11. Pairs and groups

Video transcript

Presenter intro

Getting pupils to work together can increase pupil success. Effective pair and group work helps pupils to rehearse ideas and deepen their understanding. In order to get the most out it, we need to explicitly teach pupils how to behave during pair and group work.

Expert insight

Pair and group work can support learning when it’s carried out well. When pupils articulate their thinking to each other, it can help to expose what they already know, develop their understanding and reveal misconceptions. But it needs to be implemented carefully. 

When asking pupils to carry out pair and group work, teachers need to think about how to structure it so that it can be successful, whilst teaching clear expectations for behaviour, and supporting pupils to stay on task. 

Structuring group work carefully includes ensuring that pupils have relevant prior knowledge to draw on, choosing how to group pupils carefully, telling which pupil will go first and nominating one person to feedback to the class. 

Teaching clear expectations for behaviour means intentionally naming the behaviours that you want to see and hear. This could mean behaviour that shows a pupil is listening, such as facing the person speaking, nodding, and not interrupting when they are speaking. Being explicit about how to interact with peers is important for all pupils and can be especially helpful for some pupils with SEND. Or it could include telling those listening to probe for more details, and getting pupils to check clear success criteria. Once you have set out your behavioural expectations, it is important to give pupils time to practise them and correct any errors that you see. Practising routines for pair work can save a lot of time in the long run and make it a much more reliable tool for learning.

During paired talk, teachers need to support pupils to stay on task. This means circulating to see what they are doing, listening to conversations, and checking that they are making notes as appropriate. Other forms of support for pair and group work include sentence stems and question starters. These help pupils to stay focused and improve the rigour of their talk. 

Overall, teachers need to make sure that they plan pair and group work carefully, set out clear behavioural expectations and provide appropriate support. This will help pupils to get the best out of working together.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you are going to see Ambition Institute coach Steve Farndon model how to set up a paired activity. In it, pupils will be asked to retrieve previously learnt content. As you watch, pay particular to attention to how Steve does the following:

  • Teaches and rigorously maintains clear behavioural expectations for pair and group work.
  • Provides scaffolds for pupil talk to increase the focus and rigour of dialogue.


When pupils know how to take part in paired talk effectively, it can be a powerful tool to support learning. Just like teaching pupils how to engage in independent practice, we need to teach pupils what our expectations for paired work are so that, over time, these become routine.

In this video, I am going to model setting a paired retrieval activity.

Imagine that I am teaching a year 8 history class and studying World War One. I have selected the core knowledge I want pupils to remember for the topic. This is a retrieval activity of some of this core knowledge. 

I want pupils to work in pairs to test each other’s knowledge of some of the facts that we have covered. I want to do this in a structured way to make the most of the time but also to ensure that pupils have a record of the areas they have forgotten, so that they can do revision work for homework. This is not the first time the class have done a similar exercise, however, I want to be sure that all are clear on the expectations. I have already explained the purpose of the task and asked pupils to get out their green highlighter pen and clear the rest of the desk.

“Listen carefully to the instructions. 

One – I have given each table two different worksheets, one with A on the top and one with B. 

Two – The person on the left is person A and the person on the right is person B. So on this desk Katie is person A and Fatima is person B. Put your hand up if you are person A…. great. If you are person A, when I say, take sheet A and give sheet B to your partner, then turn both over and look to me with your hands on the desk so I know you are ready. 10 seconds, off you go.

Three – Person A is going to be the ‘tester’ first. They are going to have 4 minutes to ask person B to name all of the causes of WW1. You can see that for each of the causes, several key words have been underlined. For each one that they mention, highlight it with your green highlighter pen. For example, if I said ‘alliances’, a number of alliances had been signed by countries in Europe. These were important because it means that some countries had no option but to declare war if their allies did. Here, Katie would highlight the parts of the sentence mentioned [highlighting on the worksheet].

Four – I will say when four minutes is up, at this point, you will then swap over and person B will test person A on the key terms, again, highlighting the words and sentences that they mention.

Jamal, can you say what person A is going to do? 

