Have you ever wondered why your group activities fail to inspire students?

This post is deliberately intended to act as a continuation of an issue raised in Willy Cardoso’s guest post on Cecilia Lemos’ blog. I recommend reading that post first before continuing with my effort.

Consider the following two quotes and think about your own experiences in the use of group work (which I’ll also refer to interchangeably with ‘cooperative learning’ for the duration of this piece).

The closest I ever came to failing a course was actually my high school physics class. Every day we did group work, so obviously nothing ever got done.’

Greg Bernhardt, physics student

The proven benefits of cooperative learning notwithstanding, instructors who attempt it frequently encounter resistance and sometimes open hostility from the students. Bright students complain about begin held back by their slower teammates, weaker or less assertive students complain about being discounted or ignored in group sessions, and resentments build when some team members fail to pull their weight. Instructors with sufficient patience generally find ways to deal with these problems, but others become discouraged and revert to the traditional teacher-centered instructional paradigm, which is a loss both for them and for their students.’

Richard M. Felder, Department of Chemical Engineering, North Carolina State University

The first thing you might say is, ‘well, these are both related to the teaching and learning of science, which must surely be different to the way students interact when learning a language.’ I hope you can get past that and look at what is actually being said, both from a learner and an educator. For me, the subject matter isn’t that important, it is the notion of ineffective group interaction and the reasons for it.

Did anything said in those quotes above strike a chord with you? Some of them are immediately familiar from Willy Cardoso’s discussion of pair work in the language classroom. Some of them go through my mind every time I set up a group task in my classroom.

So, do cooperative group tasks have to fail on least at some level? Well, experience has shown me that some students like to work in groups while others do not. Some will adopt a leadership role while others will have little to no involvement, regardless of the people they are working with or the encouragement given by the teacher. Nevertheless, I feel that there are more fundamental reasons why group work is not always as effective as we’d like and these are to do with what we allow to happen, or rather don’t allow to happen.

Cooperative learning should involve students working in teams to accomplish a common goal, under conditions that include the following elements:

1. Positive interdependence

Team members are obliged to rely on one another to achieve the goal. If any team members fail to do their part, everyone suffers consequences.

2. Individual accountability

All students in a group are held accountable for doing their share of the work and for mastery of all of the material to be learned.

3. Face-to-face promotive interaction

Although some of the group work may be portioned out and done individually, some must be done interactively, with group members providing one another with feedback, challenging one another’s conclusions and reasoning, and perhaps most importantly, teaching and encouraging one another.

4. Appropriate use of collaborative skills

Students are encouraged and helped to develop and practice trust-building, leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict management skills.

5. Group processing

Team members set group goals, periodically assess what they are doing well as a team, and identify changes they will make to function more effectively in the future.

How many of these actually happen when you set up cooperative learning situations in class?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t see all of them happening. Even though I’ve been giving this matter some thought, I doubt that all of the group work that goes on in my classes includes all of these elements.

Challenge #1

Examine the cooperative learning that occurs in your classes. Which elements are evident? Which are totally lacking? How could you enable these to occur?

Now, if you’re thinking, ‘how can all this happen in what is more than likely a one-off activity that may only last a few minutes’ you’re doing well, as that’s one of the things I’ll be getting to later on. If you think that getting all of these things to happen is the key to successful group work, I’ve got some bad news. Not only should cooperative learning include each of those elements, you have to remember that well functioning groups don’t just happen. It takes time for a group to develop to a point where it can be effective and where all members feel connected to it. Again, you might be wondering how a group can develop when the learners are only working together for a very short period of time. This is pretty much my point: why are we placing restrictions on how well a group can work together.

The theories on group formation date back almost fifty years. Tuckman (1965) identified four stages that characterize the development of groups. Understanding these stages can help determine what is happening with a group and how to supervise what is occurring. These four group development stages are known as forming, storming, norming, and performing as described below. If you don’t feel like reading, you can just look at the picture instead (click on the pic to view it in higher resolution)!


