“How can I help every student in my class achieve success?”
This is a question every teacher has asked him or herself; in fact, most of us ask ourselves this question at least once a day. We all have those struggling students in our class whom we know we need to give extra help to, but we usually have so many that getting to all of them in each class is impossible.
One strategy that many teachers turn to? Partner projects. With partner projects, you pair up students in either homogeneous or heterogeneous groups, depending on your strategy, allowing the struggling students to receive extra direct instruction in a small group or allowing them to learn from those students with a better grasp of the concept.
The Quintessential Characteristics of Quality Partner Projects
For those of us who never experienced much in the way of partner projects in our own education, this approach might seem fairly new. In truth, it has long been a part of American education. Back when American education was limited to one-room schoolhouses, it was the only type of instruction that truly made sense as it allowed students of varying ages and abilities to get the education they needed (2).
And that gets at the central characteristic of partner projects: they are designed to help varied learners access the education they need. All other quintessential characteristics are derived from this core. Among those quintessential characteristics are:
- The grouping of the students is planned, not random.
- The students are grouped based on their many varied abilities, not just their academic performance.
- There is a clear goal to the grouping.
- Based on the members of the group, the project is something that can realistically be achieved.
- There is a structure in place that makes roles and expectations clear.
Why Do Partner Projects Work?
When implemented correctly, partner projects are highly successful. However, you might be wondering why that is. The reason will depend on the type of grouping you choose: homogeneous or heterogeneous.
With homogeneous grouping, you pull together students with similar abilities. For the teacher, the goal is to be able to address the various struggles and misconceptions related to the task without having to work one-on-one with each student or explain the same things over and over again to each group.
Homogeneous grouping works for several reasons. First of all, it helps students see that they are not alone. When grouped with those who face similar struggles, they can see that there are others whom they can identify with. It also makes it easier for them to give voice to their struggles as they will be actively discussing them with others in their group. Finally, it works because it allows the teacher to give direct, targeted instruction to multiple children at once, addressing their specific needs.
With heterogeneous grouping, you put together groups with students of varying abilities. The goal for the teacher is to give students the chance to learn from those who have a better grasp of the concept or different talents that help them in their approach, either through their explanations, their thinking, or their examples.
Heterogeneous groups work because students are given the chance to see how others work. There are many takeaways a struggling student can have when working with a successful student; they can learn strategies they had never considered, they can pick up on critical thinking skills, they can learn how to think out their actions as they approach a task, and more.
Factors to Consider When Partnering Students
With all the focus on test scores, it is natural to consider academic performance the number one factor when partnering students, whether you are using homogeneous or heterogeneous grouping. However, there is a lot more to creating an effective group than just academic ability.
To effectively make your groups, you need to think about the skills needed to successfully complete the specific task or tasks that go into the project; for example, a student can score well on tests but struggle with the creative approach needed to create a video. You want to make sure that you are thinking beyond their academic levels.
You also have to keep in mind their personalities, their natural roles (as leaders, planners, logical thinkers, etc), disabilities, language barriers, and so on (1). In essence, plan your groups with the whole child in mind.
Strategies to Use When Partnering Students
For homogeneous partnering, the strategy is pretty simple; you decide what you are targeting (low academic level, lack of creative approach, difficulty with critical thinking skills, etc) and pair the students who perform similarly.
For heterogeneous groups, the following strategy—as adapted from ReadWriteThink.org (6)—is a good way to go.
- Break down the skills needed to successfully complete your project. Identify the skill you feel is the most important or the one that is being targeted the most by the project. Then, rank the students according to their ability with this specific skill.
- Once the list is complete, divide it in half for partners, into thirds for groups or three, and so on.
- Take the students at the top of each list and place them together in a group. Then move down to the next row and do the same, continuing until all students have been placed in a group.
- Critically examine these groups, adjusting them as needed based on other factors, as noted above.
However, making the groups is just the first step. Once you have the groups in place, the following steps—adapted from Reading Rockets (3) and Edutopia (5)—must be taken.
- Establish partner project routines. Throwing students together and expecting them to work isn’t going to be successful. You need to carefully establish routines that your students can follow each and every time they do group work. These are the universal elements that will be in place no matter the project: moving the desks, respecting your partners, respecting the space, actively contributing, and so on.
- Guide students in constructive criticism. When pairing students of varying abilities, it can be easy for the higher student to offer what they feel is helpful feedback that ends up being received as cruel criticism. You need to make sure your training targets both sides, helping students deliver kind feedback while also helping them learn to receive it graciously.
- Break the task down into roles. You want your students to all be actively participating, and assigning roles helps them do this. Oftentimes, the students who aren’t working are really just waiting for direction; giving them a role provides them with the direction they need to begin. Make sure that the jobs that go with the role are clear as well as the standard they need to meet; rubrics work well for this.
- Monitor carefully. You do not want to interfere with their learning, but you also do not want to let it happen without guidance from you. Keep an eye out for problems that can occur and make your adjustments as needed.
The Pitfalls of Partner Projects—And How to Avoid Them
Speaking of problems with partner projects, there are quite a few. However, you can avoid these pitfalls by taking the right approach. Below are some of the more common ones and how you can avoid them.
Spreading Misinformation—This is a problem that can occur in any group, but is particularly problematic in homogeneous groups. Essentially, one student voices an incorrect idea or interpretation, and the others pick up on it because it sounds good (4). How can you avoid this pitfall? Monitor the students carefully and enter the conversation when needed.
Being a Control Freak—Do you have a hard time giving up control? When it comes to partner projects, you simply have to. Still, many teachers find themselves taking over when they see students struggling despite their best intentions. How can you avoid this pitfall? In general, we exhibit control by giving directives. Instead, switch to questions. Your questions can prompt students to think about the right things and get them back on track.
Putting Too Much on Higher Students—It is a common complaint of higher students in heterogeneous groups that they do all the work while the other students essentially sit and watch. How can you avoid this pitfall? In addition to assigning roles, help the higher students learn specific phrases or tactics that allow them to advocate for themselves and push responsibility back onto the other students.
Allowing Lower Students to Feel Useless—While the higher students may sometimes feel as though they are being put upon, sometimes they really enjoy having the control. In these cases, the lower students may end up feeling useless. How can you avoid this pitfall? In most cases, the lower student will not speak up out of embarrassment. It will mostly be on you to monitor and speak with the student taking too much control; however, you should still work with the lower students to teach them how to advocate for themselves in these situations.
Get Started with Partner Projects
Feeling better about giving partner projects a try? Just make sure you go in with a solid plan and start small, allowing you to catch any problems as they arise. Before you know it, you will be quite comfortable with this teaching method.
- Choosing Strategic Partners. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/student-collaboration-strategic-partners
- Flexible Grouping, Catherine Valentino. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.eduplace.com/science/profdev/articles/valentino.html
- Paired (or Partner) Reading. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/paired_reading
- Partnering Students Helps Engage Struggling Readers. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://neuronetlearning.com/blog/partnering-students-helped-engage-struggling-readers/
- Student Learning Groups: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous? (2011). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-grouping-homogeneous-heterogeneous-ben-johnson
- Using Paired Reading to Increase Fluency and Peer Cooperation – ReadWriteThink. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2016, from http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/using-paired-reading-increase-30952.html
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