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Collaborative learning and group work: the why and the how

Collaborative learning and group work.

Of late there appears to be a growing scepticism towards group work as an effective instruction tool. Teachers on social media explain how they were once forced to use group work during teacher training or in their schools despite their own reservations. The charges levelled against group work can generally be summed up as: the task set doesn’t necessitate group work, it can be disruptive and noisy, teachers are uncertain of their role during group work and there could be disguised inactivity with some pupils “social loafing”. While I understand the reservations raised, I’d like revisit why group work is effective when used selectively and when pupils are given explicit guidance on how to work successfully as a group.

Cooperative learning effectiveness

First, it’s worthwhile recalling that group work or “collaborative learning” tends to rank positively in terms of effect sizes. In the EEF toolkit “collaborative learning” is ranked fourth on their list providing an additional five months progress when deployed effectively.

As the EEF suggests: “The impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive.”

Although it adds the important proviso which we’ll return to:

“However, the size of impact varies, so it is important to get the detail right.”

This is supported by other studies such as Johnson and Johnson’s meta-studies and has been documented in numerous publications such as Marzanno’s “Classroom instruction that really works”.

So why the lingering suspicion towards collaborative learning methods? My experience developing Let’s Think in English suggests the majority of classes can’t automatically work effectively in groups and unless teachers are aware of how to support pupils the process breaks down causing understandable frustration. Knowing more about the theoretical underpinning behind cooperative learning methods and having strategies to develop in the classroom can avoid many of the pitfalls for group work and associated frustrations.

Cooperative Learning theory

Cooperative learning has its roots in social interdependence and is influenced by cognitive-developmental psychologists such as Piaget and Vygotsky and behavioural learning theories from Bandura and Skinner.
Cooperative learning theory has evolved since the 1930s and was influenced by John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch. Dewey advocated cooperative learning as preparing students for democratic society and stressed the active engagement individuals gained from sharing their own and being exposed to the ideas of others. Lewin emphasised the need to establish relationships between group members while Deutsch proposed the need for positive social interdependence between group members.

The theory was subsequently developed by David and Roger Johnson who undertook meta-analysis of cooperative learning:

Effects of Cooperative, competitive and individualistic goal structures on Achievement: A meta-analysis
Psychological Bulletin, 89:1, 47- 62.

Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis.

The findings of these meta-analyses were positive and suggested cooperative learning was effective.

Johnson and Johnson in An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning (2009)

outlined five variables that mediate the effectiveness of cooperation:

• Positive interdependence
• Face to face interaction
• Individual and group accountability
• Social skills
• Group processing

Interestingly there are parallels between the variables here and the key characteristics of teams in top performing organisations as identified by Daniel Coyle in his book “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. Coyle outlines the following key characteristics when exploring successful teams in business and beyond:

• Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
• Members maintain high levels of eye contact and their contributions and gestures are energetic.
• Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
• Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
• Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with others.

What does this mean for the classroom?

Well first it’s important to stress that while I’m an advocate for group work, I think it should be used when appropriate. Group work is helpful when the task one sets has a desirable difficulty and when individuals might respond differently or have different solutions to a set task therefore enabling them to critically evaluate different responses. In Let’s Think in English we have group work in every lesson as texts by their nature are viewed differently, we believe different viewpoints are worth exploring and sharing of opinions is important in developing reasoning. Furthermore, we set pupils challenging questions around the text, so they have to think hard. In this situation group members can support one another to tackle the challenge by critiquing, building and responding. However, the bridging – applying knowledge and skills in new settings- that takes place after an LTE lesson may be undertaken in groups or individually and as in all lessons the teacher is best placed to judge which method to use and why.

Within Johnson and Johnson’s five variables lie strategies that teachers can deploy to ensure pupils work effectively.

