If you pick up an ELT coursebook, you will find that many of the activities involve students working in groups. There are, of course, activities that require students to work individually, but increasingly, modern coursebooks tend to promote group activities where students sit together sharing and exchanging ideas via focused interactions.
Group work provides an excellent platform for students to try out their newly learned language elements in a friendly, non-threatening environment where they practice using English with people they know.
However, it is important to note that putting students in groups carries a certain risk. Some students may not contribute to the discussion, some may speak a great deal while others keep quiet during the group discussion. In some cases, the groups may be completely off task (doing things unrelated to the objective of the lesson).
What can we do to ensure that students stay focused and learn optimally from working in groups?
One great way is to use group structuring ideas developed by Dr Spencer Kagan, a famous cooperative learning scholar. Kagan suggests that students become more engaged when the PIES principles are fully applied. The principles are explained briefly below.
P – Positive Interdependence. This principle states that when students share a common learning goal and believe that they need to support each other to achieve that goal, they are more likely to work more productively in their group.
I – Individual Accountability. This principle means that each member of the group should be held accountable for making a fair contribution to achieving that the group goal. To promote individual accountability, the performance of each group member must be assessed in some way.
E – Equal Participation. This principle states that to reap optimal benefits, each member of the group should contribute more or less equally. If one member dominates the group, the other group members will be unable to participate fully, and thus learn less from the group discussion.
S – Simultaneous Interaction. This principle states that maximum participation and interaction can be achieved if more students are talking and exchanging ideas at any one time. When students work in pairs for example, half the class or 50% of the students can be expected to engage in productive interactions in their groups. When they work in a bigger group, say a group of five, then about 20% of the class are interacting in their groups.
Click on the link here: Cooperative Learning: Addressing implementation issues for a short paper which offers practical tips on how specific cooperative learning techniques can be used to structure your groups using the PIES principles.
The paper also addresses common questions and concerns that teachers might about cooperative learning. Some of these concerns include: how to reduce the noise level, how to ensure that students use English, how to encourage students to speak more, etc.