MAT Blog

5 tips to facilitate better group work and in-class discussions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 16, 2013 12:12:00 PM

group workUnlike a traditional lecture in which information is delivered, group work and open discussions invite a myriad of perspectives and remove the teacher from the stage—which means that things can quickly derail if the instructor is not attentive, responsive and flexible. 

While running group work and open discussions can be challenging, we believe that both can help students learn more about themselves, their peers and their world than they could from hearing a lecture.

While we can’t promise that these 5 tips from Steven A. Schiola’s book Making Group Work Easy will make classroom facilitation simple, we do believe that they will at least get you started.

5 tips to facilitate better group work and in-class discussions

Effective classroom facilitators are deep listeners
Deep listening involves much more than simply hearing what’s going on around you. First, deep listeners are fully present; they aren’t simply catching the gist of what the speaker is saying. They are connected both in body and mind. Second, deep listeners listen in order to completely understand the other person’s point. Third, deep listeners reflect back what they have heard to demonstrate that they understand. Fourth, deep listeners ask clarifying questions. Lastly, deep listeners hear undiscovered ideas—or those that are implied, but left unsaid—by the speaker.

Effective classroom facilitators read nonverbal cues
Before we dive into open discussions, we often like to place our students in groups where we give them a series of tasks that they must complete together. Once each group has finished, we come back together as a class and discuss our conclusions on the topic. As students work together, there are several nonverbal cues we are looking for:

  • What does each group sound like? A low murmur usually indicates that students are engaged and on task. When the volume begins to rise, usually students are wrapping up or finished with their tasks.
  • What does each student look like? Is each member of the group engaged? Is one student doing too much? Do students fully understand instructions? Are they stuck?

Effective classroom facilitators ask clarifying questions
Successful classroom facilitation does require intuition, but it doesn’t rely on it. Intuition will tell us when students are confused or uneasy with a topic, but clarifying questions will confirm it. If students seem bored, uneasy or confused, say something like, “I’m getting the sense that some of you are feeling uneasy about this topic. How do you feel about this topic?”

Avoid making assumptions on observations alone; you may be misreading your students. Posing a clarifying question will help: “I’m seeing that a number of you are kind of slouched in your seats and looking around. How are you are feeling _____?”

Notice how both of these questions are open-ended: They require students to respond and clarify.

Effective classroom facilitators are flexible
When you invite new perspectives, chances are that your students are going to unearth new information and lead you in a different direction than you originally planned. Effective facilitators always have a plan, but they are never afraid to temporarily abandon it to see where detours lead the group. Often what seems like a detour or a dead end ultimately leads back to the plan or to more enlightening destinations than you would have anticipated on your own.

Effective facilitators are humble and know that a successful outcome is about the group
Remember that you are there to facilitate, not do all of the work for your students. It may be tempting to give your students the answers or resolve the conflict for them, but that’s not the facilitator’s job. Your task is to guide, challenge and redirect students so that they have to work together to solve the problem. Your students may become frustrated when you refuse to give your opinion or give away the “answers.” But we believe that it’s when students struggle that they learn the most about themselves and each other.

If you’re looking for further reading on seminar-style classes, we highly recommend Michael Kahn’s article, “The Seminar.” You can find it by clicking here.


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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, group work, collaborative learning

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