Friday, November 12, 2010

Group Work

I have never been a big fan of group work in a math class. I think it's mostly because I'm not good at coordinating it or making it effective.

I'm currently involved with coaching project where a group of teachers are helping each other become better at their practice. One of my goals through the project is to improve the way I use group work in my classes. Last week I assigned group work and it failed miserably.

The task I gave was a simple one. I gave students a distance vs. time graph which displayed two different bicycle trips. The students had to give a commentary of the bicycle trips. Without any sort of creativity or group work the assignment could have been completed in a period (or at the very least finished up for homework).

My colleague suggested that we spice up the assignment by having students create a performance that included a commentary on the bike trips. We left it open-ended on purpose to allow for a wide variety of submissions (live performance, videos, animated videos).

Generally speaking, the results were terrible and I reaffirmed the reasons why I tend not to give group work. I'm not blaming the failure on the students. I'm blaming myself for not being able to set things up effectively.

Here are some of the things that I noticed:
  • We need to work on presentation skills. I assumed that they had these already.
  • Most of  the class time I gave was wasted.
  • Most of the groups had 1 or 2 people do all of the work, even though I offered suggestions on how to divide the work.
  • Technology problems were great excuses for not getting things done on time.
  • Rarely were all of the group members present, which became an excuse for not doing any work since the absent student always seemed to have the work.
All of these things made me realize that the time spent on the assignment didn't yield a good return on investment.

Here are some things that I've thought about for improving:
  • I need to be explicit in addressing presentation skills. Talk about it on a daily or weekly basis, model good presentation skills, talk about when I do things wrong, etc.
  • I have no idea how to address the issue of wasted class time.
  • I also have no idea how to address the fact that some students didn't pull their weight. I had them complete self-evaluations and evaluations of their group members but that didn't seem to help.
  • I need to lay some ground rules to let my class know that  they need to have a backup plan in place. The failure of technology does not excuse you from having to present.
  • I need to teach them how to share files, etc. so that the absence on one student doesn't cripple the entire project. 
I may have jumped into the deep end a little too quickly. Perhaps I should have started with a smaller task that could have been completed in class, or even a small portion of the class, and had students working in pairs instead of larger groups.

Please help! What do you do to make group work effective?


  1. First off, I admire your courage in trying something outside the norm for most math courses. You basically took on the role of project manager for 10(?) or more simultaneous group projects, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up if it didn’t happen as perfectly as you hoped. The first question is, in hindsight if the project submissions had been well-done and turned in on time, would the time required in class and outside of class by your students have made this a worthwhile investment of instructional time? I don’t know the answer to this, but sometimes the best option is to keep it simple and not “spice up the assignment”.

    Assuming you want to try these types of assignments again going forward, my suggestion is to go to the experts in your school who assign such group multimedia projects on a regular basis, such as the history and language arts teachers, and ask them your specific questions. For example, I know that some students use Google docs to have access to their files regardless of what school computer they’re on: perhaps you could have each group set up their own account so that students could access their project work even when one of the members is absent. Also, ask the experts how long they would’ve estimated the project to take the students realistically. The longer the project, the more you need to consider having interim deadlines for outlines, first draft, rough video, final video, and separate grades for each milestone, so that you don’t have groups waiting until the last minute to get started.

    Also, I think it might help to find some good student created math videos off of the internet that you can show your students as examples of what an acceptable submission looks like. And also provide the students with a rubric so that they have clear expectations from you: otherwise, they can just submit pretty much anything that gets a laugh from the class and argue with you that they DID complete the assignment.


  2. Looking back on the assignment, I realize that my expectations were a bit off. I've realized that if I work at developing the 'extra' skills (presenting, using technology, etc.) from the beginning of the year this project could require less time and be a lot more effective. Although this takes some time I really think that we as math teachers need to do our part to help students become well rounded.

    Thanks for the suggestion about seeing how other teachers implement these projects. I have a lot of learning to do in this area and could certainly benefit from the experience of others.

    Finding student exemplars is a great idea. I did provide my students with a rubric but I think having a concrete example would be more effective.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Hi Dave,

    I was going to comment, but then it seemed kind of long-winded, so I blogged about it instead.