At this stage the group comes together and members begin to develop their relationship with one another and learn what is expected of them. This is the stage when team building begins and trust starts to develop. Group members will start establishing limits on acceptable behavior through experimentation. Other members’ reactions will determine if a behavior will be repeated. This is also the time when the tasks of the group and the members will be decided.

Challenge #2

Examine how groups form in your classes. Can learners choose who they work with or is the decision made by you?


During this stage of group development, interpersonal conflicts arise and differences of opinion about the group and its goals will surface. If the group is unable to clearly state its purposes and goals or if it cannot agree on shared goals, the group may collapse at this point. It is important to work through the conflict at this time and to establish clear goals. It is necessary for there to be discussion so everyone feels heard and can come to an agreement on the direction the group is to move in.

Challenge #3

How often does storming occur in your classes? Do you think it would be less of an issue if the forming stage had happened differently?


After the group has resolved its conflicts, it can now establish patterns of how to get its work done. Expectations of each other are clearly laid down and accepted by all members of the group. Formal and informal procedures are established in delegating tasks, responding to questions, and in the process by which the group functions. Members of the group come to understand how the group as a whole operates.

Challenge #4

Do groups ever get the chance to reach the norming stage? Do group tasks ever require the adoption of individual roles and procedures?


During this final stage of development, issues related to roles, expectations, and norms are no longer of major importance. The group is now focused on its task, working intentionally and effectively to accomplish its goals. The group will find that it can celebrate its accomplishments and that members will be learning new skills and sharing roles.

After a group enters the performing stage, it is unrealistic to expect it to remain there permanently. When new members join or some people leave, there will be a new process of forming, storming, and norming engaged as everyone learns about one another. External events may lead to conflicts within the group. To remain healthy, groups will go through all of these processes in a continuous loop.

When conflict arises in a group, do not try to silence the conflict or to run from it. Let the conflict come out into the open so people can discuss it. If the conflict is kept under the surface, members will not be able to build trusting relationships and this could harm the group’s effectiveness. If handled properly, the group will come out of the conflict with a stronger sense of cohesiveness then before.

Challenge #5

How many of your tasks require your group to begin working as though they had reached the performing stage? What effect do you think this has on the task you have set?

A fifth stage

In 1977, Tuckman, along with Mary Ann Jensen, added a fifth stage to the 4 stages: adjourning, that involves completing the task and breaking up the team.

Challenge #6

How long is your group engaged in a cooperative learning task before they are expected to adjourn? Is this always the case with group work in your classes? How does this affect the way that you and your learners approach cooperative learning?

A Personal plan for group work development

Recognizing the different stages of group development is just a start. There are different skills and techniques needed to guide a group through the stages. Here are some questions that will help me and you generate some thoughts on how to do it.


  • How can we make sure that everyone connected to the group is involved?
  • How can we create an environment that fosters trust and builds commitment to the group?
  • Who should choose the members of the group and what should our involvement be in group formation?


  • How can we make sure group members are open to other people’s ideas and allow differences of opinion to be discussed?
  • How might we keep everyone focused on the purpose of the group and the topic of conflict?
  • How can we identify and examine biases that may be blocking progress or preventing another member to be treated fairly.
  • Does anyone find themselves in a group with people they would never dream fo working with in any other situation?


  • How should we encourage members to engage in collaboration and teamwork?


  • How can we celebrate accomplishments, encourage and empower members to learn?


  • How can we sustain group involvement beyond the short-term task?
  • Why not use the same groups for subsequent cooperative learning situations, rather than abandoning it so quickly?

Some things I currently do

I don’t see any problem in allowing my learners to choose their own groups, nor do I ever insist on a ‘magic number’ of group members. Bearing in mind that I am with my classes for approximately four months – I know not all of you are in a similar situation – I allow a couple of weeks of feeling the way in which the learners try out different groups to see who they work well with.

Once I see that a particular group is working well I encourage those people to work together all the time. Any potential benefit from working with a fresh group is usually offset by having to go through the stages of formation from the start. Consequently, they get to a point where they are able to norm and perform quite quickly.

