Monday, December 15, 2014


Today, my 7th graders worked on a great activity from that combined practice with the distributive property (ostensibly, the content we are learning) with some very important aspects of groupwork that I wanted to highlight and discuss. Thanks to @Veganmathbeagle for tweeting it out a few days ago.

The activity provides 16 cards in which there are 4 sets of 4 equivalent expressions. The four members of a group start out with 4 random cards and the task ends when every member of the group has 4 equivalent cards. Key rules: no talking or non-verbal communication of any sort AND you cannot take a card from anyone else, only give one of your cards to someone. Each member of the group must have at least 2 cards at any time. If there is an extra person in a group, he or she acts as an observer to the process and takes notes on the ways in which the group members helped each other.

The expressions in the activity - the link above has them in an easy, printable version

This was challenging for my students both from a content perspective and due to the emphasis on collaboration. It was amazing to watch how well some groups gelled and how others were brought to a standstill by a disengaged student.

Comments from my students (roughly paraphrased) when I asked them to reflect on what made this task hard:

"If one person wasn't trying, the whole group got stuck."

"You couldn't do the work for anyone else."

"Some of them were hard and I just wanted to do the easy ones that I knew I could get and leave the hard ones for someone else. But sometimes, everyone left the hard ones for someone else and there was no someone else."

"It made me do more work than I usually do because my group was depending on me."

These are real issues that happen in groups, but are often concealed because other members do pick up the slack. They are really hard to solve in most situations because we do want students discussing and creating a single group product, which means that students who choose to do the bare minimum often can do so. Of course, I do try to build in individual accountability into group tasks, asking a random member of the group to explain the group's work or asking an individual follow-up question that each person must answer on their own. I have done "group quizzes" in order to give feedback to students on their collaborative skills. But this was definitely the most aware and open that I've ever seen my students in discussing the disparity in the level of effort that often takes place when working in groups. I'm hoping that in future tasks, we can refer back to this activity and students will have a better sense of their need to work with more parity and engagement. If you know of any other activities or ways to improve individual accountability in group tasks, please do share.

Some ways that I modified the activity: half-way through, I allowed students to use scratch paper. This reduced the cognitive load a great deal and allowed them to work more productively. In one class that was really struggling, I allowed the groups to talk to each other for a few minutes at the end. Different groups may need more or less of the restrictions in order to create the right level of challenge.