Help Students Succeed with Group Work (Even Virtually)

Chelsea remembers the moment when her group’s presentation tumbled off the cliff from being a mediocre summary and into the abyss of unsubstantiated gibberish. The poorly made slides were out of order, and the speaker used fancy vocabulary that he did not understand. Chelsea was not even surprised.  During the few planning sessions they had, they got distracted by a puppy. This was a group of highly motivated graduate students. Clearly, group work is not easy.Maybe stories like these make you wary of assigning group work. Yet, group work is crucial for teaching students to cooperate and collaborate.  

When group work is successful, it creates a synergy where each member does better than they would as individuals. Studentsengage emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally. Stimulating each other increases their self-value. Group members question each other critically, generate a divergent pool of ideas, think from different perspectives, and solve problems creatively. Frequently incorporating group work will help your students build 21st century skills. 

 So how do you provide students what they need to succeed with group work?  

  1. Teach students communication strategies.  
  2. Scaffold the activities.  
  3. Decide on the details. 


Teach Students Communication Strategies 

Learning to communicate effectively is critical to success in life and group work. Introduce the seven norms of effective group communication. 1) Pause after questions, so everyone has time to think. 2) Paraphrase to provide clarity. 3) Pose questions to explore topics. 4) Put out ideas to generate discussion. 5) Provide evidence for your thoughts. 6) Pay attention to everyone. 7) Presume positive intentions. 

After teaching the norms, try different activities to give them practice with them. Two popular ones with all age groups and subjects are think-pair-share and jigsaw. In think-pair-share, the teacher starts by asking the whole group to ponder an open-ended question. Students think (and sometimes write or draw) independently about their answers. Then they tell their ideas to a partner. Finally, they share their own or their partner’s ideas with the whole group.  

The jigsaw strategy is where each student in the group independently becomes an expert in a sub-topic. They then teach their group mates what they learned and learn the sub-topics of their group members. Finally, the group creates a presentation to the whole group. Start with narrow topics of focus, especially for younger kids.  

There are many other collaborative learning strategies that will help develop their communication skills. These strategies include peer reviews, brainwriting, fishbowl debates, stump your partner, and more. If you are teaching remotely, use a digital whiteboard to help your students organize and share ideas. Many YouTube tutorials describe how to do these strategies virtually. 


Scaffolding for Success 

Scaffolding provides support, so everyone feels successful.  

Provide sentence frames for students to use when discussing the topic. Organize the frames into categories of clarifying, paraphrasing, agreeing, disagreeing, building on, and summarizing. Sample sentence frames include, “I like your idea because _______. I wonder what would happen if _______. Are you saying ___? I see things differently because _____.”  

Post sentence frames as an anchor chart where all students can see them. If you are working remotely, Google Slides and Flipgrid provide a solution for digital anchor charts.  

Walk around (or go into their virtual chat rooms) to assess how they are using the sentence frames. When you reconvene as a whole group, describe the great discussions you heard so other groups can learn. 

Provide graphic organizers for students to record their discussions. Choose the graphic organizer that matches the type of activity you are doing. You can find a variety of pre-made digital graphic organizers on 


Decide on the Details 

The success of group work hinges on the details. Below are some of the details to consider before assigning group work.  

  • Type of Group Work 

Group work doesn’t always have to culminate with a final project. You may decide to stick with group work that never gets presented to the whole class. When some or all students are learning remotely, it may be more practical to choose small, less intense types of group work. If you choose to assign a final project, give groups choices about how to present to allow for a variety of skills to shine.  

  •  Logistics 

Finding time to meet is challenging for many groups. To ease that hurdle, provide class time for small group meetings. If teaching remotely, use virtual chat rooms. Online asynchronous meeting spaces help too so students can interact even if their schedules don’t match up. Look into GroupTweet and other safe social media platforms for asynchronous conversations.    

  • Grading 

Some people feel that grading group work, especially when teaching virtually, is not fair. If you decide to grade, use a rubric that reflects the communication strategies you teach. Part of the rubric should include a place for students to hold fellow group members accountable.   

  • Group Dynamics 

Create groups, or help students create groups, with diverse personalities. Teach students how different styles and perspectives bring value to the group. Consider assigning roles beyond the typical administrative ones. Branch out into behavioral roles that support the norms such as supporter, questioner, and evidence gatherer. Give students opportunities to try different ones.   

  • Amount of Teacher Structure 

Most group work is either a cooperative or collaborative approach. They are both based on Lev Vygotsky’s time-tested theories of social learning. In cooperative learning, the teacher maintains more control of various aspects. The structure allows groups to dive into fulfilling the heart of the work. Students do a significant amount of work independently and then put the parts together. Individual accountability is critical to success. Like a play, the cast must use an understudy or postpone the performance if one actor is absent.  

In collaborative learning, students have more control over roles and other aspects. It often feels messy because students need to establish relationships and make decisions. The benefitof ambiguity are an increase in problem-solving skills and agility. If one member fails to deliver, other members learn to adapt. Like a team sport, if an athlete is absent, it puts the team at a disadvantage but, the game can proceed without a replacement. 


Final Words of Inspiration 

As a culture, we often celebrate individualism and forget that cooperation and collaboration are crucial to progress. We learn the stories of heroes, but the role of their supporting groups rarely gets the same attention. For example, schoolchildren learn much more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than they do of his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Teachers at Lakeside School probably never guessed that their students Bill Gates and Paul Allen would work with IBM to revolutionize computing. You cannot predict the potential contributions of the brilliant young minds you teach, but you know that they will need to work with others to achieve them.  


At Harris Education Solutions, we salute teachers as heroes who cooperate and collaborate for your students’ success. We are here to support you because you make a difference. 

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