and overall vision.  

Next, is the storming process. This is the component where people resist, some quietly and passively, some vocally and publicly. This is the time when people are starting to test each other, get to know each other better, and can sometimes be defensive, take sides and resist ideas, sometimes, just for the sake of it.

The third process is the norming stage, where people start to “settle in” and work together for common goals. Finally, the point to the group work is the performing stage, where everybody gets together and is a functional and productive team.  Ideally, this is where most of the time is spent within the team, as this is obviously the most productive way to work. Ideally, a group project should look like this:






However, sometimes our groups look more like this, where the performing component is the smallest part of the group project. This is what many of our group projects look like, and what ideally we want to avoid.







Even the following has its disadvantages, though. If you are in a group that doesn’t have a storming process, you will find that there is no innovative ideas happening, or people are just accepting the status quo in order to move on to the work. This can be counter-productive to good ideas.







As teachers we want to make students learn the most from their experiences, and ensure that everyone is getting their ideas across, that there’s a high performance percentage and that everyone is doing the work. So, what can we learn from Tuckman?


Firstly, I think that students can benefit from hearing about Tuckman, as it makes normal for students the process of storming. If students understand that this is a normal part/process of being within a group, this can minimise the stress of the storming process. In any relationship, storming is a normal part of the learning process, as you learn each other’s normal ways of working (your norms).  This brings us to the next thing we can learn from Tuckman, though….what if you could shorten the storming process by sidestepping it and going to the norming process? Essentially, we do this as teachers every time we start a new year. We step into the classroom, and we set expectations (or normal processes that our classroom will run) every year. What if we can teach students to perform this process? What if this process then, changed the way that language was used within the groups? Changed the way that students contacted and related to each other? The way that they encouraged each other to complete work?  


One process of allowing students to set norms is through development of a group contract. Students should create this themselves and discuss those things that are expected norms within their group. Students’ should start by making a list of the dysfunctions they’ve already had in other group work tasks, and then a list of the features of groups that have been functional. This is a great place to start a discussion about what behaviours work, and what don’t work when learning in groups.  These contracts can also then be used by teachers to guide discussions on group expectations when issues arise. Contract writing does take time. The first time that you do this, it may be a whole period of teaching. This seems like a lot of time, but it’s not only the contract that’s being written here, it is the discussion that happens between students as to what they expect within this time working together. This sets the entire tone for the project.


Some things to consider that can be included in the group contract:

  • Do they want to make a norm that all students are sitting with the group at all time?

  • Do they want students to do their homework all the time?

  • How will they make decisions as a group?

  • What process will they use if they can’t make those decisions?

  • What should be each member’s expected contribution to the team?

  • What are consequences of not following the group contract?


While the group contract is paramount in importance in having students set expectations of each other, it is also important for the teacher to set expectations and accountability.  This can be done formally through the use of the rubric, through teacher observation and peer feedback. You as the teacher will not know every moment of every interaction within the group, but you can formalise this with a series of teacher observations throughout the process.  This not only means that you are judging the interactions of each group member, but also gives you the reminder to stop by every group every lesson to see how they are progressing. You could also make this judgement from afar, using a checklist of expected behaviours of group members (both positive and negative). If students know that you are doing this, but not when you are doing it throughout the project, positive group interactions will increase. Another way to assess this is through the use of peer feedback. Intel have an excellent rubric for this. (Which can be used here as a google form) Students are asked to judge on their co-operation, feedback, time management, listening and participation. It is also worthwhile to get students to reflect on their own abilities in this rubric too, as a form of self reflection. Teacher intervention when students have problems is also important. We need to remember, that adults working in the workplace have issues with their teams, and often have intervention in terms of processes or people to go to intervene on issues.  While norming can help the amount of issues, there will still be issues that occur within the group. Having some sort of timeline of the process to follow if there are issues makes it easier for students to initially self manage and to learn processes involved in managing people.

While management procedures are the first thing in every teacher’s mind, task design and group selection are processes that can bypass many issues prior to the group work starting. A good task, that has clear expectations for students, that could not possibly be done by one or two students at the exclusion of others, with all students requiring input, thinking and learning around every element of the task is the holy grail of group tasks. The best way to see if your task does this is to try it, be truly reflective when it doesn’t work, and modify it for the next year. However, in order to bypass this try-fail process, it is best to give your assessment task to as many teachers as possible to get their opinions on how it can improve. Many teachers have tried group work before, and like any method, getting people who have tried and critique your idea is a good way to bypass it not working in the first place. This takes time, and a hard skin, but is for the betterment of the task in general.


Some things to consider in the development of the task:

  • Can the project be split into the same number of pieces as the number of students in a group? If so, this may be a group task, but the students are not required to work together in order to achieve the outcome. What generally happens here is that each student knows their own area well, and not any of the others.

  • Think of the marking…is there a way to have an individual mark for contribution as well as a mark for the group, so that students marks are reliant on each other, but also so that they have some ownership over the effect of their own mark.

  • How can you get students to need to work together to complete the project?

  • Are student roles evident? Could students rotate through roles, so that everyone has an opportunity to lead, or do you want to include different types of students together?


Group structure and student roles are also an important issue to address within the process of designing a group task. There are many different ways to select groups, and lots of research done on this process that is worthwhile reading. Some ways to select groups include:


  • Student selected

  • Student selected partner, groups of two then selected to go with another group of two by the teacher

  • Putting like personalities together

  • Putting like knowledge/skill levels together

  • Mixing personalities

  • Comprehensive knowledge/skill groups

  • Ranking students and selecting from the same “block” of ranks

  • Totally random

  • Totally random, then move the students that you know will not work together

  • Allow students from the top of the previous task to (not in front of students) nominate groups


The main thing with group selection, and indeed, with group work in general is that when you leave school to go to the workforce, you do not get to select the people that you work with, and you are generally not going to be amazing at group work the first time you do it. Neither will your students. The types of skills that we have discussed here are those built up over time. Your first foray into group work may be successful. It may not be. But like every skill, the more you practice, the more that students will learn their own processes that they can use to manage themselves and others. The final key to effective group work then is to just do it. Practice, reflect, and practice some more.


Further Readings that include strategies for group work