Unwillingness or inability of groups to work independently

One of the more common issues early in the year is the inability of students to work on their own without external pressure from the teacher.  It can feel a bit like pushing a chair—as soon as you stop pushing, it stops moving.  Practically speaking, the problem arises as soon as your attention is directed toward one group.  The others promptly go off task.

The reason this happens is that the culture of learning hasn’t been established yet.  This is completely understandable. Grounding your class on the foundation of self-directed learning requires dismantling the students’ well-established belief in doing school.  Students have to relearn the purpose of school and their role in it—no small task. It takes time, experience, and repeated discussions about the underlying philosophy to create the necessary classroom culture.

It is important to remind students of the purpose of study groups—sharing the wealth and having everyone engaged in the learning process—and that the alternative is business as usual.  It is also important to not get drawn into nagging them to do better. Engaging them in conversation, and really listening to their point of view, will draw more students in than haranguing them about how they should act.

Periodically having discussions of the inauthenticity of their traditional school experience allows them freedom to fully express their frustrations.  One caveat: do not allow students to use the names of specific teachers in their complaints. The purpose of these discussions is to critique traditional classroom structures, not disparage any individual teacher.    

Until the classroom culture of learning is well-established and students’ motivation becomes more self-directed, there are several strategies that can help keep groups working  effectively. Have the goals be initially smaller in scope and give shorter times to complete them. Offer appealing alternatives once they complete the task. Have the group work prepare students for activities that have significant effects on their grades.  Initially, at least, use grades to provide motivation.

Student self-reporting also helps raise self-awareness and change behavior.  Having every member of the group assess how much of the time they were on-task at the end of a work session can lead to a discussion of why the problem exists.

It is, of course, always possible that resistance to independent work will be widespread and students initially not respond to any of these techniques.  In that case, you may want to revert to traditional teacher-directed strategies. Be clear that you are doing so reluctantly, and your intent is to wean your students off their dependence on you more gradually.

Superficial, “jumping through hoops” behavior

Another aspect of doing school, particularly for successful students, is doing exactly what the teacher requires.  Unfortunately, in the student’s mind this may have nothing to do with learning. His definition of success—getting good grades—does not stipulate that learning has to take place.  

Your response needs to be a persistent grounding in the purpose of the class: undoing the habits of doing school and replacing them with self-directed learning.  You must also focus on the personal growth of the students and the mastering of character traits like self-directedness, curiosity, self-awareness, and responsibility.  Returning to these themes repeatedly, especially at the beginning of the year, is essential in battling old, well-established, and counterproductive patterns of behavior.

Groups finishing an activity at different times

Clearly, some groups will work more effectively and complete a task sooner than others.  Once they have finished, they may descend into chaotic, possibly disruptive behavior. But what should they do once they’re done with their assigned task?  And, more fundamentally, why should they do something else?

Your task is to provide follow-up work that is meaningful and interesting.  If it is fun, all the better. It must never be perceived as busywork or filler.  At least initially, you will also have to provide the motivation. If you resort to external motivation like extra credit, you should also explicitly state that you will only do that until the culture of learning is established—you expect that students will not need such bribes in the future.   

Ultimately, implementing learning contracts will provide both the work and the motivation to do it.  With contracts, there is always optional work available for groups who finish early, and there are choices about the mode of the work students can do, whether they need more practice or are ready to move on to enrichment activities.

Uneven participation within groups

When students with very different attitudes about schoolwork first begin to work together, there will often be tension between them. Unless steps are taken, one or two highly motivated students will often do most or all of the work within a  group, while other, less-motivated students will see group work as a shortcut. Obviously, the students doing more work will resent the situation and feel it is unfair, and they will be right. Worse, the unmotivated students will still not be learning much.

If the problem is limited in scope—only one or two groups are struggling with it—personal conversations with the members of those groups may resolve the situation.  In talking to the highly motivated students, let them know that the situation is unacceptable and will change. Their task is to help the others learn, which means sharing what they know, but not doing work for someone else.

