By Ron Shumsky, Psy.D., and Susan M. Islascox, M.A., coauthors of The Survival Guide for School Success
When it comes to group projects and working together to arrive at a final product, many students need instruction in process, not just content. You may have thoroughly taught the content, and your students may have thoroughly learned it, too. But that may not be enough. Many students are apt to get tripped up by the processes involved with group work: how to divide up the work, how to manage time, how to cooperate with one another, and more.
So, using a geometry assignment as an example, here are two tools to help students with these skills:
Your school wants to redesign the campus. Your job is to make plans for the new layout and building designs. Apply the geometry principles we’ve recently learned in class, including principles and measurements of area, angles, and volume.
Tool: Your Mind’s Pizza Cutter
First and foremost, if a group of students are going to work together, they need to divvy up who does what. It sounds simple, but too often, it’s anything but. For instance, one or two students in the group do all or most of the work, with the others along for the ride. Or, the divisions don’t make sense: Everyone goes off and does their own thing in ways that don’t tie together, or everybody ends up doing more or less the same thing.
To address this, teach your students Mental Pizza Cutting—chopping work down to size and dividing it into manageable slices. Start each group off with a blank pizza. You can make a handout or have them draw their own. It might look like this:
Instruct the groups to divide their project into workable chunks—the pizza “slices”—and then determine which members will work on which slices. Have them include completion dates for each slice. Here’s an example for the school campus redesign assignment:
Help the groups analyze their pizza cutting: How well do the slices capture the main parts of the assignment? How equitable are the slices—is everyone getting a fair share of the pie? Are the due dates realistic?
Tool: Your Mind’s Observer
Along the way and at the end, it’s important to evaluate group work to see how it’s going. Your Mind’s Observer teaches self-monitoring. Students observe their own behavior, judge how the group work is turning out, and adjust their behavior if it’s not turning out so well. It can be used for both social and academic aspects of the group work.
Have students monitor and evaluate their own behavior in groups. You might have each group member fill out a self-evaluation form like this:
Self-observing and self-monitoring also applies academically, so have students assess their academic work, too. You might create a self-evaluation form for group members like the following:
In sum, when we teach students these skills, our instruction extends well beyond the specific task assigned. Students who practice Pizza Cutting and Self-Observing on a geometry assignment can apply that to future geometry work, as well as to language arts, history, science, and more. So when assigning group work, let’s not just assign what to do, let’s also teach how the group should do it.
Ron Shumsky, Psy.D., is a U.S.-trained and licensed clinical psychologist and child neuropsychologist. He specializes in child development and learning, as well as converting psychology-education principles into meaningful and practical use. Ron lives in Tokyo with his wife, two kids, and their dog Pickles.
Susan M. Islascox, M.A., is a learning support teacher at the American School in Japan, who is charged with the often daunting task of helping high school students get focused, organized, and motivated. Susan lives in Tokyo with her husband and son.
Susan and Ron are coauthors (with Rob Bell, M.Ed.) of The Survival Guide for School Success: Use Your Brain’s Built-In Apps to Sharpen Attention, Battle Boredom, and Build Mental Muscle.
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