March 20th, 2009

Group Work Ineffective? Try Pairing Students for Better Accountability, Learning

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Although group work can provide a welcome change to the regular classroom routine, the results are rarely all positive. Invariably, one or two students in each group, because they are shy or lack self-confidence, are reluctant to share their input. These are often the same students who have to be coaxed to participate in large class discussions. Because of group dynamics, the student who usually emerges as the group leader, either by default or proclamation, is often not sensitive to the need to engage the quieter students in the conversation. As a result, the more outspoken students may unwittingly extinguish the very dialogue that the small group is intended to promote.

I have found that paired collaboration consistently produces better results than small group discussions do. Having students engage a question in a one-on-one exchange encourages stronger participation by both parties. Rarely do small groups generate equal contributions to the dialogue or problem solving, while pairing creates an intellectual partnership that encourages teamwork.
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Paired collaboration can easily be modified to work in a number of disciplines. In my literature classroom, the following model, which I use about once every three weeks, seems to be particularly effective. At the beginning of class, I ask each student to place his or her name on a sheet of paper and to write a question about the work that we will be discussing that day. I then collect all of the questions and redistribute them so that each student has someone else’s question. Students then break into pairs and together formulate a response to one or both of the questions, depending on the time allotted for the exercise. They are required to cite textual evidence in support of their arguments.

After a period of time, usually 15 or 20 minutes, each pair reports its findings to the larger group. Even if some of the pairs end up answering similar questions, they rarely have similar answers. And, if by chance each member of the pair has radically different interpretations, they are invited to share their individual responses. The exercise can actually be helpful in illustrating the variety of critical readings that one literary work can engender. And, depending on the direction that discussion takes, it can provide the foundation for discourse on a number of theoretical approaches to the text.

Experience has convinced me that the benefits of pairing are numerous. Working together provides an opportunity for problem-solving on a more intimate scale than small groups allow. Students tend to form an alliance as they work together to compare—and share—their interpretations. They are more likely to come to class prepared to engage the reading, as they know that they might be called upon at any time to share their knowledge. Finally, a paired model not only allows shy students to find—and use—their voices, but it also teaches mutual respect and cooperation. Paired collaboration is a small adjustment to the typical group discussion that can yield big results.

Denise D. Knight, PhD. is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at State University of New York College at Cortland.

Excerpted from Pairing vs. Small Groups: A Model for Analytical Collaboration, The Teaching Professor, February 2007.