How to Manage Science Groups – It’s Easier Than You Think

Take a proactive stance to manage science groups in your classroom. With assigned roles and individual accountability, your labs will go off without a hitch.

Ms. Sneed Gets a Crash Course in Science Groups

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sighed deeply as she bit into her sandwich.

Her colleague, Mr. Frank, sat across from her in the teacher’s lounge. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“You know how I decided to use more scientific practices?”


“Well, my last lab bombed. One group, for example, had too many chiefs. Another split in two parts and waged war against one another. Some kids fought over materials. Then they all blamed one another for deductions in their group grade. And Sylvia refused to work in her group at all!”

Mr. Frank looked at Ms. Sneed with concern. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “It took me a while to get control of my groups. Actually, my mentor gave me a brochure to get started.

“Why don’t you come and observe my next lab? That way, I can give you some pointers.”

Ms. Sneed smiled weakly. “Thanks,” she said. “I evidently need some!”

With a few strategies for success, you can manage science groups like a pro!
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Manage Space Effectively

The next day, Ms. Sneed sat at a side table in Mr. Frank’s room. Students faced forward with desks in pairs.

“Clear your desks for a science lab,” Mr. Frank announced. The students cheered and happily moved supplies off their desktops.

“As usual,” continued Mr. Frank, “the first and third rows will turn around to make tables of four.” Half the class turned their chairs.

Ms. Sneed stared in astonishment. Her labs began with students noisily moving their desks. Mr. Frank’s procedure was so easy, so orderly.

Before you start a lab, arrange your classroom to accommodate science groups.

Assign Roles Within Science Groups

“Remember your number,” Mr. Frank said. He pointed to a student at the front left of a group. “The person in this position is one.” Then he pointed to the front right. “Two.” Next, he pointed to the back right. “Three.” Finally, he pointed to the back left. “And four.”

Ms. Sneed wondered where Mr. Frank was going with this.

Mandate Taking Turns

“Today, you’ll test various bird beak adaptations in a pond ecosystem. This is your pond.” The students laughed as Mr. Frank held up a plastic container. “And these are the beaks.” Now he held up a bag containing chopsticks, a clothespin, tweezers, and a binder clip.

Next, Mr. Frank rattled off a set of expectations:

  • “Number 2 will collect the ecosystem, and Number 3 will get the beaks.
  • “Group members will choose beaks in this order: 1, 2, 3, and then 4.
  • “Then you will take turns in reverse order: 4, 3, 2, 1.”

Expect and Get Independent Group Work

Without any hesitation, the teacher said, “Now let’s get started.”

Two students promptly left each group and collected supplies. When they returned, Ms. Sneed watched as they passed the bag of beaks and made selections without fighting. Then, as directed, they took turns.

Mr. Frank stood on the side of the room with Ms. Sneed. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s so — orderly.”

Her colleague laughed. “It wasn’t always this way. My mentor taught me how to manage science groups. Now I pass it on to you.”

Plan for Difficult Students

Ms. Sneed suddenly noticed one student working alone. “What about him?” she asked Mr. Frank.

“Ah, Carlo,” he said. “I’ve learned that some students cannot work in groups. Believe me, I tried with him. But every lab resulted in a major meltdown. Then I realized that this was not the hill to die on.” He shrugged. “So I plan ahead to make sure he has the same – or at least similar – learning experiences.”

“Wow,” Ms. Sneed replied. “My first inclination would be to force everyone to work together. Even difficult students.”

Mr. Frank shook his head. “Believe me, it’s just not worth it. Sure, you can start out each lab with everyone working in a group. However, if things start going south, it’s better to have a contingency plan.

“Surprisingly,” he continued, “sometimes students who have trouble working in groups work better together. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it can work.”

“Hmm, maybe I can try it.”

“To manage science groups,” Mr. Frank said, “it’s best to have a big bag of tricks.”

Ms. Sneed laughed. “As with all teaching. I’m a big believer in a deep bag of tricks.”

Ms. Sneed Learns to Manage Science Groups

Over the next few weeks, Ms. Sneed tried the strategies she learned from Mr. Frank:

  • Manage space effectively.
  • Assign roles.
  • Mandate taking turns.
  • Expect and get independent group work.
  • Plan for difficult students.
Ready for your students to work independently during science labs? Take these steps.

Enjoy Teaching with Science Groups

With practice, her science groups became more and more orderly – and effective. As time went on, her skills in science practices grew. And, as she mastered more strategies, she enjoyed teaching even more.

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