I found it confusing to just talk about "group work." Group work can mean a bunch of different things. For this edition of "When do I do (with) this?" I want to talk about an especially structured, baby-step flavor of collaborative learning. In this sort of instruction the teacher is not helping students learn by explaining something. Rather, students are having conversations with each other. They're usually assigned a single task, and are assigned a partner to work out the task with.
For example, one structure for this type of instruction is "Think-Pair-Share." Here's a description of how this works:
Why would I do this?
In think-pair-share, the instructor poses a challenging or open-ended question and gives students a half to one minute to think about the question. (This is important because it gives students a chance to start to formulate answers by retrieving information from long-term memory.) Students then pair with a collaborative group member or neighbor sitting nearby and discuss their ideas about the question for several minutes. (The instructor may wish to always have students pair with a non-collaborative group member to expose them to more learning styles.) The think-pair-share structure gives all students the opportunity to discuss their ideas. This is important because students start to construct their knowledge in these discussions and also to find out what they do and do not know. This active process is not normally available to them during traditional lectures. (Source: National Institute for Science Education)
A bunch of reasons.
First, because the brain needs processing time. Here's a quote from Teaching with the Brain in Mind:
Alcino Silva discovered that mice improved their learning with short training sessions punctuated by rest intervals. He says that the rest time allows the brain to recycle CREB, an acronym for a protein switch crucial to long-term memory formation...This asociation and consolidation process can only occur during down time, says Allan Hobson of Harvard University.The same thing is pretty much summarized here.
Another reason for using this instructional strategy is that you can use it to get students to actively engage with a concept that they might have only previously had a surface acquaintance with. A good question is important here, such as "Show me an example" or "What's the difference between..."
It also provides students an opportunity to evaluate their understanding, since they're faced with a partner who has a different understanding than they do.
When do I do this?
Do this when students have just encountered a new idea, or you've lectured for 10-15 minutes, because your students need
(1) processing time
(2) a more active learning style
(3) an opportunity for self-assessment.
Here are some ways to vary this activity. I'll add more as I find them.
This should be part of the every day routine and part of the planning process. It's also a good mini-step into group work. For me, the progression is something like:
Level 1: Short Student Conversations (Pairs)
Level 2: Longer Student Conversations (Pairs)
Level 3: Longer Student Conversations (Larger groups)
Level 4: Group problem-solving
My hope is to start off the year at Level 1, and only ascend when I feel totally in control of the previous levels.