What to Do When a Group Gets Stuck Working on a Task

In my previous post, I discussed how to adapt a problem that you have found in order to make the problem groupworthy. One of the important things to consider when adapting real-world problems is to avoid giving step-by-step instructions and formulas to students.  Instead, a teacher should maximize the opportunities for groups to make their own decisions about problems. In other words, in order to have challenging and productive group discussions, there must be an element of uncertainty so that students engage with the problem and with each other.

In this post, I want to address what to do when a group gets stuck. While using groupwork in my classes, my first instinct when I notice a group that seems to be stuck on a problem is often to step in and tell them how to do that problem. When I do step in, however, it seems to cut off the discussion that was going on in the group and instead shifts the discussion from being student-centered to teacher-centered.

One of the things I do, therefore, is to not jump in right away. Instead, sometimes it is better to wait until the group asks for help or until I sense that they have moved from productive struggle into unproductive struggle. There are several techniques that can be used when interacting with a group. One common approach is to “answer a question with a question”, which helps to set a norm that students are to do their own mathematical thinking. If students are so stuck that they do not have any well-formed questions, it is often useful to ask them to summarize what they have tried so far. It is not uncommon that when group members try to explain, they will find a new path on their own, and you can leave them to explore these new ideas by themselves. It is perfectly okay to tell a group, “why don’t you give that a try, and I’ll be back later”; often, this is better than micromanaging the group.

Another option when one sees multiple groups that are stuck on similar things is to call a “huddle”. In a huddle, one student from each group comes up to talk with the teacher. An easy way to do this is to call for all the students of a specific group role (if you have assigned student roles such as facilitator, recorder, etc.; I’ll discuss this more in future posts). One then can give the students in the huddle a hint or piece of information to take back to their groups.

What if it seems that specific students are not participating on a consistent basis in their groups? This is actually a very common problem. There are many different techniques that have been developed to equalize participation. In my next post, I will discuss what to do when there are particular students that are not participating in a group.

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