Group Work in History Class: Engage Your Students with These Fun and Interactive Methods

4 students working together in a group main

As a high school history teacher, I’m always looking for ways to make my lessons more engaging and interactive. Group work is one way to “mix it up”. Today, I want to share some group work ideas that I’ve found to be really effective.

Why Group Work?

Utilizing group work in your classroom imparts skills that students can’t get from individual assignments. Here are four benefits of group work in high school:

1. Improved Learning: Group work can help students learn more effectively by providing opportunities for peer teaching and collaborative problem-solving. Students can learn from each other and gain a deeper understanding of the material by working together.

2. Enhanced Social Skills: Group work can help students develop stronger communication, teamwork, and leadership skills. They learn to work with others, listen to different perspectives, and resolve conflicts in a positive and constructive manner.

3. Increased Engagement: Group work can make learning more engaging and fun for students. It provides an opportunity for students to interact with their peers and participate in hands-on activities, which can help them stay motivated and interested in the material.

4. Preparation for Real-World Work: Group work can prepare students for the collaborative nature of many workplaces. By learning how to work effectively in a group, students develop skills that will be valuable in their future careers.

So, are you on board? Let’s explore some methods my students have enjoyed and benefited from.

Scaffolding Within Each Group or Whole Class

One common method used when implementing group work is some sort of scaffolding. Each student learns about one portion of the content and shares their findings with the others. This can be accomplished within the group or across different groups. 

For example, every student is assigned a different achievement of ancient Greece and they share out in a round-robin fashion. This micro scaffolding within each group works well when there are approximately 4 elements you want them to learn. I find that once groups get larger then 4 members things can go south very easily!

When there are more than 4 components to the lesson– the technology of World War 1 for example – each group can cover 1 portion and share out with the other groups.

There is a problem with scaffolding material.  I’ve found that students tend to recall the portion of the lesson that they shared and only a smattering of the other aspects.

That often can be fine. There are many times students only need an overview. But if you want a detailed recall of all components of the lesson another method is preferable.

The Expert

I like this method and have used it many times. The very first time can be a tad confusing, but students quickly get the hang of it.

In this method, each group has a different topic to cover. After reading about and discussing their content they distill it down into a few (2-3) bullet points so that the rest of the class gets the main points. 

Next, the group chooses one person to be the expert who will travel to the other groups and teach them. After sharing his 2-3 facts the group he is visiting will in turn teach him their topic.

This way, everyone gets to teach their topic several times, both the traveling expert and the group members who are staying in place.

I like this lesson for several reasons. There are always some students who like to get up and move around and others who moan and complain about it. Now everyone’s happy!

Another benefit of using “The Expert” method is that everyone is teaching their topic several times, both the traveling expert and the group members who are staying in place. If a student is struggling in any group they will be exposed to their topic several times to help with comprehension.

The Placemat

Another effective method that I use is the placemat. In this method, groups are given a large sheet of paper to jot down their findings and ideas. They then share their answers and expand their personal notes with any new ideas.

Finally, the group writes in the center of the paper and discusses a guiding question. This method allows students to build on their work and collaborate, and the placemats can be posted around the room or on a bulletin board.

I learned this years ago at a professional development (yes, I actually attended a GOOD PD!)  and have used it ever since.

Groups (usually of 4) are given a large sheet of paper. I use half a sheet of easel paper. Students are given a reading passage and focus question(s). 

Example: students read the Treaty of Versailles and identify how Germany was punished after WW1. 

Students use the portion of paper closest to them to jot down any findings as they read. It doesn’t have to be neat, they’re just brainstorming.

Next, the group will share their answers and expand their personal notes with any new ideas. 

Finally, the group develops an answer to a guiding question. For the Treaty of Versailles example it might be: What are the possible effects of the Treaty of Versailles?

Once the group has formulated their answer they choose a group member with nice handwriting to record it in the middle of the paper. 

I like this because it allows students to build on their work and collaborate. They’re also good to post around the room or on a bulletin board.

Small to Big Debate

Finally, students love to debate, but many are weak in this skill. Having mini debates in small groups and then opening it up to a whole class discussion is a solution for this problem. 

Start with a reading passage or video on a topic to use as evidence and background. Create 3-4 controversial statements for each group to debate. They may come to a consensus or not. Students take notes of the best points for each statement.

Now you can address the same controversial statements and discuss/debate as a whole class. This can be accomplished in a few ways.

– Each group can choose a spokesperson to share.

– One member from each group can come to the front of the class and present their ideas

– You can choose the popcorn method by calling on 1 volunteer to start the discussion, then they call on the next person, and so on.

This lesson walks you through this method:

Click to Learn More

Case Study Analysis 

Case studies work great in my psychology and sociology classes, but they often work in history class as well.

Assign students to small groups and provide them with a real-world case study to analyze. Each group should work together to identify the key issues, analyze the data, and propose recommendations or solutions.

Every group can work on the same case study. One example I’ve implemented is when teaching the Constitutional Convention. Students are given the problem and various points of view for the Great Compromise, the three-fifths Compromise and the Commerce Compromise.

After groups share their solutions we compare them to the actual compromises made at the convention.

Conversely, every group can discuss a different case study and share with the class (scaffolding again). This would work well for looking at modern-day water issues in the world. Every group can read about a different area suffering from water insecurity.

So Get Your Students Collaborating!

Group work is an essential part of any classroom, and these methods can make it more effective and engaging. It supports struggling learners and advanced students alike.

Your strong students get a chance to lead the group in their endeavors. Struggling students see how others think and create conclusions and can later mirror those skills.

Try them out in your classroom and see the difference it makes in your students’ learning!

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.