As a new STEM teacher, my number one challenge was getting my middle school students to work together. It seems easy… Put kids in a group, give them a fun task, and be nearby to answer questions, give out materials, and help troubleshoot. But in reality, it’s not so pretty. Kids refuse to work with other kids. Some kids do all the work. Some kids sit silently on the side. Others refuse to compromise. The headaches and the messes and the hurt feelings are real. I spent a great deal of time learning how to teach middle school students teamwork skills and perfecting the process in my classroom. I’d love to help you avoid the stress and tears group work brought me and my students by sharing some tips for success!
1. The Teacher picks the groups
This is the rule… until maybe the last month of the course (BIG maybe). I always picked and announced the groups. My students knew from day 1 they would be expected to work with every other member of our class. This prevents students from picking partners you know won’t be a good match. It also helps the quieter or less popular students who are left out of self-selected groups. The grouping happens faster with fewer hurt feelings, and students learn real world skills for getting-along and working effectively even with people who aren’t your “friends.”
2. Explicitly teach and reflect on teamwork skills
The first 2-3 weeks of my STEM classes focus on team building and teamwork skills. We start the year learning what engineers do and find that in the real-world engineers and computer scientists work with many different people and professions (clients, construction workers, app developers, investors, government officials, etc.). Then we discuss what makes a good team member. Students reflect on their other experiences on other teams and we develop a list of traits and actions demonstrated by good team members.
This list usually encompasses the traits found on the rubric below. I introduce students to the rubric they reflect on what they already do well and what they need to focus on improving. At the beginning of each class, we revisit the rubric and students set a teamwork goal. At the end of each class, students rate their own performance. Then at the end of an activity, they provide feedback to their partners by completing the teamwork rubric. Their first grades in my course are based on their scores on the teamwork rubric… You get the idea. Everything at the beginning is focused on teamwork!
Grab the free printable and digital STEM teamwork rubric below!
3. Introduce and teach group roles
I use group roles to provide additional support for students as they practice their teamwork skills. The roles are engineering themed, but can be applied to any group work activity. They describe exactly what each group member should be doing throughout the period. This assists with group communication, prevents students from doing all or none of the work, and shows them HOW to be a good team member. Just like with the teamwork rubric, when the roles are introduced, students reflect on which role they would be best at and which would be most challenging and why. Then they pick a role to take on within their team. We review the roles before getting into our groups for the day and reflect on how well we did at our roles at the end of the period.
You can grab a set of free group role posters below and the full lesson plan for how I introduce group roles below!
4. Practice teamwork skills in short, low-stakes activities
Before going all in on a long-term STEM challenge, provide students with multiple short ice breaker or team building type activities to build their teamwork muscles. Think cup stacking challenges, building puzzles, short STEM challenges, etc. Group students in different combinations for each activity. Make sure they practice setting their teamwork goals before the activity and reflect on their performance after the activity. The first activity might be a struggle, but the more they practice, the easier it’ll be to get students moving into their assigned groups and started on their task quickly. When you get to the first big STEM project, they’ll be pros.
5. Use groups of 3
This was a game changer for me… After lots of different grouping arrangements, I decided on 3 as the perfect number, and I haven’t looked back. When groups are bigger than 3, there are more opportunities for at least one group member to skate by and off-task behavior to occur. With groups of 2, an absent kid means that 1 person is stuck doing all the work. When I have a class size that doesn’t work with 3, I choose a pair of students that typically has good attendance and strong work ethic to make the last group. If you’ve never tried groups of 3, I challenge you to give it a go!
I hope these tips help set you up for lots of effective group work in STEM this semester! If you have other tips for managing group work in middle school, let us know in the comments below!