How to help students be productive when they work in groups

Updated: Jan 28


How to help students be productive when they work in groups
While working in groups has its benefits, there can be significant challenges that teachers face regarding getting students to work together effectively. If they are not managed well, group projects can become a source of stress and frustration for both students and teachers. But through careful planning and preparation, teachers can make sure that their groups are more productive.

Student-led discussions can be powerful learning experiences. When students discuss a topic on their own, they often find new questions and interesting connections that the teacher would not have known to bring up.


However, group work doesn't always pan out as smoothly as it should. This can be because of several factors; the most common being poor planning and management skills of the teacher or ineffective collaboration among students. The breakdown of communication within groups also contributes significantly to reduced productivity.

In this article, can we explore five strategies that teachers can use to ensure that all of their students are successful when working together in groups? Can we do that? Let's do that.


There are some tricks to getting groups to work well together. Here are five strategies to help students stay productive when working in groups:


1. Provide a purpose for groups that is clear and meaningful


In order to be successful, group members must understand why they are working as a group. Group members should have the opportunity to discuss and decide on their goals and roles before beginning work.


In addition, teachers can make groups more successful by providing clear guidelines for what members should accomplish as well as expectations of how they will accomplish this.


Consider the roles of each group member


Although it may seem unnecessary, teachers can help group activities by clearly defining the roles of each member and ensuring that each student understands his or her role in the group. This can reduce confusion about responsibilities and help facilitate positive communication among members.


Keep in mind that one person's role may be different from another's based on their personal experience or strengths. For example, one student may be responsible for collecting information while another is responsible for organizing the collected information.


Whatever roles teachers assign, they should make them clear to all members of the group so that no one feels left out or confused about his or her role


2. Work with your students to develop group protocols and procedures

It’s important to work with your students to develop group protocols and procedures. This helps you build rapport with your students, and it also helps you to develop the right classroom environment for group work.

Group work can be a great way to get students working collaboratively and increase their engagement with the material. But if you're not careful, it can also lead to wasted time, frustration, and argument.


Empowering your students too much can backfire on you. You want them to feel responsible for their group's performance, but giving them the authority to make all decisions on their own is usually a mistake.


Instead, come up with a few procedures for how groups will operate and empower them to make decisions within those guidelines.


Here are some tips for developing an effective group protocol:


Talk with your students about what they expect from each other


Students should work together to create ground rules for how they will work together as a group.


For example:

  • How often should members check in with each other?

  • When is it appropriate to ask for help?

  • When is it appropriate to make suggestions and when are they off-limits?

  • How will members resolve conflicts?

You can provide examples of what these kinds of ground rules might look like and help the students come up with their own.


You should check in with them again to see if those ground rules need adjusting or revision.


Choose a topic that isn't too complex or open-ended


Group projects tend to work best when you've given the groups a specific question or problem to solve. It helps keep their focus and makes it easier for them to keep on track.

The more open-ended the project, the more likely it is that groups will meander around without reaching any conclusions.


Give them clear deadlines

It's easy to forget that you're dealing with pre-teens and teenagers who are notoriously prone to procrastination. Set deadlines for completing certain steps in the project, such as creating an outline or holding a first meeting without you present.

Even when the opportunity for group work thrills students, that doesn't mean they'll be organized about getting it done.


A good way to help them is by giving them a specific deadline for submitting their results. You might even offer an incentive as a reward for meeting or beating their deadlines.


A good group protocol will help students stay focused on the task at hand, and give them a sense of what they can do when they have trouble staying on task.


3. Incorporate different methods of working on projects


Incorporating different methods of working into group projects will help keep students on track and productive. What's more, using a combination of methods can help produce higher quality work and motivate both low-performing and high-performing students.


Here are some ways you can incorporate different methods of working into your group projects:


Divide and conquer


This is a classic strategy for getting work done. Group members take on different tasks and then come back together to present their results at the end of the project. You might have one member do all the research, another create an outline, another write up the paper and another proofread it.


Make sure each member plays to his or her strengths while not overlapping with others' responsibilities. For example, if two group members are both supposed to conduct interviews, make sure they cover different topics so they aren't just talking to the same people.


Peer evaluation


Peer evaluation is common in the classroom, and for good reason. It's a great way to make sure that every student is contributing to a project — even if they think nothing needs editing or needs any suggestions for improvement.