In talking to the less motivated students, remind them that it is in their best interest to use the group structure to actually learn with the others.  That kind of participation leads to better grades and a more meaningful experience.  Copying is still not acceptable, because it rarely helps anyone learn. (Don’t argue the point that it is morally wrong—they’ve already been told that many times, and reminding them is unlikely to stop the behavior.)

If the problem is more widespread, then a combination of whole-class discussions and individual conversations are needed.  Again, it is important for you to have patience—once the classroom culture is grounded in self-directed learning, this problem will become insignificant.

There are also structural solutions to resolve uneven participation.  Copying is precluded when the group’s task is to prepare the individuals to do work by themselves.  For instance, when students practice solving problems together in a group in order do similar problems on their own, everyone has an incentive to learn from each other.

Under no circumstances should successful students be punished grade-wise for the failure of the group to work well.  If a group is ineffective, keep any grading of their activity based on how well each student does as an individual. The focus should be on the success of the unmotivated students.  There may be rewards for their participation early in the year, but use this tool lightly, and keep the bookkeeping negligible if possible.

Uneven productivity among groups

Often, some study groups will work well together much sooner than others.  As you look around the room, it will be obvious which groups are on task and taking the work seriously, and which are not.  How you respond will, as always, depend on the scale of the problem.

In general, don’t interrupt the work of successful groups unless it’s truly necessary.  If only one or two groups are inappropriately off-task, sit in and discuss the situation with them.   Get them to assess the situation—do they think they will complete the activity in the allotted time? In keeping with the principle of self-correction, ask how they will resolve the problem they are having in getting the work done.  If they show goodwill and a genuine interest in fixing the issue themselves, have them set a realistic goal for themselves and hold them accountable.

If the depth and breadth of inappropriate behavior is stronger, use more force, but reluctantly.  In extremely resistant situations, disband the groups temporarily and revert to teacher-directed activities.  Let the students know that you are disappointed to have to do so, but your job is to make sure that anyone who wants to learn is able to, and that their behavior was making that impossible.  Discuss the limitations of the teacher-centered approach that you are reverting to, compared to conversational learning, and let them know that you are confident that in a while they will be able to try groups again, hopefully with more success.  

When the time is right, reintroduce a group activity, but make sure that it is limited in scope and in time.  Reward successful behavior with even more time spent in groups.

Poor homework completion rates

Again, how you respond to this issue will depend on how extensive the problem is.  If a few students don’t do their homework—perhaps one or two per study group—they can sit in on the conversation and do the review with the others.  All the students who did complete the work should receive recognition, like a stamp on their homework, meaning that they were prepared. Peer pressure and the desire to get the stamp will encourage the students who didn’t do the work to do it next time.

If a large group, say half or more of the class, doesn’t do the work, have the people who did do it form ad hoc groups to review it.  If you have the space, have the students who didn’t do the homework start working on it in a separate area. That may mean having extra copies of the textbook or other materials available in anticipation of this situation.  You can also gather all the students who didn’t do the homework and do a teacher-directed review with them.

If most students aren’t doing the homework, then it’s time to readdress their motivational issues.  Haranguing the whole group is counterproductive—it just puts everyone on the defensive, particularly the minority that did the work.  Instead, a nonjudgmental review of the necessary shift in culture is probably called for. This is a situation that depends largely on your personality and the make-up of the class.

Adjusting study groups

If you have tried all of the techniques described above and there are still unresolved issues, the groups will need to be restructured.  The central question is whether the dysfunctional groups can learn to be effective in their current configuration. If you think that is not possible, then at least some of the groups need to be rearranged.

But how do you break up one group without breaking them all up? There is no single answer to this question. Sometimes one group can be disintegrated and its members dispersed to all the other groups. You can also survey the other groups to see which of them are flexible in their composition or let them communicate with you privately by using a form as described above.  Interfering with a group that is working productively should always be the last resort.