Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Using Groups Effectively: 10 Principles

Confession: as a student, I usually hate group work. I know, I know. Having students

work in groups reaps a bounty of benefits, including boosting students’ social skills and upping the number of “happy campers” in the classroom. Such findings filter through my thinking when I’m preparing to teach, so I do use group interaction, hoping that the promises from its advocates will be realized. Occasionally they are; often they are not.

I recently attended a conference session featuring Keith Sawyer. In addition to being a jazz pianist (a musical collaborator), Sawyer is an expert on the effectiveness of group efforts. His presentation focused on what has been and potentially can be accomplished through collaboration, but he hinted that just getting people into groups is not the answer.

This piqued my curiosity, so I bought his book Group Genius. In it I’ve begun to find some answers to my questions: When are groups effective as means of learning? What tasks are better accomplished collaboratively than individually? How do you structure groups for optimal effectiveness and results?

Though his focus is on creativity, I think Sawyer’s insights apply to our use of groups to foster learning. Here are ten principles I’ve picked up:

  1. Flow matters. Flow is a term used to describe a state of high engagement in which thoughts run freely and progress occurs, often without group members being conscious of it. However, flow is like intrinsic motivation; it can’t be created on demand. The best we can do as teachers is provide a classroom environment that fosters flow.
  2. Conversation is key. Sawyer succinctly explains this principle: “Conversation leads to flow, and flow leads to creativity.” When having students work in groups, consider what will spark rich conversation. The original researcher on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that rich conversation precedes and ignites flow more than any other activity.1 Tasks that require (or force) interaction lead to richer collaborative conceptualization.
  3. Set a clear but open-ended goal. Groups produce the richest ideas when they have a goal that will focus their interaction but also has fluid enough boundaries to allow for creativity. This is a challenge we often overlook. As teachers, we often have an idea of what a group’s final product should look like (or sound like, or…). If we put students into groups to produce a predetermined outcome, we prevent creative thinking from finding an entry point.
  4. Try not announcing time limits. As teachers we often use a time limit as a “motivator” that we hope will keep group work focused. In reality, this may be a major detractor from quality group work. Deadlines, according to Sawyer, tend to impede flow and produce lower quality results. Groups produce their best work in low-pressure situations. Without a need to “keep one eye on the clock,” the group’s focus can be fully given to the task.
  5. Do not appoint a group “leader.” In research studies, supervisors, or group leaders, tend to subvert flow unless they participate as an equal, listening and allowing the group’s thoughts and decisions to guide the interaction.
  6. Keep it small. Groups with the minimum number of members that are needed to accomplish a task are more efficient and effective.
  7. Consider weaving together individual and group work. For additive tasks—tasks in which a group is expectedtoproduce a list, adding one idea to another—research suggests that better results develop when individual thinking precedes the pooling of ideas in a group setting. Researchers also suggest that alternating between individual and group work helps keep the work focused but not fixated—i.e., not limited to one aspect or detail of an idea or issue. (By the way, this weaving of individual and group interaction may be reason why technological or “electronic brainstorming” is often effective.)
  8. “Divide and conquer” ≠ collaboration. When groups assign members to specific responsibilities for completing a task they undermine the thinking that collaboration can produce. Sawyer talks about creativity via collaboration as being “exponential,” meaning that it is constructed via conversation. One individual’s thought may inspire another group member’s insight, which in turn sparks new concepts for another. It is this emergent thinking that enables collaboration to accomplish what individual effort cannot.
  9. Think threefold. Group tasks that produce the best results often have three defining characteristics: 1) they are novel, something students have not done before, 2) they feature a visual component, something that can be represented in nonverbal forms, and 3) they are relational, meaning they require the combining of ideas or components to be accomplished.
  10. Be complementary. The best groups are composed of members who have enough familiarity with one another to be comfortable but who possess varied backgrounds and experiences. Again, because of how we typically use groups in classrooms, we tend to form groups around ability—if there is at least one “good student” in the group, we think something will get done. However, Sawyer suggests ability should be less of a consideration than diversity in experience. This can be challenging to accomplish but it’s worth considering when grouping students for collaborative tasks.

These insights have me rethinking groups, not whether or not to use them, but when and how to use them effectively. As with every aspect of teaching, using groups effectively requires mindful planning and attention to more than who works with whom. As Sawyer summarizes, “Putting people into groups isn’t a magical dust that makes everyone more creative. It has to be the right kind of group, and the group has to match the task.”2


  1. Sawyer, K., Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 43.
  2. Ibid., 73.



Todd I. Stark said...

To me this hits on one of the key principles in human effectiveness in general, people working together. It's not obvious that simply forming a group has widely varied effects, just as simply stating goals has widely varied effects. The power is in the specific skills and expertise you aquire and the tactics you emphasize relevant to the changing situation. Thanks for another greatly useful post.

Sean Nash said...

Super article, Kevin. I appreciate the attention to flow. I also appreciate reflecting on the notion that divide and conquer does not equal collaboration. Whereas roles seem to work rather well for breaking things down as in strategies like "reciprocal teaching," they do tend to pull groups away from flow and common purpose. And really, for my money... and for true synthesis of thought... we need both. Well done.


Anonymous said...

I have been a huge fan of Sawyer's work for years. I think you really pulled out some key insights here.