The benefits of collaborative learning, or working in small groups, have been proven in many studies, but teachers may still feel a bit lost as to how to successfully implement this type of learning in their own classroom, especially at the middle school and secondary levels.
Some concerns might be that behavior or noise levels will be out of control, distribution of work may not be divided evenly, the pre-existing classroom structure will have to change, or the teacher will have to put in a lot of work making sure assignments fit the nature of a group.
These concerns are definitely important to consider, but I think the advantages far outweigh them. In the four years I’ve implemented collaborative learning on a daily basis, I have consistently seen students engaged and working together constructively with no extra work from me except setting it up. Many times, once the structure is in place, I feel like the best thing for me to do is simply walk around, observe, answer questions, and occasionally prod students’ critical thinking skills.
Once students take ownership of their learning, they have no limits on what they can do. Perhaps best of all, successful small groups lead to a close and vibrant classroom community where students discuss important issues and share experiences together, building a sense of unity. This is the real beauty of small groups working together in collaborative learning.
This is how I set up my classroom for small groups at the beginning of the year and for the rest of the year:
1. Classroom Setup
I arrange the desks in my room in six pods of five. This does mean that some students will occasionally have to turn their chairs or bodies when there is instruction at the front of the room. Each pod has a picture and name of a famous author that we will read at some point during the year. Last year, I had Anne Frank, Ray Bradbury, Lois Lowry, Edgar Allan Poe, Avi, and William Shakespeare. This is what I call the group if I call on them as a whole, and also the name they put on any group work papers to identify who they are. Each group is given a folder where they keep their point sheet (which I will explain later in this post) and any papers they are working on together.
2. Assigned Seating
At the beginning of the year, I consult with the teachers my students had in 7th grade. I show them my class lists, ask if there’s anyone who should not sit with someone else, and then try to make my seating charts as best as I can. After that, I change seats at the start of each quarter based on how I see them in class and how they interact with others.
I always tell my students to give the arrangement one week, and if it truly is not going to work out, then they need to see me privately and I will change seats as discreetly as possible. I stress the fact that people are not going to get along with everybody 100% of the time, and many times in life, you’re just going to have to work through differences. That is a healthy and normal thing to do. Also, it is perfectly fine to have “school friends” who you sit next to in class, work together and exchange jokes, and not really hang out after school. That is also healthy and normal to have different groups of people you associate with.
A student might ask me to change his or her seat once or twice a year. Most of the time, it works out really well. I enjoy seeing each group develop its own dynamic, and I think the students feel that rapport, too.
I explain to students what roles they will have, using the following sheet as a reference: Small Group Procedures
-reads all directions to group, or reminds group of the directions
-shares group work with class, or chooses another group member to share
-responsible for all materials and supplies and returning them to appropriate places
-makes sure general area (including inside of desks) is clean
-makes sure everyone is participating equally
-keeps group on task and watches the time
-reminds people to clean up or finish up, or will have to clean/finish up themselves
-records answers and/or notes for assigned activity
-makes sure all group members contribute to the answers and check activity sheet
-if everyone is responsible for writing, gives group leading opinion on how to best write the answers (wording/spelling/correctness)
Assistant (if there is a 5th group member)
-helps with any or all of the jobs as needed
-responsible for asking if other group members need assistance
-group members can ask for assistance “in the moment”
I have learned that in order for small groups to work, each person needs to have some kind of defined, structured contribution to make. I do not assign the roles or tell them when to change — that is part of their responsibility as a group. If everyone likes their role and wants to keep it forever, they could do that. Most groups decide to switch things up every one to two weeks. Middle schoolers have a very developed sense of justice and fairness, and they are way more in tune with these kinds of things then I would ever be.
4. Expectations and Assessments
I adapted my expectations from a program designed by Vanderbilt University called “Peer Assisted Learning Strategies” (PALS). They have extremely detailed materials for elementary or high schoolers, for reading and math, even down to scripts for teachers to read. Originally, at my former school, I implemented the components of the program pretty faithfully with 4th and 6th grade classes. While I still think that PALS is an excellent program, I ended up changing some of the strategies to better suit the needs of my 8th grade classroom.
First, I have each person take turns reading out loud within their group. Yes, this means at least six people are reading at the same time. Yes, it can seem a little loud. But for the most part, students are able to focus on just their group member’s voice. Each person needs to have their own text to read — if they forgot their book, they need to retrieve it from their locker. Students decide how much to read and when the next person will take over.
Secondly, each person has their own assignment or paper to work on, usually some sort of graphic organizer I have made up. The group can work on the assignment together, but if they disagree with something their classmates say, or if they want to go into more detail, they are still ultimately in charge of their own paper and their own grade and can write down what they want. Occasionally, I will have the group collaborate on one assignment all together, but it’s usually for minimal points and just a summary of their discussion.
I also rely heavily on the small group structure to facilitate discussion. If I ask students a difficult or complicated question, I will often have them turn and talk to their group first to brainstorm ideas and work towards the answer, and then I will have someone, usually the group leader, share what they came up with.
Lastly, each group has a Points Sheet they keep in their classroom folder with the following categories: being focused, cooperating/helping each other, answering questions in class, catching mistakes, using concepts we’ve discussed in class that week, and attendance. As I walk around the room, I will put my initials in a square under the category that fits my observation, which equals one point. Sometimes I put my initials in multiple boxes. If the group is off-task, or someone is in the restroom, or I could hear them suspiciously quiet down when I walked over, then I may not give them any points at all.
I am very lucky in that I am often able to have a teacher’s aide in the room while there is small group work being done. Then there can be two of us circulating, or the aide can rotate around the classroom while I am meeting with a student or grading vocab workbooks.
The groups keep track of their own attendance, and then at the end of x amount of classes (usually about two to three weeks worth), I have each group count up their points and hand it to me. I check the groups’ scores, and then the winning group gets their names posted in our classroom, a homework pass for each person, and a sticker (as detailed in this post). The kids love this friendly competition, and I feel like it helps the group bond together when working for a common goal.
Whenever I ask students for feedback at the end of the year, small groups get a highly positive review. Even students who tend to be on the quieter side acknowledge how this type of learning helped them come out of their shell. Others said it was fun getting to talk and work with people. If they are struggling to understand something, they can turn to each other for support before coming to me — which enforces learning and builds that confidence in themselves.
For me as the teacher, I feel like discussions are richer and our classroom community is stronger because of small groups. If students are not actively engaged, it is pretty easy to spot, and there’s often gentle peer pressure to get people on track. Collaborative learning also promotes their communication and interpersonal skills, which are so important for their development as a whole person.
How do you implement collaborative learning in your classroom? Are there concerns that are you holding back from using this strategy?