Positive interdependence

Positive interdependence refers to students fully participating and being aware they are responsible for their learning and that of the group. In my experience participation drops for a range of reasons once group size is increased. Simply put the more pupils there are in a group the harder it is to have your voice heard and to listen and respond to others. Say you set a task for a group of 6 pupils and give them two minutes to complete the task. If the time is distributed equally that would provide each pupil with 20 seconds to share their thoughts, listen to others and respond. In reality only 2 or 3 more confident pupils will have the opportunity to respond. Interdependence is increased when group sizes are small, and pupils have the safety, intimacy and space to speak. listen and respond. I favour a group of 3 for this reason. A challenge with groups of 3 is taking feedback from each group but this is not usually necessary as one can establish the common position held by the class and the explore alternatives or build upon the points shared. The key point is teachers should find what works for them best.

However decreasing group size alone is unlikely to increase interdependence. Pupils need support in turn-taking. Classrooms are often hierarchical structures with some pupils being aware of their efficacy in a subject. Similarly, in some classrooms the high attainers are forthcoming and used to being invited to air their thoughts while low attainers may be less confident. This relationship is likely to continue into group work with some pupils dominating while others appearing passive. A simple means to encourage individual and group interdependence is to number the individuals in the group and for the teacher to decide who starts the talk to ensure turn taking.

If you’d like an insight into the underlying hierarchies in your classroom allow the pupils to number themselves; usually the confident and/or high attainers will choose to be number one. When commencing the group work ask the number three in the group to start and watch the incredulous look on the number ones’ faces. In some cases, the self-allocated number ones will start the talk/task regardless and will need reminding of the agreed order. With time though interdependence becomes the norm and pupils will start to adopt turn taking and encourage the involvement of others automatically.

Interestingly many teachers who we’ve trained in LTE have used these simple techniques with other classes to good effect including A’ level classes to challenge passivity.

Key take away: Keep groups small and number pupils to ensure turn taking.

Face to face interaction

Face to face interaction refers to pupils promoting each other’s success and explaining or assisting one another with explanations. In classrooms I’ve found a paradox that many classrooms environments that appear to be designed for group work often prove problematic.

Picture a typical primary classroom set up for cooperative learning. It is likely to have a number of very large tables with six pupils surrounding each table or alternatively three rectangular tables nested together with two lying perpendicular and one turned sideways at the top with a pair. The initial appearance is these are classrooms designed for cooperative learning but if the task involves discussion it proves very difficult; pupils struggle to hear each other and typically break off into pairs and speak to those immediately next to them. When a group breaks down in this way individual pupils are often cast adrift from the talk and will lose the thread of discussion and lesson.

If we return to Coyle’s characteristics of a high performing groups, he highlights:

• Members maintain high levels of eye contact and their contributions and gestures are energetic.

The closer together a group is the better. Groups should ideally be enclosed and facing inwards towards each other and pupils should be encouraged to respond through subtle gestures as their peers speak. While many might look at a classroom laid out in rows as non-conducive to group work, I’ve found them easy to navigate as you merely ask individuals to turn and form a group with peers behind them which ensures close proximity.

What is more problematic is ensuring attention when groups provide their responses to the class, but I’ll address that in a future blog on listening in the classroom.

Key take away: Ensure pupils are sitting close together when undertaking group work so they can hear and see each other. This does not mean you have to have to change your classroom layout.

Individual and group accountability

This refers to each student showing mastery of the content studied and being accountable. So how can we achieve this and avoid the “social loafers”. In Let’s Think in English we advise teachers to always select who provides feedback from the groups rather than permitting the same pupils to respond for their groups. However, it is worth noting this is different from “cold calling” where a pupil is randomly selected to answer a question. In this instance a pupil is selected to feedback what their group has been discussing so they’ve enjoyed the opportunity to clarify their own and listen to other pupils’ thoughts. Where pupils are shy or less confident one can inform them, they will be providing the feedback for their groups in advance and provide time for the group to summarise their thinking. For many pupils explaining the thought processes of their peers, enables them to better understand a standpoint than merely listen.

