The Eyes Have It: Keeping Students Focused During Group Work

Eyes image

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

I once had a colleague who was feeling distraught because her students didn’t seem to take group work seriously.  Her students tended to chat instead of doing the task and often finished early without completing it.  She asked me to observer her class to see if I could come up with any suggestions.

Within a few minutes of observing her class, I was reminded of a social psychology study that seemed related to her situation.  As you read the summary of the study below, you may wonder how this could be connected to ESL students working in groups.  Bear with me.

The study

The Psychology Department at Newcastle University conducted this interesting study using their coffee station.  There was a sign above the coffee station:

Smaller coffee station screenshot

As you can see, it operates on an honor system.  For the 10-week study, researchers taped a picture of flowers for a week over the coffee station and then switched to a picture of a pair of staring eyes for a week.  They continued to alternate these pictures each week.

This is where it gets interesting

During the weeks that the poster of the eyes was staring, coffee and tea drinkers contributed almost three times as much money as in the weeks that the flower picture was on the wall.  What’s so amazing is that it was just a PICTURE of eyes, not an actual person, which seemed to make people more honest.

The researchers conducted a similar study to see if the flowers or eyes pictures could motivate people to clean up after their meals.  In that study, the number of people who cleaned up doubled when the eye picture was present compared to when the flower picture was.

How this social psychological study is connected to teaching ESL

Above, I mentioned the distraught teacher who asked me to observe her class.  Here is what I saw.  She instructed the students to get into groups of four and gave them a list of questions that she wanted them to discuss. She expected this activity to take about 35 minutes. Shortly after they formed four groups and started on the first question, she sat down at her desk at the front of the class and started marking papers, rarely looking up at the students.  After about five minutes, one group stopped talking about the discussion questions and began talking in their own language.  (Three of the students were from the same country.)  Then, 15 minutes into the activity, a different group got up and left the room and didn’t return for about 20 minutes.  I could overhear a third group discussing the questions.  It went something like this:

  • Student 1: What do you think the answer is to Question 3?
    Student 2: I don’t know.  Do you?
    Student 3: I think it might be true, but I’m not sure.
    Student 1: OK, let’s skip it.
    Students 1, 2, 3, 4:  Ha ha ha!!
    Student 2: OK, Question 4 …

One group seemed to take the activity seriously, and I noticed that they were about half way through the discussion questions with 15 minutes left, but soon stopped talking when they noticed the other groups were “finished.”  At that point, all the discussions came to an end.

It’s all about the teacher’s eyes

As with what happened during the social psychology study about the eye poster and honesty, students respond differently when a teacher is or is not observing them.  All it takes is for the teacher to watch the groups, perhaps occasionally circling the periphery of the room, to keep students engaged.  It does NOT mean that the teacher interrupts groups, just watches and be available in case someone has a question.

Additional ways to motivate students in group discussions

For ways to keep students focused during pair and small group discussions without interrupting them, see For Large-Class Conversation Instructors, You Can “See” if Students are Using Techniques

Here are some individualized feedback forms for conversation class. Conversation class feedback forms

Also, these postings include tools for classroom management, especially for classes in which students don’t seem focused:

Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (First Case)

Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat)

David Kehe

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