Broken Circles

Groupwork Logistics

“To obtain the benefits of cooperation, it is necessary to prepare the students for the cooperative experience.” (Cohen, 1994)

This will be the first of many posts about student behavior training for groupwork. In her book, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, Elizabeth Cohen mentions that you can’t simply put students into groups and expect them to work well together. We must prepare and train them to work effectively. She also gives a wealth of strategies to accomplish this, and one of her favorites is an activity called “Broken Circles.”



I printed out 10 sets of circles. Each set was a different color (for easy clean up and organization).

Broken Circles Picture

I put my students into groups of 3, 4, and sometimes 5. So, I made sure to label each big envelope with the amount of people it could serve. Also, each piece has a letter on it, and the pieces corresponded with the lettered, white envelopes.

Broken Circles Envelopes


“Responsiveness to the needs of the group is a skill required of any kind of cooperative task. If students are oblivious to the problems experienced by peers, the group will not function properly, the group product will e inferior, and the interaction will not provide the necessary assistance for all its members. It is necessary that students learn how to become aware of the needs of other members of the group and to feel responsible for helping them for the sake of the group product.” (Cohen, 1994)

“Broken Circles” provides an experience that helps teach these skills. In order for the groups to be successful, they must be aware of what each member needs to complete his or her circle, and the group members feel responsible for not letting each other down. The goal is to make the students aware of each other’s needs through experience in a group setting. This is much more effective than simply giving students class rules and telling students to be aware of other’s needs.

The whole purpose of the activity is to emphasize sharing and picking up classmates who may be struggling. The rules let this happen without students simply copying each other because each student has to put together his or her own circle.


“Do not lecture students on what they are supposed to learn from the experience. Allow them to arrive at conclusions through your questions and the discussion that follows. Then, when they have been able to develop the important insights, you can point out how cooperation in this situation relates to cooperation in the planned groupwork. Education is not magic – always make the connection between the new behaviors and the situation when you want the students to use their new awareness or skills.” (Cohen, 1994)

I went ahead and followed the supplied discussion questions in order to develop key insights:

What do you think this exercise was all about?

How do you feel about what happened in your group today?

What things did you do in your group that helped you to be successful in solving the problem?

What things did you do that made it harder?

What could the groups do better in the future?

How could you use this in our class?

The students discussed and came to the conclusion that they must share in order to be successful. We also pointed out that the activity did not work when someone kept a perfect circle all to themselves. This prevented others from having a complete circle. We were able to translate this to normal group scenarios where students may work individually within the group but fail to share their ideas. This stunts the growth of other members in the group.

Overall Comments:

My biggest goal for this school year is to improve student collaboration. Therefore, I decided to use this activity on the first day of school. If my goal is for better groupwork, then I need to hit the ground running on the first day. Also, this is usually the best day of the year for students to cooperate and avoid pushback. Might as well take advantage of this by doing an activity that will benefit groupwork down the road.

Honestly, my initial experience was pretty poor. Our school does block scheduling, so I see three classes on A-day and three classes on B-day. The first day was a complete snoozefest. I even heard a few students whisper, “This is boring.” It was discouraging, but the key points were understood. However, the second day of school brought much better results. The kids were really into it, and they were more enthusiastic to participate in the discussion. I’m not sure if day one was just a case of kids not being ready to be back in school, but it was encouraging to see day two go so well.

Also, as the week went on, I was able to point back to this exercise in order to make connections in other group activities. This has probably been the most beneficial aspect of the game so far. During other group activities, I was able to walk around the room and remind students to be aware of others’ needs and make sure everyone has a complete circle.


Cohen, E.G. (1994). Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

4 thoughts on “Broken Circles

  1. Thank you so much for putting this together. I am reading this same book and was disappointed to find that I had to make copies from it in order to do the cooperative activities. I happened to search it and found this… You are a life saver and are helping me to do a better job starting out this next year! Thank you so much again

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