Using Group Work Roles To Actually Enhance Student Learning

Group work is a HUGE part of NGSS classrooms.  Collaboration should be occurring daily – from the puzzling it out to the engaging in argument to the constructing explanations – student should be sharing their ideas and listening to their peers.  That said, group work can often end up looking like solo work, group play, or “copy from the smartest kid.”  None of those options are ideal.  So how can you regulate group work?

Using Group Roles is one strategy you could try.  The thing with using roles, though, is sometimes these become copouts – students only participate when it’s their “role” and it’s often hard to find tasks that truly engage all students in the group.  For example, “timekeeper” is not a good role.  Timekeepers do not need to participate in a lab or activity.  They simply stare at the clock.  That is NOT the types of roles we want for our students!


So how can you use roles more effectively?

Identify roles that require students to be engaged the ENTIRE time – not just at the beginning or end of the activity, or at a single point in the activity. (Think: materials collector). Some examples of more effective roles may be:

Recorder – records observations, answers, and discussion outcomes from all group members.  This individual must be listening and participating in the task and discussion in its entirety to carry out this task.  That said, you don’t want this person to simply be writing answers that are given to them.  To prevent this, you may want to have them keep notes on a separate piece of paper, and then students use these notes to complete whatever analysis questions or tasks you have assigned afterward.

Task Manager – reads tasks/questions and ensures that all parts of the task have been completed.  This individual presents the initial task orally and throughout the task, ensures that everything has been addressed. They are managing the step by step not completing it all but simply making sure it is all done as instructed.  To help this student, you may want to place checkboxes next to instructions or questions that the student can mark or initial as they move through the task or activity.

Skeptic – ensures that all ideas have been explored.  This individual’s job is to challenge classmates’ ideas and conclusions.  The skeptic prevents groups from rushing through tasks to identify an answer.  They challenge each response so that ideas can be elaborated on and refined.  This is a very challenging task – it really is a SKILL – so to support students, you may want to provide a “question bank” for the Skeptic to draw from.  This could be in the form of cards or a bookmark.  The skeptic could even indicate which questions they answered by highlighting, starring, or circling those that were relevant to the discussion.

There are number of other roles you could use in your activities understanding checker (ensures all students can articulate the ideas/conclusions/solutions constructed during the activity), reflector (outlines ways to improve the activity or group functioning), human resources manager (encourages participation from all group members), and so on.  You can identify what works for you, but the goal is that each task requires students to be engaged in the activity and interacting with each other throughout the working time.

So get rid of that Materials Collector, and make sure all of your students are ALL IN on every activity.


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If you are anything like me, transitioning to the NGSS can be totally overwhelming.  Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!

Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!

Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery.  Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.  

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