Effective Group Work

Although research suggests that group work can be more effective than other modes of instruction, many students and teachers have a low regard for it (Nilson, 2010). From my own experiences, group work often meant that one or two people did the bulk of the lesson while the others chatted. That is not how group work is supposed to function. For this week’s reflection, I interviewed an adult educator about her suggestions for successful group work. For the sake of confidentiality, her name has been changed.

Setting and Context

Years ago, Val worked as a real estate broker. This allowed her to teach classes for adults interested in a real estate license. She traveled often and stayed in hotels where interested persons could gather for the class. Her classes covered changes in the laws governing real estate, business, and marketing (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

These courses were only a few days long, so there was little time for Val to get to know her students. She used icebreakers to learn her students’ goals, strengths, and weaknesses. The class often focused on mnemonics and other tricks for learning the material (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

Nature of the Learners

The students Val worked with came from several walks of life and various levels of education. They had different goals and different degrees of dedication. The only thing they had in common was a willingness to pay someone to teach them how to take advantage of an opportunity (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

Since some students were more interested in learning than others, Val used the first hour of class to get to know the students and reached a point where she could determine which students were there to learn and which were marking time. She tended to focus her attention on the first group. Time was too limited to try to motivate the unmotivated, but since the students were choosing to be there, she only had problems with a few. On a couple rare occasions, she had to get stern with a disruptive student, and in one case an old rancher in the class redirected a difficult student back on task (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

Strategies for Planning Group Work

Val’s classes had only a few students at a time, so she planned for discussions or small groups working together on problem-solving scenarios. She tied the problems to real situations they might encounter as real estate agents. Other problems to solve came from things the students would be familiar with such as calculating the discount on a product during a sale. By keeping the content relevant to their future employment or existing knowledge, the group picked up the new information more easily (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

Strategies for Facilitating Content

After students completed the group work, Val called on one to explain the solution. Everything went up on the board for everyone to see. She made sure everyone participated by calling on people. During the debriefings and lectures, she asked students to share experiences related to the content (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

Val was mindful of the types of students she had, and she varied her approach to accommodate them. For example, in some classes with shy students, she had them solve the problem independently before sharing with the group so the group would not be distracting or overwhelming (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014).

In addition to shy students, she had some who were taking a class for the first time since they dropped out of high school. Others had complex personal lives juggling jobs and families. Both types of students feared being unable to keep up. For them, she found that showing them how basic life experiences applied to the material was critical.


Based on Val’s description, she approached her real estate classes from a constructivist perspective (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014; Merriam, Cafferella, & Baumgartner, 2007). She engaged prior knowledge to draw connections to current information (Barkley, 2010). Some of those connections involved having students tell stories of their experiences so the group could draw the necessary connections. Clark and Rossiter (2008) place a high value on story telling as a way to construct knowledge. Val also relied on the case method described by Nilson (2010). She gave her classes real and fictitious scenarios that might come up when they moved into their careers as real estate agents.

She did run afoul of some of the pitfalls of group work such as students who shirked their responsibilities and questioned her authority. She reminded them that they were in the class by choice (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014). The description of the rancher scolding a shirker was interesting. I have not witnessed that reaction, but given the attitudes common in rural Texas, I can visualize that happening.


Val took advantage of the small numbers in her real estate courses to use group work effectively. She drew upon the students’ prior knowledge and applied it to the current material. She made sure that her group work dealt with relevant material and kept everyone accountable, sometimes with the help of other members of the class. (V. Adams, personal communication, April 3, 2014). Group work run like that is more likely to enjoy the benefits described in the research (Nilson, 2010) and avoid resistance students and instructors feel.



Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Clark, M. C., & Rossiter, M. (2008). Narrative learning in adulthood. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 199, 61 – 70.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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