“Split into small teams and …”? 

In 1913, a French scientist Max Ringelmann performed a simple experiment. He asked workers to pull on a rope alone and in groups and measured the strain. As group size increased, the amount of effort by each person dropped. When in a group, people feel as though they can simply “hide in the crowd” and slack off. This effect is often observed in the classroom.

Many of the reasons for this stem from the fact that students don’t think their individual contribution will be noticed and find it easy to ride on other students. They choose to agree with what one student says, get engaged in doing something more meaningful for them or relax into a social conversation (often in their native language).

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(Some of the common problems associated with group work as seen by secondary school teachers. British Council teacher training in Montenegro, 2016)

My today’s post is a collection of techniques that may help a teacher include both individual and collective work elements, increase individual accountability and prevent loafing.


A simple way to start group work is to begin with individual work, then pair work and, finally, with the whole group. First, get students to think individually about a particular question. Then, students pair up to discuss and compare their ideas. Then get them to form a team of four (two pairs together) and share their ideas in a group discussion.


To avoid repeated discussion (which may cause boredom), add a new (and more challenging) task at each stage. For example, have students think of 3 questions that relate to a particular topic (e.g. “Ask the author”). In pairs, students try to answer the questions. Pairs join together to form groups of four and try to answer challenging questions. One representative from each group reports the group’s findings and/or challenges other teams.

You may also try to assign roles to your students.


Assign roles to each student to distribute responsibility among group members and ensure accountability for all students’ participation. The roles depend largely on the task. They may include timekeeper, presenter, recorder, vocabulary helper, ‘grammar nerd’, materials manager, etc. Students may also come up with their ideas about roles that should be assigned. It’s important to set clear expectations for each role and get students to reflect on their roles and working in groups after completing the task.

Numbered Heads Together

Students put their “heads together” so everyone can answer for the group. 

Students are placed in groups (make sure groups know their number – Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, etc.) and each person in the group is given a number (from one to four (or else). After the groups have discussed the question/topic, the teacher calls a specific number to respond as a spokesperson for the group. Since no one knows which number will be called, all group members must be prepared. Read more here.


Get a set of cards (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) or UNO cards, and ask a student to help you and pick any card to determine a group number (“2” – Group 2) and then a number of the one who will act as a spokesperson for the group.

Circle of Voices

This technique involves students taking turns to speak. Split students into small groups of four or five. Give a topic for discussion to each group, and allow them a few minutes to organize their thoughts about it. The discussion opens, with each student having up to three minutes (you may set a different length depending on the level of your students and complexity of the task) of uninterrupted time. When each person is speaking, no one else is allowed to say anything. Students take their turns to speak by moving around the circle in order. After the circle of voices has been completed and everyone has spoken, the discussion has a more free-flowing format. (Brookfield, Stephen D. and Preskill, Stephen (1999) Discussion as a Way of Teaching).


If you find that your students slack off and listen only to the speaker who goes before them, try a variation of this technique. Get each group to scrunch up a sheet of paper into a ball – ‘hot potato’. The one who holds the ball is entitled to speak. After the student has spoken, they may pass on the ball to any member of the group. Specify that students should build on what the previous student has said. Ask them to begin by paraphrasing the comments of the previous student or by showing how their remarks relate to those of the previous student.

Nomination Cards

Here’s a wonderful way to structure discussion within small groups using Nomination Cards designed by Tekhnologic. This activity went really well with my teenage students. Give each group a topic/question to discuss and a set of cards. The first speaker gives their opinion on the topic, gets a card from the pile blank side up and follows the directions. The cards are simple and you won’t need to spend a lot of time explaining all the instructions. Download the set of cards and read more here Nomination Cards: Giving students a chance to speakNomination Cards: Giving students a chance to speak.


This technique involves students becoming ‘experts’ on one aspect of a topic, then sharing their expertise/knowledge with others. There are many variations (and applications) of the technique.

Reconstruct a story

Assign each student in a team a particular abstract to read from any text (e.g. a story). Each student completes their assignment and then helps to put together a story by contributing their piece of the story. To make it more challenging, don’t give the order of the pieces leaving it for students to decide when they should step in with their piece.

Here’s a great activity to retell a story in groups from ELT-PLANNING.

You jumble each line of the text up so the words are in a different order (an excellent way to practise both collaborative learning and word order). The task is to reconstruct a story. To read more and see the handout, check this post LESSON IDEA: RETELLING A STORY IN GROUPS.

Pizza discussion

Form groups of four and assign a topic/question to each group. Each member’s task is to develop expertise on a particular “piece” by researching/reading/developing ideas. Once they have become experts on a particular subtopic, students then take turns sharing their expertise with the other group members and create their “pizza”. Alternatively, you can try assigning each group a particular question, and then shuffle groups to have different “experts”.

Here’s a great variation of a jigsaw technique.

Close Your Eyes

I saw this technique in one of the You-Tube videos of Jeremy Harmer’s workshop Making Large Classes Smaller (Santiago de Chile) (definitely worth watching!)

Students are split into small groups, and each person in the group is given a number (from one to four (or else). After the groups have been formed, the teacher asks students to close their eyes. The teacher names a particular number/letter and asks the students with this number/letter to open their eyes and read the word on the board/see the item, etc., then they should close their eyes again, and the teacher repeats the procedure for Students B, C, etc. Then students have to share the information/words they have and try to think of a context/brainstorm ideas/reconstruct a story, etc.

Since every student has information known only to them, this minimizes the opportunities for getting by with less effort compared to working alone.

Do you know any other technique to get them all involved?

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Happy teaching!

Image: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvighikingartist.com, Flickr.com, Creative Commons


  1. If my students discuss questions or topics and I want everybody to take part in it, I give each student at least 3 cards ( even blank papers). Every time they say something, they put one card on the desk. Their task is to get rid of all the cards. By doing this I try to kake sure everybody contributes to the discussion.

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