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Teaching & Advising > Group Work

Group Work that Works

Kina S. Mallard, Associate Dean, Gordon College

PreparationGroup work effectively engages students in active learning, but it needs to be carefully prepared and students need to see the connection between their work in groups and the course/lecture content. Consider these steps when preparing in-class group work activities: (1) Look at your learning objectives and determine if these objectives can best be met with a group exercise or small group discussion; (2)  Decide on the appropriate method--case study, guided discussions, group quizzes, etc.; (3) Plan when to use group work and  budget enough time so that groups can complete the task and share the results with the rest of the class.

Process Group work in your class may be seen as a waste of time if you don’t adequately prepare and follow the four “R’s” of Process:

Reason – Be sure you understand and can articulate clearly to your class the reason they are doing group work. Tie the activity to the learning objectives for the unit;

Roles - To keep the discussion on task and to encourage participation of all members, each member should have an assigned role. Roles should rotate with each group activity so each student in the group get experience with each role. The roles will vary depending on the activity, but here are four roles essential to the success of most group activities:

  • Facilitator -- responsible for keeping the conversation going, for calling on the quiet members and for helping to monitor those that tend to monopolize the conversation;

  • Recorder – participates by taking legible, comprehensive notes about the discussion. Oral participation is limited, but the role is important because the group needs a record of main points and decisions;

  • Reporter – responsible for taking the recorder’s notes and reporting to the large group the results of the group’s discussion;

  • Participants -- responsible for addressing the issues/questions in a timely manner. They should listen carefully to others, synthesize mentally what has been said, help the facilitator guide the discussion and summarize group progress regularly.

Rhythm –  Small groups need to develop a rhythm. When divided into groups, the class should be noisy, energetic and excited. The following strategies may be used to keep the group work active, engaging and dynamic. 

  • The Talking Stick: When some members of the group are not participating, the facilitator can introduce a talking stick (this can be a pencil). When in possession of the talking stick , the member must talk for at least 1-2 minutes. Then the member hands the talking stick to someone else and that persons must talk for 1-2 minutes. Only the person with the talking stick can talk. The talking stick helps members to pay closer attention to the conversation and encourages succinct and appropriate contributions.

  • The Paper Clips: When a group is having trouble with one person monopolizing the conversation, the facilitator give each member 3-5 paperclips. Each time a group member talks, he/she must put one paperclip in the middle of the table. When a member runs out of paperclips, he/she cannot say anything else. As a e result of this exercise, talkative group members begin to self-monitor – contributing only what they perceive to be important comments. Once the talkative members have lost their paper clips, the quieter members step up to the plate and complete the task.

  • The Kitchen Timer: To help the facilitator keep the group on task , use a kitchen timer. Tell the groups they have a set amount of time and that when they hear the timer, they have two minutes left to help the reporter prepare the group’s report. 

Response - The response part of group work is key.

  • Response of the reporter.

    • Repeating the question or issue assigned to the group;

    • Revealing the solution or consensus of the group;

    • Reviewing aspects of the discussion process that might be pertinent to the larger group.

  • Response by the class/instructor may include: to each group’s report. Depending on the amount of time available and the quality of the report, this response may include:

    • Positive feedback. Respondents should find something positive to say either about the results, report, or process of the group;

    • Honest evaluation. If the group misses the mark or provides a poor model of group process, the class and/or instructor needs to point this out and correct the errors. While this may be difficult to do, it is important for effective learning. The other groups will expect their classmates to be held accountable for both their answer and their effectiveness as a group.

In-class group work is more than a break from lecturing. It is more than an excuse for the professor to get a cup of coffee. It is an intentional learning strategy that must be carefully prepared and executed. When small group work is implemented successfully, students retain more.  Group work also increases socialization in class and studies show that socialization is positively related to class attendance, formation of study groups or study partners outside of class and test grades. With in-class group work, no one gets left behind. Everyone participates; everyone learns!








"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."
-John Cotton Dana (1856-1929)