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Designing learning activities for group work

Some standards call for activities with a high level of interaction among students, which places considerable responsibility on the students. Group work may be a good choice here. Some activities are better suited to group work and to the standards than others. When reviewing activities presented in your teachers' guides, in books about teaching and on the Internet, you might consider whether they:*

While planning a unit, you may want to evaluate lessons presented in curricula or on the Internet to see if they meet these criteria. Together, you can talk about how you might modify the lessons so that they would be more likely to support successful group work.

The websites under sample lesson plans provide activities of varying quality and may provide you with some interesting places to start your discussion.

Open-ended

Activities that are simplistic and procedural are generally not good choices for group work. It is too easy for one or two students to take over. However, activities that allow students to start on more than one part at a time or activities that allow a variety of ways to begin may be more likely to involve all the students in a group. If there is only one way of beginning or doing a task, it is probably better given as an individual assignment.

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Demonstrate competence in a variety of ways

Students have widely different strengths. Any given student may be a strong writer, public speaker, artist, problem solver, organizer, reader, joke teller, etc. A task that values only one or two of these skills may not lead to successful group work because only one or two students in the group may be seen as being able to usefully contribute. However if the ability to build a model, write a funny advertisement or draw an attractive picture is valued as highly by the teacher as the ability to write a sentence or solve a math problem, then more students will be seen as desirable group members. Teachers show they value a skill when they choose tasks that emphasize that skill and when they include competence in that skill as part of the evaluation.

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Intellectually important content

Sometimes activities that emphasize group work treat content as unimportant. Students may be asked to accomplish tasks together that have little academic merit. Activities like these may be useful during the first week of school to help students get to know each other and to learn the procedures for group work; however, most tasks for both groups and individuals should be designed to help students work with important content.

Criteria for evaluation

Students should clearly understand how they will be evaluated for group work. Your attention to assessment helps students to see that you value the work they do together as well as the work they do individually. You may decide to evaluate teamwork in addition to the final product. If so, this too should be made clear to students. Whatever form it takes, the assessment should value multiple ways of showing competence so that all studentsí skills are valued.

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*Lotan, R.A. (2003). Group worthy tasks. Educational Leadership, Vol. 60, 72-75.