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Why Group Work is Critical for Active Classroom Learning

Whenever I conduct observations of faculty members, my suggestion is usually the same: can these students take a more hands-on approach to this lesson? Can they grapple with or solve the problem together, without interference from you?

Across various disciplines, instructors are moving away from lecturing, choosing instead to promote active learning. In a typical active learning classroom, the instructor will design an activity (geared toward the day’s instruction), divide students into groups, ask them to solve a problem together, and then present their findings.

The success of such an approach relies heavily on the division of groups:

  • How well students are matched
  • How effectively do you explain the assignment’s outcomes
  • Which methods do you employ to distribute their labor

Below are some suggestions for facilitating useful group work in your classroom.

Why Groups?

Before breaking students up, it’s important that they understand why group work is important. Too often, instructors feel compelled to manage students’ learning—lecturing course content, fielding questions, and responding to raised hands. Although this model can court some useful participation (usually from self-motivated, front row-types), it also creates a dynamic that centralizes the instructor and makes him or her responsible for all the learning.

In opting for student-centered learning—as opposed to the traditional lecture/discussion model—you are placing the responsibility of “learning” onto the learner. Rather than lecturing your class, telling them what they need to know, you are asking them to grapple with the course’s key concepts and arrive at original conclusions.

In doing so, you are not shirking your responsibilities; instead, you are guiding students toward mastery—creating an arena in which they must take an active role in their own learning.

In an active learning classroom, the instructor functions as a facilitator: designing the day’s activity, giving instructions, and checking in with each group’s progress. This model thwarts any hope of passive learning. Participation is not optional; it’s necessary. Students cannot “zone out” during your lecture; they cannot remain silent in the back row or surreptitiously text under their desks. Working collaboratively, they must “solve” the central problems of the day’s lesson and practice accountability for their own understanding.

Engaging effectively with their fellow students, they are modeling skills that will be vital in their future workplaces. Rather than passively “paying attention” to their instructor, they are obligated to communicate their ideas, practice interdependence, and take on leadership roles.

Avoiding Complaints Before They Arise

In making group work an integral part of your classroom instruction, you’ll find that complaints are common and usually come in the following varieties:

  • “Can’t we just do it by ourselves?”
  • “Can I be in a group with X and Y, my two best friends?”
  • “Can we just keep the same groups we had last time?”
  • “How about we just team up with the people sitting around us?”

There is a simple answer to all of these questions: “No.”

While the how of assigning groups is up to you, the instructor, it’s a good idea to vary the makeup of groups from class to class. There is good to be found in working with the same team consistently: relationships are forged, communication becomes fluent, strengths are appraised, and labor is divided accordingly. Nevertheless, students seek familiarity in group work because they wish to be comfortable and, thus, take a more passive role in their own learning.

Pushing your students into unfamiliar learning environments—regularly asking them to meet and collaborate with new colleagues—can have deep pedagogical value. Apart from the challenge of the day’s lesson, you are offering them a “meta-challenge” to surmount: collaborating with a new crop of near-strangers, adjusting to their various strengths, deficits, and learning styles.

Methods of Division

The easiest (and fairest) way to divide students involves the use of a randomized selection tool. Many LMS platforms, such as Canvas, have options for setting groups and will (objectively) split your roster into whatever configuration you choose. This method is particularly effective for classes that rely heavily on active learning; as students drag their feet, disappointed that they’re being separated from their pals, remind them that this lottery-style selection process could always swing their way next time.

For a more directed division, consider making each team a microcosm of the classroom at large. As you well know, every class roster contains students with different aptitudes, points of view, and cultural backgrounds. While the semester progresses—and you “get to know” them—why not use group work to create intellectual conflict? Should you opt for this approach, consider the following suggestions:

  • Never cluster all of your A-level students together. Instead, group them alongside peers of different proficiency levels. Reciprocally, this will provide a strong model for struggling students and press the “A's” to work on their leadership and communication skills.
  • In courses that stress discussion or debate, try experimenting with diversity. Once you’ve established a spirit of collaboration and safety in your classroom, try creating cross-sections of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political leaning, class background, and/or disciplinary interest. Put students into conversation with alternative points of view.

    Disclaimer: know thyself. This sort of academic intercourse can only work with instructors who share a strong rapport with students and sculpt an environment of mutual respect, approachability, and tolerance. Do not enter potentially volatile territory unless you’re sure you can sensitively facilitate disagreements.

Legitimate Complaints

Every so often, though, interpersonal conflict mucks up your best-laid plans. Two students who used to date or grew apart in high school “absolutely cannot and will not work together”. This will make them “uncomfortable”.

In these cases, it’s worth examining that word: uncomfortable. While there are a great many avenues for intellectual discomfort—that is, pushing students beyond the “safe” boundaries of critical thought—this is something different. There is no scholarly value in forcing two clashing students together. On the contrary, the hostility that passes between them will only prompt silence and an awkward group dynamic.

In order to identify these contentious relationships ahead of time—and reduce the likelihood of an “in-class scene”—you may prefer to have students self-report. Offer them an opportunity, at the beginning of the term, to inform you (anonymously!) of any conflicts that might impede collaboration. Students with legitimate concerns will identify them and you’ll be able to address them throughout the semester.

Group work can be more complicated and may require more time than traditional lectures, but the benefits to transforming a classroom into an active experience can’t be undersold. Pushing students to take ownership of their work and an active role in their own learning won’t just improve your course, it will help students become independent thinkers and learners.

About the Author

Professor Ray Dademo is an adjunct professor of English at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Middlesex County College. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled "Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition.

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