I make sure that the cooperative learning situation doesn’t just end with an adjournment that hasn’t resulted in completion of something worthwhile.

Your turn

Please look at this short video of my students preparing a poster related to the content of the reading we had been looking at earlier in the day. At what point of group formation do you think they are at? How do you see this affecting the task they are trying to complete? Is there anything you’d like to suggest?

Thanks for taking the time to read. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

NOTE (September, 2013): Josette Leblabnc has written a great blog post on this subject, which makes for excellent follow-up reading!

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19 thoughts on “Have you ever wondered why your group activities fail to inspire students?”

  1. Very concise. Thinking about how I feel about group work, it has been fantastic when it has worked, such as doing my Dip with Alan Tait from Hello Cruel World in Italy. It was the first time that learning was really fun, making up our own language, him teaching me Italian, thinking about everything.

  2. Thanks, David. I think a point I wanted to make but perhaps didn’t so clearly was what a fantastic way of learning group work can be… if you give the group a fair chance of working.

  3. I have been doing reading circles (my current students’ group work and MA research area) and will use your challenge as a way to reflect on them. One thing I’ve always had some struggle with was balancing the evaluation between group vs individual work. On the one hand, there’s the interdependence that comes with a group mark, but on the other, there’s the individual effort that needs addressing. Even with a portion for both types of evaluation, I find it defeats the purpose of both.

    Anyways, I’ll let you know where (and when) I go from here.

  4. Hi Adam,

    I loved reading the post. I feel that it is necessary to build a “work-in-group culture” and revisit basics of it timely and consistently. When students’ prior learning experience does not encourage and ask for active student involvement and collaborative work then students live through a culture shock (especially between highschool and university).

  5. Thanks, Tyson. This is something I’ve never really got to grips with in terms of group work: how much time do we as teachers and the students themselves spend trying to get the group to work effectively, never mind getting round to focusing on the task?

    The funny thing about this post is that there’s a text on group formation in one of our course books and it’s taken me seven years to reflect on the fact that the way we expect groups to immediately perform without going through the other stages is probably one of the major contributors to poor group work. Since writing this post I’ve searched the literature extensively and there’s no mention of the importance of going through the steps of group formation anywhere. So much is this the case that I’ve submitted proposals to TESOL Arabia and a conference here in Turkey based on this gap in the literature: all I need to do now is do a bit of primary research!

    Please let me know how this goes and if you write about it on your blog, I’d lobe to mention you if/when I take this in front of a conference audience.

  6. Thanks, Aslı.

    I’m really glad you’ve found your way here and that I discovered that you’ve started blogging, too.

    The gap in the literature regarding group formation is not so wide as to include the effects of culture on the effectiveness of groups. In fact, the building of a group culture in class is one of the ways I think we can overcome such problems, especially if students are given the opportunity to work in the same group regularly.

  7. I totally agree with with you. These programs are no solution to the problems of our educational system.
    Early intervention is the only solution. Slow-learning students should be tutored on a regular basis by qualified teachers in small groups from first grade on. It is imperative that students move with their age group, so that they learn social and academic skills from their peers as they move through the grades.

  8. hi Adam,

    firstly, sorry for taking a decade to comment here, i’ve been missing so many blogposts that it’s getting embarrassing.

    secondly, well, thanks for the sequel – it’s a great addition to the post at Ceci’s, offering an answer to the question raised there; something that I actually didn’t do, i.e. give an answer – so, yeh, thanks for doing it.


  9. Reem: Thanks and sorry it’s taken so long for me to acknowledge your reply.

    Willy: glad to have finally enticed you to my blog. Actually yours is one of my favourite blogs out there and I should be apologizing to you for not commenting as often as I’d wish. Your post at Ceci’s blog fascinated me: it really highlighted the gap between well-intentioned classroom practice and the realities that such actions have on students in class. I hope my addendum here perhaps suggested a reason why things don’t always go to plan.

    1. Hi Josette and thanks for your link.

      I read your blog post and liked it so much I will be adding a link to it to mine in the hope that people will read both to get a better picture of what this is all about!

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