Because the majority of the work in my 7th grade Math class is done in small
groups, I make high-functioning, collaborative group work a priority in my
teaching. As the teacher/facilitator, my role is to make sure that the students
are working with correct strategies and each is playing an equal part in
completing the work. Last year, although students generally got along well in
their groups and enjoyed working together, there were ways that students
consistently failed to be engaged and productive. Students occasionally got off
task, lost focus, and perseverated, causing their groups to fall behind. A
group’s overall effort and the quality of the final work product were often
inadequate or limited only to the basics they needed to get done.

wanted all students to engage with the material, pay attention to it and to each
other, and collaborate effectively. In order to attain these goals, I decided to
teach students how to work productively in small groups rather than
assume they could do it well without receiving

Start with modeling
In early September, two
students and I used role play to model productive small-group collaboration. We
identified and proposed solutions for common problems that students have while
working in small groups. We then talked about the benefits of learning in small
groups as opposed to working independently. Finally, we developed basic team
roles that helped keep teams organized, allowing them to meet their

Measure progress
To assess our small group work, I
formally observed and collected student surveys three times over three months. I
observed students and measured the degree to which they exhibited the following
positive small group behaviors: made all group members feel included, actively
listened, stayed focused, offered ideas or strategies, took turns, respected
opinions, and actively participated in class. The surveys asked students to
measure how effectively groups worked together, including active participation
and open reception to each other’s ideas. The initial survey provided me with
baseline data, while the subsequent surveys allowed me to evaluate and adjust as

Baseline: problems revealed
Within the first few
days of school, the students were given their first group assignment that
required them to work in their teams of three to solve and share problems. My
September observations revealed that several students had difficulty staying on
task. The temptation for social interaction was too much for some. While most
students focused on assignments, a few interrupted others, talked over their
group mates, and did not actively listen to their group members’

In another class, very few students worked collaboratively. Many
did the assignments individually, and a few students waited for other team
members to do the work for them. It was very frustrating!

My biggest
hurdle was getting dominating teammates to appreciate the value of other
people’s ideas and opinions. In many cases, a team would have one or more
domineering student(s) who would assume all the responsibility (and credit) for
an assignment. In their surveys, students indicated that their work in teams was
useful and productive, but noted that teammates were not contributing equally. I
began to have students come to me after class to ask for help in dealing with
sluggish or dominating teammates.

To address these problems, I used
frequent redirections, like asking students to take a break and/or removing
privileges. I also held individual and group discussions about the value of
multiple opinions and strategies in constructive discourse. However, my
observations and the problems reported by students made it clear that I still
had work to do.

Successful interventions
Consistent behavior
management and changes in how students were grouped brought positive changes. My
use of reminding and reinforcing language held groups to our process and helped
create a safer collaborative environment. My observations reflected this as
students became more confident about their ideas and internalized behavior

I switched the makeup of the groups to improve
collaboration based on student recommendations and my growing knowledge of
student learning styles. Previously, I had created the groups and assigned roles
at random, or alphabetically. To balance our groups while allowing my students
greater autonomy, I instructed my students to select group mates based on
successful working relationships rather than friendships. Students listed three
people they would like to work with; in addition, they were allowed to identify
up to three people they did not want to work with. I used this information to
create new teams.

While the quality of small-group interaction improved
after I made this switch, we continued to confront flaws in our group work. On
the assignments I observed, participation, active listening, and work production
were much better than earlier in the year. However, the volume levels in class
became overwhelming at times. I had to ask students to lower their voices five
to six times in a class period. By assigning one group member the job of
monitoring the active listening and voice levels within the group, we were able
to get closer to the respectful, collaborative, and active group work I

Group work needs to be taught
As I probed further
into the small groups’ problems, I was surprised to learn how few students had
worked previously in a collaborative group structure, and yet I know that most
students, if given the right supports, are capable of self-monitoring,
directing, motivating others, and assessing their work in

After teaching group skills for two months,
things were much better. The student surveys showed incremental growth. In
November, the majority of students graded group work and individual work “well
to extremely well;” by comparison, students graded the same categories “poor to
adequate” back in September. The students themselves were noticing that their
teams were more productive and that they had a better routine for organizing
their work and conducting their discussions. Students also felt that their own
participation had improved. After examining my observations and tallies from
September and November, I noted a sizable uptick in active participation-from 23
to 32-and improvement in the quantity, quality, and organization of completed
group work.

In addition, I enjoyed seeing students share ideas. By having
students discuss correct mathematic strategies with each other, much of the
pressure is taken off me to be the lone distributor of information in the room.
I concluded that when working with peers, students may think through a concept
differently than I would, but the learning that emerges can be of equal

One thing that initially frightened me about doing a lot of
group work was that misinformation would get around and confuse students. But by
employing a process for effective group work with the students, I was actually
allowed more opportunity to walk around the room and listen in on conversations.
Because I was spending less time on behavior management, I was able to address
misinformation and questions in a much more focused and effective

Through the combination of modeling, careful observations, and
consistent redirections to protect our process, I was able to make student
small-group work considerably more productive and valuable.

Quill teaches 7th graders at J.F.K. Middle School in Hudson MA.

article first appeared in Developmental Designs: A Middle Level
, Fall 2009