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Pros and Cons of Group Work

Maureen St. George

As a teacher, I am a huge fan and advocate of group work. From simple pair work to bringing the whole group together as one unit, I always have at least one activity involving working together every class. To me, the positives are almost innumerable, although the cons – many of which haven’t changed since the days of middle school group projects – still remain.

If you teach a class that has students who speak different languages, the main and most obvious benefit is that it forces everyone to speak the common language – English. If all the students have a common native tongue, there’s a high chance they may slip back into the language when the teacher has his/her back turned. For me, this is one of the easier problems to solve. By endless repetition that the classroom is English only and using positive reinforcement, the message trickles down, and of course, simply walking around and checking in on each group will keep students on their best behavior.

If you teach a class that has students who speak different languages, the main and most obvious benefit is that it forces everyone to speak the common language – English.

What issues might arise?
Although stereotypes like the alpha, the talker and the lazy one still run deep when working with adult students, an additional layer to be aware of is respect. When I was teaching in Bangkok, I taught a group of entry level employees and a lone HR manager who possessed a lower level of English than the rest. Having groups comment on each other’s work went swimmingly until it got around the manager’s group, when all the other students would suddenly become mesmerized by the cracks in the walls. Laughter during games died a silent death when it was the manager’s turn.

Pairing a weaker and a stronger student can be ideal, as it will bring both of them out of their comfort zones to meet in the middle. However, when the hierarchy of respect is involved, things can get tricky. I had to be careful that no one lost face, a terrible faux pas. Doing plenty of examples before starting the group work, asking the manager a question last so she/he’ll have a better chance of getting it correct, or even just subtly and creatively padding and appealing to his/her ego are all sufficient ways to deal with this.

If the class has a weird vibe or the students don’t know each other very well, consider doing an activity involving small talk, and time it so that everyone gets a chance to talk to one another in an informal way. If you’re teaching a class full of varying levels, it may be best to group them together by level and give them questions or an exercise appropriate for their level, so that they can still learn something without getting overwhelmed or frustrated.
Another way to ease students into group work is memory games. One of my favorite exercises is to pull up a map of South America and go through the names of the countries (obviously, this works best outside of that continent). I give the groups an allotted time to memorize the names of the countries before they fill out a blank map. Did each person memorize certain countries? Did they go in alphabetical or geographic order, or by football/soccer team rank? Something else? Getting them to think outside the box in a timed, excitable environment really gets creativity going and is something to see in progress. Reviewing with the class just how their group worked together will shed light on the different ways each group approached the task and curious students may have questions for other groups about how they did it.

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As many of us remember, one person usually got stuck with the majority of the workload when we were students. To avoid this, think about whether it’s necessary to divvy up the work among the group yourself or make that a requirement of the group. A great way to kick off a large group project (whether it’s just one class or over several) is to devote a few minutes – or even the whole preceding class – to teaching how to work as a group. Do they like it? What role do they usually play? What happens if they don’t like their group? Do they consider themselves team players, and how can they become one? Have them give some examples from their work or home life, so they can effectively remember this when working with their groups. After all, they’re adults, and even though they may have more in common with children than is polite to point out, they can work with someone they don’t particularly like for a few hours.

Group work lends itself well to learning how to work together successfully, from having students take the lead on divvying up the workload to forcing them to use English and finally use those phrases for asking for advice. For the teacher, it’s really easy classroom management. Keeping noise levels to a minimum will probably be hard, but once students get into a groove, the teacher solely needs to check in and make him/herself available.

Checking up on the cultural norms of group work in your new country is a solid place to start when looking at group projects. Whether or not you’ll need it, make sure you have a step-by-step outline of the project to keep you and the students on track. And finally, keep it light and fun! From acting out dialogues to presenting about their hometowns to giving a business presentation, these projects should combine their general knowledge, points learned in class, and possibly newly researched facts. Having their audience respond with constructive criticism or questions of their own keeps everyone engaged.

What are some of your tips and tricks when going for group work?

About the author

Maureen is a US-born, Hong Kong-based freelance editor and writer who has taught ESL all over the world. Traveling is her main hobby, and there's nothing she enjoys more than having a carefully planned trip go completely awry.