Educating Students About Group Work

group work, math

There are always students who struggle to work collaboratively. At times, it would certainly be easier to have students sit at their own desk, separate from the distractions of others, and work alone. Often, the students would prefer this too. However, taking this route does a disservice to our students, as community members, and as mathematicians.

Too often, students (and others) are focused on having the right answer, or the right work on their paper. It is no wonder then why some students are so hesitant to share their “ideas” with group mates and why others blindly copy down what is on a friend’s paper. Through a recent discussion in my class, I came to realize that students don’t inherently dislike group work— they just don’t understand what it is.

A student began a conversation saying that she enjoyed the activity we had done in class (using four 4s and different operations to get to the numbers 1-20. For example, 4/4 X 4/4 gives us 1) because she was able to see different solutions that she had not thought of on her own. Many others in class disagreed with her – they enjoyed working on the activity at home that night because there were fewer disruptions, no one to tell them they were wrong, and no one giving them the answers before they had had time to think about it themselves. They cited these reasons as reasons that group work is annoying and ineffective. I cited these reasons as how I knew they weren’t really working as a group.

Sitting near each other with four desks pushed together does not make group work. Instead, group work is made by the ebb and flow of idea sharing, critiquing work of others and thinking independently. This balance is difficult to achieve (even for adults), and it is imperative that we discuss it and model it for students.

The Discussion

Have students brainstorm independently about group work using the following prompts.

  • When I hear the word group work, I think of…
  • Group work looks like…
  • Group work sounds like…
  • Group work feels like…

Allow students to share negative feelings about group work as well as positive feelings. Ask them to highlight the parts of group work that they desire. Students may want to focus on the negative aspects of group work (fighting, bossiness, etc.), if they do, feel free to explore how to minimize this. Force students to be specific with the looks like, sounds like, feels like prompt. For example, if a student says that group work looks like students agreeing, push them to think about what agreeing really looks like (nodding heads, for example).

It is important that the discussion continues throughout the year. Have student reflect periodically on what went well or did not go well during their group work. Ask them to set small goals for the next time they are working in a group.

The Modeling

Now that students have talked about group work, they need to see it in action. Here are some strategies to help students understand good group work strategies.

  • When you notice one group engaged in active collaboration, freeze all of the groups and draw attention to the one specific group. This helps students see the body language of group work. Ask them to share what they notice about the group. For instance, all members are leaning in, they’re looking at the same work, no one has left the group, etc.
  • Have students share an idea that they did not have. This is often difficult for students because they want the credit for ideas. Push them to get in the habit of sharing the ideas of others. This helps students better understand ideas that they did not come up with on their own.
  • Have students share an idea that they disagreed with. Make sure that students can articulate why they disagree and provide a counter-argument. Focus on disagreeing with the idea, not the person. This will help students feel less attacked if a student disagrees with their idea.
  • Sit at one group for ten minutes and be the facilitator. Helping students have conversations with each other in an effective way is essential to successful group work. Prompt them with sentence starters (“I’m not sure I understand where that five came from” or “Let me tell you what my first strategy was”). Once they start doing this independently, continue to facilitate by correcting any negative comments. For example, if a student says “You’re wrong, it’s 8,” redirect them to say something like “I don’t see how you came up with 8. I think it is 6. Let me show you what I did”.
  • Let the model be the students and use a fishbowl. Create a circle around one group. Work with the middle group in advance so that they feel prepared to be the model. After the middle group shows their example of group work, let students on the outer circle ask them questions, or give suggestions/compliments. Alternate which students are in the middle of the fishbowl.

Once students understand group work and become more comfortable participating in it, they will benefit from shared ideas and strategies and become more effective problem solvers.


Elizabeth Masalsky is a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade mathematics teacher at Battery Park City School in Manhattan. She has a post-baccalaureate in mathematics from Brandeis University and her master’s in secondary math education from Bard College. Elizabeth is a Math for America Master Teacher and continues her professional development through workshops with Math for America, Metamorphosis and Math in the City.