When working in teams, holding students accountable for their contributions and their own learning is especially crucial. In fact, lack of student accountability is most of the times the reason why some group activities just don’t work, sometimes with some students ending up doing most of the work or talking, others having very few opportunities to say anything or simply have the time to think, and occasionally a few students that may decide to coast on the efforts of others.
Making sure every team member participates equally, no matter their proficiency level or, say, prior knowledge on a given topic, is the first step to make students responsible for their own learning. Cooperative structures such as Think-Pair-Share or Numbered Heads Together are step-by-step interactional strategies that effectively introduce think time with an element of randomness: no one knows who is going to be called on, so everyone working in pairs or in a team needs to make sure they all know what is going on (which may involve giving a specific answer to a question or a series of exercises, explaining what their views are regarding a topic, or sharing ideas based on the background knowledge each student in a team has about a topic.) By providing think time, all the students are given an opportunity to contribute at their own pace and in an equal manner, but it is this positive peer pressure that is established, where students learn to respect, wait, negotiate, listen and share, that will help us hold each and every one of our students accountable and encourage on-task collaborative behaviours.
The first activity in Unit 2 from “Gateway C1” (MacMillan) asks the students to guess the meaning of a series of highlighted words related to trends and fashion, and then decide what their opinion about each statement is. If I’d asked the class, I know there would have been a small group of students doing most of the talking in an orderly fashion, others still following the discussion but not really willing to participate for various reasons, and perhaps a few others completely off-task — a scenario we don’t like to think about. This is how the students worked on that activity instead:
- Each team was given a sentence to be discussed.
- Each team member wrote their personal opinion independently on a post-it note.
- An appointed secretary in each team collected the post-its, read them, and then led a short team discussion.
- The team wrote a short summary of the opinions to be shared later with the rest of the class.
- Teams handed in their papers at the end of the activity.
When the time was up, everyone in the room had thought about their sentence, had shared and listened to their classmates’ opinions, and were ready to explain them to the rest of the students in the room after working on a summary.
Structuring tasks in this way can be time-consuming at the beginning, but as the year goes by, and as the students understand what is expected from them, the steps can be simplified. And it really pays off. With larger projects, each team member can be assigned a role (time keeper, materials manager, leader, and so on) or students can be asked to complete a log or a reflection form at the end of the project that shows how the group and each team member worked by analysing the quality of their contributions. All of these can also help to keep our students accountable for what they do. Even more interestingly, this positive peer pressure built within team work will very soon affect not only the rest of the group but the overall classroom management and an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
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