However, our work in Let’s Think in English has illuminated a common problem with group work in classrooms: the feedback pupils give is frequently not reflective of what the group has been discussing. When pupils are new to LTE, they will often respond to a request for their group thoughts by saying “Well I thought the character….”. This happens as while the pupil has individual accountability, they do not yet have group accountability; they do not see the value of the group discussion and feel having an answer is all that matters. Similarly, when new to cooperative learning pupils may engage in group work but when asked to respond ignore the group discussion and return to their very first thought about the text. Pupils need to be supported to actively engage with the group discussion and critically evaluate the talk that is shared by considering questions like: Do I agree with that? Can I add to that thought? Is it reasonable and can be supported with evidence?

To support pupils to be accountable to their groups in LTE we encourage pupils to start their group feedback with the expression: “We thought…” or “Our group said…”. This sentence starter focuses the pupils on providing representative feedback rather than their own individual thoughts. Furthermore, if pupils say “We thought…” but in fact represent their own thoughts only, their peers are more likely to challenge them.

It is key teachers consider their language when requesting feedback from pupils. If a teacher asks: “Jane what did you think?” when seeking group feedback it is likely Jane will merely provide her own thoughts , whereas if the teacher asks “ Jane can you share your group’s thoughts?” they are likely to receive representative feedback.

Key take away: Select which pupils provide feedback from their groups but note this is different to “cold-calling” as pupils have rehearsal time. Ensure feedback is representative of the group by encouraging pupils to use “We said…” and considering how you frame the request for feedback.

Social skills

This refers to pupils developing social skills such as: leadership, decision-making, trust-building, friendship, communication and conflict management. In the classroom this means you need to carefully consider who works together in a group but also you may need to provide individual targets, so pupils develop specific skills. Feedback from LTE teachers suggests they often spend their first lessons with a new class considering and revising their groupings. Mixed-attainment groups work best so long as the spread of attainment levels is not too wide although teachers’ perception of individual pupils’ attainment is often challenged in LTE.

Beyond pupils’ attainment levels, teachers suggest in group work they also need to consider pupils’ social skills. While some teachers have occasionally placed their dominant pupils in one group, they usually twin a confident pupil with a less confident one. However, over time it may be necessary to give targets or roles to individual pupils to ensure they develop the social skills required. For example, with a dominant pupil you might ask them to adopt the role of group facilitator while discussing a particular question to encourage their adoption of this behaviour over time.

Key take away: Consider how you group pupils carefully and intervene and set targets for individual pupils to support their development of social skills.

Group processing

This refers to reflection on individual actions and how successful the group was in achieving their goals. In my experience pupils enjoy well-structured group work as they are active in their learning and feel empowered by seeing their thoughts are valued. However, it is important they realise why and how working as a group has developed their learning. Some pupils are able to do this autonomously and will say: “I’ve changed my mind now because of what X has said… Their argument makes more sense because…” Yet other pupils will need support in tracking the flow of group responses. The teacher may highlight how an idea has developed and grown during group work and subsequent feedback by saying “So we now seem to think as a group…., although at some point we thought… this all seemed to have started from x’s idea.’ Pupils need to be aware of how cooperative learning and group work is supporting them to learn.
The suggestion of reflection lends itself well to metacognition and supporting pupils to be more consciously aware of how they are thinking and therefore able to control, monitor and evaluate their thinking better. While many of the recent publications on metacognition such as the EEF’s Guidance Report, have considered it largely as an individual development there are distinct advantages of developing metacognition together. If we see metacognitive knowledge characterised as combinations of information around three knowledge variables –self, task and strategies – that will be effective in achieving goals (Flavell 1979) then there are advantages to being exposed to the way others’ approach a task and strategy as it makes us more aware and in better position to evaluate our own approach. Group work enables pupils to plan, monitor and evaluate as a group; rehearsing a process that can be developed on an individual level.

Key take away: Support pupils to see the value of group work by tracing the development of ideas and group work can support pupils develop metacognition.


In summary I’m suggesting that despite negativity towards group work and cooperative learning approaches in some circles it is still a very useful instructional method as supported by the evidence. As with all instructional methods it depends on how and when you use group work and I’ve suggested the majority of pupils will benefit from explicit guidance on how to work effectively in groups. The strategies above are relatively straightforward to implement and teachers suggest that after 3 to 4 lessons working in this way pupils start to become familiar with it.

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