11. Pairs and groups

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Peps McCrea

Getting pupils to work together can increase pupil success. Effective pair and group work can help pupils to rehearse ideas and deepen their understanding but it can be hard to get right. In order to get the most out of our pair and group work, we need to structure collaborative activities carefully, show pupils how to work together, and help them to stay on track. Effective pair and group work requires lots of support and lots of practice.

Presenter main

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. Pair and group work can also develop important interpersonal skills, the ability to listen to somebody else’s opinion, and ask meaningful questions. Collaborative learning can be really powerful but it needs to be implemented carefully. It’s also important that you have secure foundations in place, like good routines and clear instructions. This should help you to focus more of your attention on the complex task of managing different groups at the same time.

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, and, where appropriate, telling groups which pupil will go first and nominating a pupil to feed back 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 that a pupil is listening such as facing the person speaking, nodding, and not interrupting when they’re 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’s important to give pupils time to practise them and correct any errors that you see. Practising routines for pair and group work can save a lot of time in the long run and it can make it a much more reliable tool for learning.

During pair and group work, teachers need to support pupils to stay on task. This can mean circulating to see what they are doing, listening in to conversations, and checking that they are making notes as appropriate. Other forms of support for pair and group work include question starters, sentence stems, and vocabulary banks. These can 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’re going to see a model of how to set up a paired activity. In it, pupils are asked to recall previously learned content. As you watch, pay particular attention to 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

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

When pupils know how to take part in paired and group activities effectively it can be a powerful tool to support learning. Just like teaching pupils how to engage in independent practice, we need to teach our pupils what our expectations for paired and group work are so that over time these become routine. We also need pupils to understand what the purpose of a paired and group activity is and how it will support their learning goals.

In this video, I’m going to model setting a paired activity which is used to consolidate prior knowledge through repeated practice. I am a Spanish teacher, teaching a year 10 class. In the previous two terms, pupils have been learning about describing and giving opinions about their school. I want pupils to recognize and practise using key knowledge within this topic in written and spoken form. Pupils have already carried out this group task before several times. The structure of the task and the task instructions remain the same each time because I want pupils to be focusing their attention on the content they are working on rather than the logistics of the task. However, even though pupils have done this activity before I want to remind them of the purpose of this group task and give clear instructions.

“So we’ve been working on describing the school and your school routine. We’re now going to do a group task where you will practise writing and listening for this content so that you’re able to use the vocabulary with greater fluency. You will work in groups of three. One person will dictate, one will scribe, and one will be the checker. Just as before, on your tables, the piece of paper will tell you which roles you have.

So, person A, you have a partially completed text in Spanish.

Person B, you have the other half of that text.

Person A, you will read the text you have, and person B, you will listen to person A, write down what you hear so that you can fill in the gaps. You must speak and write in Spanish at all times.

Person C, once A and B have finished their task, you are to check that what they have written is correct. You are to note down any errors as well as an explanation as to why it is incorrect.

For example, an error could be missing an accent on a word.

Person C, when checking, just to help, you have a list of possible errors on a piece of paper in front of you.

So, you have five minutes to complete this task so you need to work carefully and efficiently. I will come round to support and just check on how you’re doing. You also need to speak in a low volume so that you’re able to hear each other read the texts.

Let’s just check that we know what we need to be doing. So, what topic are we practising in this group task? Tanya.

[Pupil gives correct response]

Yeah, thank you Tanya. And how many people are there in each group, Rosy?

[Pupil gives correct response]

Yeah, there are three, aren’t there? And what are the three roles, Tom.

[Pupil gives correct response] Great, thank you Tom, very clear.

 So, what are the roles then of person A and person B? Bill.

[Pupil gives correct response] Yeah, again, very clear, thank you. And person C? Leah.

[Pupil gives correct response] Yeah, they’re the checker, aren’t they?

Great, thank you. And if you do need support, what do you need to do? Steve.

[Pupil gives correct response] Exactly, thank you Steve.”

There are a few things that I want to draw your attention to in the model. Even though this was not the first time they carried out this group work task, I still set out behavioral expectations for the task in some detail. Each pupil knew precisely what they should be doing. I assigned specific roles to each pupil, gave specific instructions, and checked that they understood. I also set clear time boundaries. Giving a finite amount of time helps pupils to stay focused. Finally, I explained that I would circulate during the task. Circulating pupils when they carry out collaborative work gives me a chance to maintain the expectations that I had set out and check to see how I might support pupils.

I also use scaffolds to increase the focus and rigour of pupil dialogue. In this instance, the worksheets with specific errors was one form of scaffold, and another form of scaffold was the fact that the partially completed texts are exemplifying a model dialogue.

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 key ideas

Throughout this video we have considered some of the practical ways 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 prioritize for your development and why?

  • Teach and rigorously maintain clear behavioural expectations
  • Consider the factors that will support effective collaborative or paired work
  • Provide scaffolds for pupil talk to increase the focus and rigour of dialogue

Presenter summary

It can be difficult to keep track of learning during pair and group work but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from doing it. Instead, we need to take the time to set up pair and group work 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 why pupils are in a group because this is an effective way of tailoring support for identified pupil need(s) 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?