Great, and Marlon, what is going to happen after four minutes? 

4 minutes is not long for all the terms, so you need to be focused on the task as soon as I say go. 

The instructions are on the board as a reminder. I will be walking around and listening in to your conversations. 4 minutes, off you go.”

There are a few things that I want to draw your attention to in the model. First, I set out behavioural expectations for the paired task in detail. Each pupil knew precisely what they should be doing. I assigned specific roles to each pupil, checked that they understood this, and gave thorough task instructions. These instructions made it clear which pupils should be doing in each role. I also set clear time boundaries, splitting the activity into two four-minute sections, rather than saying “swap when you are finished”. Giving a finite amount of time helps pupils to stay focused. Finally, by circulating during the paired task, I made it clear to pupils that I would reinforce and maintain the expectations that I had set out. 

Another important aspect of this model was the use of scaffolds to increase the focus and rigour of pupil dialogue. In this instance, the worksheet with specific questions was one form of scaffold and another form of scaffold was the way I gave pupils an example answer. As well as helping pupils to focus their talk on the learning content, these scaffolds also helped me to track their thinking: I can see if pupils are on task if they are accurately highlighting words on the worksheet. 

When pupils have the necessary knowledge and skills to engage in meaningful talk, and when they are guided by a set of clear behavioural expectations, pair and group work can enable pupils to process their learning in a powerful way. 

Presenter next steps and summary

Throughout this video, we have considered some of the practical ways in which teachers can help their pupils to get the most out of pair and group work. Before we finish, read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which idea would you prioritise for your development and why? 

  • Teaching and rigorously maintaining clear behavioural expectations.
  • Considering the factors that will support effective collaborative or paired work.
  • Providing scaffolds for pupil talk to increase the focus and rigour of dialogue.

It can be difficult to monitor learning during pair and group work, but that doesn’t mean that we should shy away from it. Instead, we need to take the time to set up pair activities carefully and explicitly teach pupils how to behave during these types of activities. 

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Teaching challenge

Ms Silva can keep pupils on task when they practise independently. There are times when she feels it could be valuable for pupils to work in pairs or groups, but she is frustrated that pupils can go off task or produce poor work when she allows them to talk. How can she manage the way pupils conduct discussions so they get maximum learning benefit from collaboration?

Key idea

Teachers need to prepare for and intentionally support behaviours that enable quality pupil talk.

Evidence summary

Getting pupil behaviour right in talk tasks

At the heart of pair and group work is effective pupil talk. High-quality discussions help pupils better understand what they already know by articulating their thoughts more clearly (EEF, 2018). Peer discussion is also beneficial for building vocabulary, and aids social and linguistic development (Alexander, 2017).

However, when pupils work with their peers it can give rise to behavioural issues, as pupils may get distracted or be unable to complete a task. Just as when introducing other classroom routines, teachers should anticipate and plan to avoid behavioural problems (Kern & Clemens, 2007). To promote on-task talk, Ms Silva can:

  • Outline behavioural expectations: Where appropriate share specific words to try to use, time limits and rules for turn taking. The EEF (2018) provide an example of rules for discussion. 
  • Explain why these behaviours are important: If pupils know why something is effective, they’re more likely to do it properly and be more motivated to do the hard thinking expected of them (Coe et al., 2014; EEF, 2017). 
  • Check understanding: To succeed, pupils need to understand behavioural expectations and task instructions (Rosenshine, 2012). 
  • Practise routines: Pupils become more automatic and fluent through practice, so Ms Silva can ensure pupils talk successfully by regularly practising talk routines (Rosenshine, 2012).

Ms Silva should pre-plan groupings, as pupil groupings can affect pupil motivation and behaviour (Tereshchenko et al., 2018). She may wish to get pupils to work in pairs first, as this will help pupils to practise routines, behaviours and strategies of discussion, making it more likely pupils will talk successfully before working in larger groups. Once pupils are on task and thinking hard in pairs, she might start to trial group work – but only if she is confident that this will benefit learning. In short, Ms Silva should take an intentional approach to grouping pupils.

