Tip #19: Why your group work doesn’t work

Tip #19 - Why your group work doesn't work

Group work doesn’t necessarily mean ‘work’ – most of the time a few pupils do the hard graft while others loaf. Training students and structuring your group work so they can’t hide maximises learning while reducing your stress levels.

We love group work in Britain. Most of the country’s classrooms use grouped table layouts and while this seems intuitive for collaborative learning, the reality is often very far from the truth.

Collaborative disruption

Grouped layouts are designed to encourage interaction. When the interactions aren’t focused on the learning, you’ve got a recipe for disruption. Numerous studies have shown that grouped layouts increase off-task behaviour significantly (Hastings & Schwieso, 1995; Wheldall & Lam, 1987; Yeomans, 1989). Wheldall et al (1981) found a 21% increase in ‘talking-out’ and not paying attention (among other indicators) when children were sat in groups compared to rows. The net effect is poor learning and increased teacher stress. (For more on the effects of table layouts, see my previous post.)

Social loafing

Group learning’s second pitfall is social loafing – individuals sitting back and letting other group members do the work. Bigger groups mean more loafers, less individual contributions and less engagement as a whole (Johnson & Johnson, 1990). If learning is our prime concern, encouraging situations where a few pupils learn effectively while others gain nothing undermines our efforts.

From a teacher’s point of view, group work is harder to resource than individual work (Gillies & Boyle, 2010) and even when it’s well planned, many children implode from a lack of social skills. It only takes one king or queen bee to alienate others, and if there are two such children in your group, nuclear fallout is always a possibility. The noise implications of group work are destructive too: pupils find it annoying (Ali, 2013), it hinders speech and reading development (Evans & Maxwell, 1997; Sala & Rantala, 2016; Silva, Oliveira, & Silva, 2016) and affects your pupils’ health (Stansfeld & Matheson, 2003).

Why bother with group work?

If group work is largely ineffective, why do we pursue it? Done properly, group work has been shown to enhance pupil understanding and can fill the gaps your teaching misses. In ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’, Graham Nuthall (2007) found that for some children (particularly low-achieving pupils), peer interactions make up a large percentage of their exposure to subject knowledge.

There is also evidence to suggest that group work can develop social skills (Gillies, 2016). In a world where test results narrow the educational experiences of pupils, allowing them time to develop skills that aren’t officially measured should be encouraged.

So how do we get the best out of group work while minimizing the negatives? Simply put, the answer is meticulous planning and consistent practice.

Stop the free-loading

The often-skipped but most important factor to consider is whether collaborative learning presents the best way for your children to access your learning content. Once you’re satisfied is it, planning the nature of your groups will make success more probable. The ideal group has three to four students (Gillies, 2016; Lou, Abrami, & d’Apollonia, 2001). This allows all pupils to contribute and leaves nowhere to hide – effectively eliminating social loafing.

To further minimize freeloading, individuals need to be held accountable (Gillies, 2016; Johnson & Johnson, 1990). They need to understand how the group will share their work and the precise expectations of each group member. Assigning individual roles or randomly calling on individuals to summarise their group’s work are two ways to include accountability to collaborative learning.

Imploding groups

If your groups implode from a lack of social skills, your meticulous planning is worthless. In an ideal world, pupils would know how to get along, but collaborative behaviours need to be taught (Gillies, 2016). As with any behavioural expectations, identifying exactly what you’re looking for is the first step towards communicating and enforcing them (see my previous post ‘Are Your Values Vague and Valueless?’). I’ve provided the list below to start your thinking on what you’re expecting to see, but it’s by no means exhaustive and should be adapted to your needs. (Adapted from Gillies, 2016)

Collaborative behaviour What it might look like in your class
Listening to each other
  • Making eye contact
  • Not speaking over others
  • Waiting for an opportunity to speak.
Commenting on ideas
  • Explaining what’s good about the idea.
  • Explaining any problems with the idea.
  • Building on the idea.
Sharing resources
  • Allowing resources to be placed between pupils rather than directly in front.
  • Waiting until the resource is ready.
  • Passing the resource on when it’s finished with.
  • Using alternative resources until the desired resource is available.
Accepting responsibility for behaviour
  • Pupils demonstrating the other behaviours in this table.
  • Reminding others what behaviour is expected in the group.
Making decisions as a group
  • Voting to decide.
  • Explaining objections to the decision before the vote.
  • Accepting decisions that don’t match pupil’s own.

Giving time and space for social skills to develop

If your pupils are simultaneously working on challenging content and developing social skills, something will suffer. Planning group activities with little intrinsic challenge will give your pupils the opportunity to embed these skills so they become automatic. While in Finland, I saw children (in groups of 4) spending valuable learning time huddled around A3 sheets drawing and colouring in. I was aghast at the waste of time until I realised that while I was in the school, I saw no squabbles or pupils arguing. Their pupils were comfortable with the high expectations of collaborative behaviour as they’d practised in low-stakes activities. It may seem like a luxury not available to British schools, but the effort was rewarded with calm, efficient learning. By nailing these skills early on in the school year, we’d gain learning time by reducing the costs of poor behaviour.

While group work shouldn’t be the default choice, it can be successful and offer a different dimension to your teaching. Successful learning shouldn’t be left to chance, so if collaboration is your goal, planning meticulously to limit social loafing and disruption is unavoidable.


Ali, S. A. A. (2013). Study effects of school noise on learning achievement and annoyance in Assiut city, Egypt doi://doi.org/10.1016/j.apacoust.2012.10.011

Evans, G. W., & Maxwell, L. (1997). Chronic noise exposure and reading deficits. Environment and Behavior, 29(5), 638-656. doi:10.1177/0013916597295003

Gillies, R. M. (2016). Cooperative learning: Review of research and practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3), 3.

Gillies, R. M., & Boyle, M. (2010). Teachers’ reflections on cooperative learning: Issues of implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(4), 933-940.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1990). Cooperative learning and achievement. In S. Sharan (Ed.), Cooperative learning: Theory and research (pp. 23-37). New York: Praeger Publishers.

Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., & d’Apollonia, S. (2001). Small group and individual learning with technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 449-521.

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners Nzcer Press Wellington.

Sala, E., & Rantala, L. (2016). Acoustics and activity noise in school classrooms in finland doi://doi.org/10.1016/j.apacoust.2016.08.009

Silva, L. T., Oliveira, I. S., & Silva, J. F. (2016). The impact of urban noise on primary schools. perceptive evaluation and objective assessment doi://doi.org/10.1016/j.apacoust.2015.12.013

Stansfeld, S.,A., & Matheson, M.,P. (2003). Noise pollution: Non-auditory effects on health. British Medical Bulletin, 68(1), 243-257. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldg033 [doi]

Wheldall, K., Morris, M., Vaughan, P., & Ng, Y. Y. (1981). Rows versus tables: An example of the use of behavioural ecology in two classes of eleven‐year‐old children. Educational Psychology, 1(2), 171-184.

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