This method works best when students are given guidelines for providing feedback before the project is due, so that they know what kind of feedback will be accepted. You or another teacher should also review the final product to ensure that it meets your standards.


Mix up your work environment


No matter how many times you walk down the same path every day, it's still going to be interesting when you turn left instead of right or go through a door instead of a window. Make it interesting by changing up your work environment and doing something new.


Use different tools


In order to keep things fresh, use different tools that can help you create unique solutions and increase your production time. Make sure that your students are aware that they should try their best not to use an app just because their peers are using it as well; instead challenge them to think creatively about the problems at hand.


4. Have multiple options for students to work in groups


When working in groups, it's important to remember that different students will have different skills. Some will be more eloquent than others, some may be shy and some may simply be quieter members of the class.


When you're planning group activities for your students, provide a variety of options so that each student has a chance to contribute to the discussion and share his or her insights.

  • If you're doing a group presentation, allow students to make presentations in different ways: One student might read a short paper while another gives a slideshow or demonstration.

  • Even if some students aren't as talkative as others, they can still help out by summarizing the ideas of their more loquacious classmates. You don't want shy or quiet students to feel like they're missing out on an essential part of the discussion.

  • Encourage students to clarify the thinking and arguments of other students rather than pushing forward with their own ideas. This will help them become better listeners and strengthen their ability to collaborate.

  • Allow for different forms of participation. Students can speak one at a time, write down their ideas on a chart paper and pass it around, or even write their ideas on an online collaboration tool like Google Docs.

  • Acknowledge individual contributions. Even if students have trouble expressing themselves verbally, they can still offer insights through their writing or by passing around an idea card.

Students should understand that they're part of a team rather than competitors for grades. When working within groups, there's strength in numbers — and in diversity. Every student has something unique to contribute to the conversation.


5. Reward students for being productive when working in groups


Group work is an essential component of the modern classroom, helping students learn to work together, communicate, and solve problems. But it can also be a major source of stress. That's because group work requires students to share and collaborate on projects, which isn't always easy for everyone in the group.


One of the best ways to help students stay productive when working in groups is to offer positive rewards for their efforts. That way, even if one or two members of the group are struggling, the others will have some motivation to help them get back on track.


So how do you create these positive rewards? The key is to keep them tied directly to success in the classroom so that they're immediately relevant and motivating.


Here are four ideas:

  • Non-Verbal Cues: One idea is simply to offer non-verbal cues that let students know when they're doing things right and when they aren't. This might mean pointing at a student who's participating in class or giving a thumbs up when he or she answers a question correctly. It might also mean making eye contact with students who are following along with an activity.

  • Charts: Another idea is to set up charts that give points for classroom participation in various ways. For example, if you're teaching a class about science, you could give points for contributions that help move the lesson along (answering questions or making comments) and subtract points for behavior problems (such as talking out of turn). If you want to make it more fun, consider creating a point system based on a classroom currency.

  • Chances: Another option is to allow students to earn chances or "raffles" by participating in class. For example, you could give two chances for answering a question correctly, three chances for participating in the discussion and five chances if someone shows exceptional work. After the end of a class period or after each week, hold a raffle where each student who has earned at least two chances gets a ticket.

  • Treats: Another option is to offer class rewards in the form of treats or privileges. For example, you could give a small piece of candy for every correct answer in the quiz, or allow one student to choose when the group breaks for a one-minute recharge. These treats should be simple and easy to deliver — nothing that takes up too much time or money — but something that students will genuinely appreciate.

Groups can be an excellent way for students to learn more about each other, their own strengths and weaknesses, and how they work together as part of a larger team


There are many ways that teachers can prepare for student groups, but it’s important to remember that discipline management is an ongoing process. It’s not likely that you’ll have a perfectly productive group on the first try, and it won’t be so effortless in the future.


Teachers have to put in as much prep time as they do for any other lesson — in fact, maybe even more, since planning for groups requires a special type of planning. But if you plan well and are flexible throughout your project, you should be able to create a group experience that will benefit your students, enrich the educational environment, and smooth out the challenges to work effectively together.


As educators, we've all had to deal with the quandary of how to help students stay productive when working in groups. If you've found a tactic that works for you, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.