• Creating Positive Tension during Group Work

Cover tension in group work

 I’ve gained important perspectives from students over the years. The following insight was shared with me by a student after a group-work activity, and it altered how I organized groups.

Typically, during my first year of teaching ESL, when I wanted students to get with a partner or form groups of three or four, I instructed them to do that and let them choose whomever they wanted to work with. However, early in my second year, this happened.

During the first week, I let them choose their own groups during a small group discussions.  Starting the second week, I mixed them up and assigned the groups.  At the end of the second week, one of the female Japanese students told me that at first she felt uncomfortable having to talk to classmates whom she didn’t know well and preferred to be in a group composed of her friends.  But she noticed that when the group members were “strangers,” there was a kind of positive tension (not exactly her phrase), which at first felt a bit stressful but later actually helped the members stay focused and more engaged.

I noticed, too, that students seemed more energized when they were matched up with classmates whom they hadn’t previously interacted with. And I’m sure it was also a relief for the “less outgoing” students to not have to wait until they were “invited” to join someone. I also observed that the class as a whole started to bond, which made for a much more supportive atmosphere.

A final suggestion for organizing groups

Whether you assign students to groups by having them count off (for example, by fives and telling all the ones to get into a group, twos into a group, etc.) or by telling the names of who will be each group, I recommend this: Tell the students where in the classroom each group will meet. For example, Group 1, you will sit here, Group 2, you will sit there, Group 3 … By doing this, everyone will immediately know exactly where to go instead of walking around trying to find their group members and then trying to figure out where to sit.

One final note, for short pair or small-group activities, for example, checking a homework assignment together, I still let them match up with the classmate(s) sitting next to them.

David Kehe

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