Here’s the scenario: Students are taking a chemical thermodynamics course. The instructor solicits clicker responses to a conceptually based multiple-choice question. Students answer individually, write a brief explanation in support of their answer, and indicate how confident they are that their answer is correct. They are then encouraged to discuss their answers with two or three (self-selected) other students. After that discussion, they have the opportunity to change their answer if they wish, write another explanation for the answer, and once again indicate their degree of confidence in their answer. Do you think that discussion would make a difference—particularly, would it make a difference in their understanding of the concept?
Many faculty now have students do some graded work in groups. The task may be, for example, preparation of a paper or report, collection and analysis of data, a presentation supported with visuals, or creation of a website. Faculty make these assignments with high expectations. They want the groups to produce quality work—better than what the students could do individually—and they want the students to learn how to work productively with others. Sometimes those expectations are realized, but most of the time there is room for improvement—sometimes lots of it. To that end, below is a set of suggestions for improving group projects. A list in the article referenced below provided a starting place for these recommendations.
“I’d really rather work alone. . .”
Most of us have heard that from a student (or several students) when we assign a group project, particularly one that’s worth a decent amount of the course grade. It doesn’t matter that the project is large, complex, and way more than we’d expect an individual student to complete. That doesn’t deter these bright, capable students who are confident of their abilities and really don’t want to work with others much less depend on them for their grade.
Teamwork is an important skill for students in every major. But despite its importance, most students do not know how to work together as a team. Their individual objectives take precedence over group goals. They can tell you what they are expected to produce. They may be able to tell you what type of group they were intended to be, whether task, educational, or support. They may even be able to tell you the components needed for groups to be successful—such as communication, a strong leader, and a common purpose. But they cannot tell you how the group will operate as a unit or the roles and responsibilities of individual members necessary to deliver quality products.
Group work and teamwork. In college courses the terms refer to students working together, often on an assignment or an activity. Group work is the more neutral term, whereas teamwork implies something about how the students are working together. And although teamwork is easy to identify when we see it on a playing field or court, what does teamwork look like in a college classroom?
For the past 25 years Bernard Sorofman has worked to build and maintain a collegial team within the department of pharmacy practice and science at the University of Iowa. In an interview with Academic Leader, he shared his techniques.
“It begins with recruiting great people who are able to work with others,” Sorofman says. “If you get the right people who are happy working together and are collegial, everything else will fall into place.”
There’s a tacit rule that most college teachers abide by: I won’t mess with your course if you agree not to mess with mine. Gerald Graff observes and asks, “This rules suits the teacher, but how well does it serve students?” (p. 155)
Problem solving is “what you do when you don’t know what to do.”
What a simple, straightforward definition for something often defined in much more complex ways. But problem solving doesn’t always mean the same thing. It might be the solution to a specific problem, like those that appear on math quizzes, or it might be a collection of possibilities that respond to a complex open-ended problem. But however it’s defined, problem solving is one of those skills all teachers aspire to have their students develop.
One of the common objections to group work is that bright, capable students are held back when they share group activities and grades with students of lesser ability. This is of concern to teachers and students. Often very good students strongly oppose group work. They worry that an ineffective group with weak or nonproductive members will compromise their grades. Many openly express the belief that they can do the activity, project, paper, or presentation better on their own and would prefer doing it that way.
Most higher education institutions are not organized to encourage, support, and reward collaboration. Yet, collaboration—across disciplines, functional units, institutions, and organizations—is a highly effective way of dealing with complex issues.