Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork

Nine techniques teachers can use to encourage constructive interaction among students using small groups.

This is a method to encourage student self-examination about their behavior in groups. For a detailed description, see Teaching Social Responsibility on TeachableMoment.org

This activity involves the entire class and calls for problem-solving, group cooperation, and post-activity assessment of behavior. This exercise is useful at any time, but might be especially useful early in the school year before students have begun any groupwork. It is a type of activity that the class might refer back to throughout the year.

Pair-Share Dialogues

This is a good way to involve everyone in brief discussion at the same time. Pair shares allow students to brainstorm and begin to discuss an issue. They also enable the teacher to assess what students know.

Students pair facing each other. The teacher defines an issue, question, or problem and invites each student, in turn, to speak in response for one or two minutes. As a listener, the student is to focus complete attention on the partner and what he/she is saying. After the pair-share, the teacher asks each student to paraphrase the partner's views before expressing their reactions in a short general discussion.

Conversation Circles

Conversation circles allow for students to have brief conversations with several other students.

Divide students into two groups of equal size. Ask one group to form a circle and face outward, the other group to form an outer circle by pairing with a partner from the inside circle. Pairs should face each other, standing a few feet apart. The teacher presents an issue, question, or problem and invites the pairs to give each other their response. Each student in the pair has one or two minutes to speak. Then the teacher asks the outside partner to move one, two or three places to the right. Each student will now have a new partner with whom to share ideas on the same issue, question or problem or, perhaps, a somewhat different one.

Group Go-Around

This process can multiply student conversations and promote participation.

Divide students into groups of four to six or seven sitting in a circle, perhaps to discuss the same issue, perhaps one of several questions under class consideration. One student begins the go-around without being interrupted, followed by each of the other students who wish to speak in turn. The go-around then is repeated with another question or problem.

Micro Lab

This is a structured small group approach to an issue, question, or problem. This involves only speaking and listening-it is not a time for discussion or dialogue.

Form groups of three or four students in small circles. Within each circle, each student has a minute to speak. Designate a volunteer in each group to speak first. Announce when time is up.

Moving Opinion Poll

The poll is a way to activate students, to gain insight into the possibility that people can disagree without arguing or fighting, that they can listen respectfully to views different from their own, perhaps even change their minds.

Post two large signs on opposite sides of the room: "Strongly Agree" and "Strongly Disagree." Tell students they are to participate in a moving opinion poll. Each time students hear a statement they are to move to the place along the imaginary line that most closely reflects their opinion. For strong disagreement, move all the way to one side of the room. For strong agreement, move to the opposite side. Or move to anywhere in between.

Begin with non-controversial opinions as an introduction-e.g.: The best band in history was The Beatles. The best dessert is apple pie. Then introduce statements on the issue, question, or problem to be explored. After each statement, invite a few students to explain briefly why they are standing where they are. This is not a time for conversation or debate. Rather, it is a way to find out what people are thinking and how differently they may view a matter. The teacher might want to change statements slightly by qualifying them or putting them in different contexts to see if opinions change.

Fish Bowl

This is an especially good for involving the whole class in one small group discussion when students have very different views on a controversial issue.

Begin the conversation by asking five to seven students to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that the group reflects diverse points of view. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl to create a larger circle around the smaller circle. Only people in the fish bowl can speak.

Begin the fish bowl by asking a question and inviting students to speak to it in a "go-around" with each student responding without being interrupted. Next, designate a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from the fish bowl group.

After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Continue with additional questions.

Constructive Controversy

This is a conventionally structured plan for study of a controversial issue. Emphasizes information-gathering, small group work, group consensus, and the preparation of arguments from more than one point of view. Developed by David an Roger Johnson. Similar in some respects to the debate model.

Teacher preparation includes 1) choosing a controversial issue on which at least two positions are held; 2) preparing materials that will present facts and opinions on all sides of the issue, or will lead students to them; 3) assigning students to groups of four and pairs within each group to opposite positions; 4) assigning each group the common goal of reaching a group consensus and presenting a group report after all differences of opinion have been explored; 5) reviewing active listening skills, particularly paraphrasing and summarizing another's position, being able to disagree with ideas respectfully, and consensus-achieving skills, such as building on others' ideas.


1. Divide students into groups of four with two pairs in each. Each pair is to study a different aspect of a controversial issue, gathering facts and preparing arguments.
2. Each pair presents its case while the other pair listens, then asks any clarifying questions.
3. Each side challenges the other side's arguments and presents the strongest case it can for the opposite side of the argument.
4. Pairs then switch, preparing a new set of arguments and presents the strongest case it can for the opposite side of the argument.
5. Group decides which arguments are most valid from both sides and seeks a statement, a resolution, a consensus that incorporates the best thinking of the group as a whole.
6. Group prepares a written or oral report for presentation to class. If the group finds agreement impossible, it may prepare a minority report.

The Believing Game

The Believing Game asks students to enter as fully as possible into a point of view that may be unfamiliar or even disagreeable, to suspend judgment and experience it, to look for virtues and strengths that might otherwise be missed.

"Everyone agrees in theory that we can't judge a new idea or point of view unless we enter into it and try it out, but the practice itself is rare," writes Peter Elbow, creator of the game.

Begin the game by presenting either orally or in writing a point of view about a controversial issue that most or even all of the class disagrees with. Then divide the class into discussion groups of four or five students each for about 10 minutes. In their discussions students are to make only statements that support the viewpoint presented. They are not role-playing, but working to find anything with which they can genuinely agree.

Urge students to work at this approach even if it feels artificial to them. They need to ask themselves, "How could this argument possibly be right?" "What's worthwhile about anything in this point of view?" Success in the game is marked not by believing everything but by staying in the believing mode. The teacher's role is to move from group to group and prevent students from slipping into negativity.

Next, the teacher interrupts and asks that for perhaps five minutes students work at formulating questions in the believing mode. These should aim at clarification and invite fuller understanding and acceptance. A student might say to other members of the group, "Help me to understand why X makes sense or can be true." "I've never heard before that Y happened. Can someone explain it further?" The teacher's task is to prevent students from asking loaded, hostile questions and to encourage affirming questions only.

The game is difficult and only repeated experiences with it are likely to reveal its virtues. Entering into and really experiencing points of view different from one's own takes time and effort. But it invites listening, instead of arguing; it fosters empathy rather than antagonism; it encourages an understanding that there can be competing truths, each with some value.

See also "Teaching Critical Thinking" for a critical thinking procedure that proposes, first, the believing game, second, the more conventional doubting game and, third, an approach to integrating student thinking.


Discuss major goals of groupwork with students early in the year. Elizabeth Cohen offers in the introductory quote an overview of those she regards as especially important.

Set goals for discussions, brainstorm criteria for what makes a discussion interesting and useful. Come up with questions that will help the group assess the quality and process of small and large group discussions.

Among the questions that might be useful for assessments:

1. Did each group member have an adequate opportunity to speak?

2. Did each person feel that his or her comments were heard and respected, even if challenged?

3. Did students hear anything that complicated their thinking? That offered new insights or information?

4. What roles did individuals in the group play-leader, clarifier, idea person, organizer, etc.?

5. What behaviors helped or hindered the group?

6. How useful was the discussion? If useful, why? If not, what problems can you identify?

7. What specific ideas do you have to improve group discussions next time?