Preparing talk tasks that support pupil learning

As well as getting the behaviour right, Ms Silva needs to ensure pupils have the best chance of learning successfully from talk. Pupils need to understand the goals of the task in relation to their learning. Because we ‘learn what we think hard about’ (Coe, 2013), Ms Silva’s aim should be to get all pupils to think hard about important content during talk tasks. However, Ms Silva needs to balance this with ensuring that her pupils experience success, as this is critical for motivation and learning (Coe et al., 2014; Rosenshine, 2012).

A key factor in ensuring pupils think hard and experience success is teaching in ways that avoid overloading pupil working memory (Dean for Impact, 2015). Ms Silva’s talk tasks are more likely to succeed if she:

  • Makes the tasks themselves simple, while keeping the content challenging (Gathercole et al., 2006). For example, using tasks with minimal steps. 
  • Builds on existing pupil knowledge (Deans for Impact, 2015).
  • Provides enough guidance and support, for example, scaffolding (Rosenshine, 2012).

High-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary. Knowledgeable pupils are likely to get more insights from discussing their existing knowledge than they could without discussion (Kirschner et al., 2018). Therefore, Ms Silva should consider when in the learning sequence she introduces talk tasks, as they are likely to be more effective after behavioural expectations become embedded and pupil knowledge increases.

Supporting pupils to manage their learning in talk tasks

Having prepared tasks that support on-task behaviour and learning, how can Ms Silva now manage pupils during talk tasks? She can:

  • Circulate: Ensuring pupils are on task and not struggling (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Support: Directing pupil attention to available scaffolding (Van der Pol et al., 2015).
  • Reinforce: Using praise, rewards and sanctions to reinforce desired behaviours (IES, 2008).

The preparation Ms Silva has done should support pupils to self-manage their behaviour and learn more effectively. This will allow Ms Silva to focus more on supporting pupil learning and less on managing off-task behaviour during paired and group talk.

Nuances and caveats 

It is best when pupils are taught new knowledge before introducing pair or group work. They may struggle if peer collaboration is introduced too early in the learning sequence.

While it is possible for teachers to pick up on pupil misconceptions during pupil discussions, this is not likely to be the quickest or most efficient way of checking for understanding: strong whole-class questioning might be more effective. Discussions are best used to help pupils organise their knowledge.

Ability grouping shows limited evidence of impact on pupil outcomes (Coe et al., 2014). Ms Silva must ensure the groups pupils are placed in don’t negatively affect pupil attainment, behaviour and motivation. Ms Silva should ensure her within-class pupil groups are flexible and that she continuously considers whether pupils are in a group because this is an effective way of tailoring support for an identified pupil need e.g. ensuring groups based on attainment are subject specific and changing groups regularly, avoiding the perception that groups are fixed.

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can support talk that enables effective pair and group work by understanding that:

  • There are behavioural challenges particular to group and paired work. Teachers can pre-empt them by pre-planning groupings, and sharing and checking behavioural expectations and practice.
  • Effective talk tasks support pupils to talk successfully if they avoid overloading pupil working memory so pupils can articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary.
  • Teachers can support pupils to manage their behaviour and learning during collaboration.

Further reading

Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. See entry on oral language interventions.


Alexander, R. (2017). Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk. York: Dialogos. 

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University. 

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240. 

Kern, L., & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 44(1), 65–75. 

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233. 

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B., & Travers, M. C. (2018). Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment. Research Papers in Education, 1522, 1–20.

Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., Oort, F., & Beishuizen, J. (2015). The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support. Instructional Science43(5), 615-641. 


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Silva can support talk that enables effective pair and group work by understanding that:

  • There are behavioural challenges particular to group and paired work. Teachers can pre-empt them by pre-planning groupings, and sharing and checking behavioural expectations and practice.
  • Effective talk tasks support pupils to talk successfully if they avoid overloading pupil working memory so pupils can articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary.
  • Teachers can support pupils to manage their behaviour and learning during collaboration.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?