8 Strategies to Engage Student Groups and Improve Their Interpersonal Skills


As you get closer to the beginning of the school year, I’m sure you’re starting to think about group projects for your students. You may be looking for new ways to approach these assignments, or for ways to improve upon work that you have done in the past. We can all agree that group work can be difficult, and that it’s important to find ways to keep teams functioning at their best.

The following strategies to engage student groups were adopted from Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results, by Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan.

1. Commit to Your Group

The students in your class deserve your commitment, it’s that simple. By committing to your students, you bring a level of energy to the classroom that will inspire them while building their trust in you. You’ll also model the commitment you expect students to demonstrate within their groups.

2. Maintain a Positive Bias

All students have the potential to achieve great things. By keeping a positive mindset, you can help each student leverage the collective wisdom of their team. Don’t get stuck on past behaviors. If you do, you will have already shut the door on a student’s opportunity to shine. Students take your lead, so smile often and keep things framed in a positive manner.

3. Be a Learner and Explorer

We ask students to work in teams so that they can develop their collaboration skills. These skills aren’t always intuitive. Therefore, be mindful of the behaviors unfolding in your student work groups. Explore the characteristics and practices that are working for some teams, and those not working for others. Take what you have learned and share it with your students. Walk them through your observations, and give them time to reflect on how they might improve their own group dynamics.

4. Lean Toward Risk

Sometimes our students set their sights on something beyond what the assignment entails. Let them take the chance. Yes – there is a chance of failure, but we all know that we learn more from our failures than our successes. Also, consider how extraordinary students will feel when they pull off what we thought was impossible.

5. Provide Less Control and More Space

Micromanaging students does nothing more than encourage learned helplessness. If you truly want to develop independent learners, then you must give students control over how they execute tasks. By providing students with space, both psychologically and physically, we provide them opportunities for creativity and innovation. Move your classroom outside for a few days, or set students up on Twitter or Google+. You’ll be impressed by what they can do on their own.

6. Model Authentic Communication

Adult behavior dictates student behavior. If you want your students to communicate well, then you have to model this skill to them. As you observe student work groups, take advantage of coaching them through difficult conversations. This is hard for most adults, so we can’t expect students to do it on their own. Sit with groups, explaining and modeling how to take and provide constructive criticism, how to disagree with another student’s opinion, and how to resolve conflict. The result is higher functioning teams, equipped with skills that will serve them their entire lives, both professionally and personally.

7. Meet Group Needs

All students are individuals with different needs. In a group setting, this may not be as obvious, as the strengths of the team are being leveraged. This can overburden some students, allowing others to disengage. Ensure that adequate differentiation is embedded in the project to support all learners. Provide students opportunities to voice their needs with their group.  Sometimes a student performs better when a group reminds them about a deadline, while others need timelines written on a calendar. Regardless of the need, find ways to make it known and make sure it’s addressed by the group.

8. Structure the Group’s Work

Project management is not for everyone. To ensure students don’t lose their way, agree upon specific delivery dates for various aspects of the project. Put these dates in your calendar, and have each group do the same. These dates can be when specific deliverables of group work are due, or an opportunity for you to discuss accomplishments and roadblocks with groups. Make sure you honor the time, and have each group write down takeaways from the meeting. This way, each group leaves the meeting knowing what is expected of them moving forward.

In addition to providing students with skills that will serve them in the 21st Century workplace, you are also equipping them with important life skills they can use in their day-to-day lives. How do you make your group projects meaningful for your students? Share your experiences in the comments.

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