Nuts and Bolts December 2015

What I have been working on: making group work more effective.

Since my observation I have been thinking about ways to tighten up the way I conduct group work. As Geoff Petty argues, group work can be a really effective learning tool if “meaningfully” directed (Petty, 2004: 218) so this is something I want to develop my skills in. After my observation, my tutor suggested three quick fixes for improving the timing and effectiveness of group activities in my sessions: including a timer on the teaching wall; appointing a team leader for each group; and asking students to repeat back the instructions to ensure they have understood. During the session the main activity which involved group work overran and I spent a lot of time correcting and re-explaining the task once the groups were supposed to be getting on with the task.

I have taught two sessions since the observation. Both have been measurably improved by the use of a timer for the group work activities embedded in the Powerpoint slide and asking students to explain the task back to me. I feel during both sessions the students were able to start immediately and plan their time better. I like the way the use of the large onscreen clock shifted responsibility for learning onto them. Not having to re-explain the task to each group meant all the groups could get going straight away and I had more time for formative assessment through questioning and discussion among the groups.

In one of these sessions, the activity was carried out in pairs so I didn’t have the opportunity to use the idea of team leaders. In the other session, group work was the focus so I was able to appoint team leaders. I had planned to pick team leaders on the basis of a bit of initial assessment during the connect activity but for some reason I changed tack and allowed the team leaders to nominate themselves. One group had a strong team leader who effectively managed his team and kept them on track without me having to nudge them along. The other team leader stood aside virtually immediately and deferred leadership to another student who was less confident. This group didn’t really work as a team naturally and finished the task a little late, without a strong team leader to keep things moving. By the end of the session I felt the original team leader would have found leading easier.

In the future, I could pick the team leader to provide stretch opportunities for certain students. I could also get the groups to do an Apprentice-style democratic vote but timing might be an issue and an opportunity for stretch lost. This is something I need to do more work on.

One thing about the session I didn’t like was asking the teams to present as a plenary towards the end. I used this in a previous session and it worked really well. However the whole point of using presenting as an activity was to develop their skills ahead of their next assignment which was a presentation. For this group it felt uncomfortable and unnecessary. I’m still keen for everyone to speak but as the students were presenting I realised it would have been more natural to remain seated around a table and have more of a seminar style plenary to allow for discussion.

I use group work in my sessions because in my experience it really encourages “student talk” (Petty, 2004: 218). Whole class discussions and questioning can be intimidating for students who are more introverted or self-critical. With the nature of the sessions I deliver, it can be difficult to use questioning effectively because of the lack of familiarity with the students. This makes targeted questioning very difficult and allows a few voices to dominate. When working with mixed gender classes, I have noticed male students are overwhelmingly more likely to volunteer an answer (even if they are unsure) in a whole class setting.

As Geoff Petty describes, group work can give students the opportunity to think and test what they think and know in a smaller (safer) group, as well as share their experiential knowledge. In my experience creating different sources of focus in the classroom seems to reduce the performative stress students feel. In the session yesterday for example, a student struggled to connect the learning to her lived experience. The session was about evaluating sources of information for study and during the group work activity she shared with the her team and me that she had never been marked down in her assignments for using Wikipedia. Something about the dynamic of the group work allowed her to venture this experience and how it was affecting learning new skills, despite her thinking being divergent to the rest of her group. I wonder if part of this was the elimination of the physical markers of hierarchy: I had come to sit with the team so there were no height differences, no desk in between us, we were sitting in a more conversational position rather an oppositional one, and there was an immediacy you lose when you stand at the front of the classroom.

Group work tends by its nature to be active and allows students to construct their own meaning. All learning has a social dimension and group work harnesses this. Geoff Petty argues that through building peer tutoring and self-checking understanding is more likely to be internalised (Petty, 2004). I definitely saw this in action in one of the teams, with the students working very closely together and supporting each other to analyse and evaluate the source they had picked. The other team approached the task differently and maintained a strict division of labour with each team member working virtually solo on a given criteria. This proved to be less productive than the coordinated approach the other team took, with one student struggling to finish the task on time, after getting side tracked. It took me some time to realise how side-tracked he had become whereas if they had worked in a more joined up manner, the team members would have spotted this much quicker.

Interestingly the student became side-tracked because he started researching the author of a study quoted in a BBC News article. This showed a strong grasp of the content of the session and real learning, but the student then focused on a website containing information about the author, rather than the actual source (the BBC News article). I was really encouraged though that he had applied this critical skill to his internet searching and was using his information literacy.

Group work is an important process skill. Increasingly communication and soft skills are sought after by employers and form the building block of human society. As a fellow student on my Level 3 course said: “you can’t all be a lighthouse keeper” (D. Flynn, personal communication, June 1, 2015). There are dangers though and students can sometimes become “hijackers” or “passengers” as Geoff Petty acknowledges (Petty, 2014: 220). This is one of the reasons why I always sit with the groups and observe or discuss with them, so I can firstly assess each individual’s learning but also their contribution, and change the dynamic if necessary. This task is a spectacles task with five criteria and five students so each student has to present the findings of the group on one criteria each. I clearly state that each team member must speak and answer questions. This gives each student responsibility for their learning, a crucial part of building a community of learning (hooks, 1994). I am also conscious to hear all voices in the room (Kline, 2009).

Whilst group work is a particularly useful way to support learning, it is only one type of active learning method and some students feel more comfortable working alone on tasks. Independent learning is also an important skill to develop. Sometimes it is easy to forget to meet the needs of all students and feel everything needs to be done through group work. Personally I know I value time to think alone and order my thoughts or get on and try something on my own. For this reason I am trying to balance my sessions out with independent activities including reflection.

I used a “muddiest point” reflective exercise to finish off the session, giving the students five minutes to answer what they were now clearer about and what they were still unclear about. The responses were short as I expected but gave me confidence the learning outcomes had been met. The majority of responses to the muddiest point question cited one or two of the criteria for assessing a source. This will help me to focus more on this criteria in future sessions but also demonstrates they engaged with the learning and are now able to ask critical questions about sources of information. I’m glad I was brave enough to go with it and built in the necessary time.

All in all, I am really happy with my progress. I really appreciated my tutor’s feedback on my observation and I’m glad I have resolved some of the issues she identified to make my sessions more effective, particularly around group work. Looking at my feedback from my Level 3 Big Teach I can really see development of my skills. For example, my tutor suggested I work on verbalising my appreciation for contributions, something she felt I did really well in my first PGCE observation. Each time I teach I seem to be addressing a development point. I can’t crack all of these at once after an observation: it feels like too much to remember and work on. Tackling feedback in chunks seems to be a manageable way of internalising the improvements I want to make to my teaching. Something to remember when feeding back to learners!


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Kline, N. (2015). More Time to Think: the power of independent thinking. London: Octopus Publishing Group.  

Petty, G. (2004). Teaching Today: a Practical Guide (3rd ed.). Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

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