group work strategies
Many faculty now have students work in teams to complete course-long projects that are designed to accomplish multiple course objectives and that count for a significant part of the course grade. These groups do not always function well, which concerns faculty. If experiences in groups do not develop good teamwork skills, then maybe it’s better not to use groups and have students do assignments individually. Frequently that’s what they prefer anyway.
Providing students with useful information about how to function effectively when they work in groups stands a good chance of improving what the group produces. It also helps students develop important skills they can use in group activities in college and beyond. Providing the information doesn’t guarantee that students will make use of it, but it’s a better option than not providing it.
The idea for sharing this post came from a session I recently conducted at the annual teaching conference organized by my university. A pedagogical conundrum was raised by a colleague whose enthusiasm and question stayed with me and inspired me to write this post. The question posed by this colleague is relevant to all instructors who have ever used group work to assess their students: How should one deal with the issues that arise when members of a group are not picking up their share of the responsibilities during a group work project?
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.
There’s lots of research documenting the positive effects of group experiences on learning outcomes. Less is known about the specific aspects of group experiences that contribute to their overall positive impact. Thomas Tomcho and Rob Foels decided to explore this question by looking at the research on group learning in the field of psychology, as reported in the journal Teaching of Psychology.
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.
Like many matters regarding teaching and learning, there isn’t one best way to put students into groups. The best way is related to what you want students to learn from their group experience. Here’s a brief discussion of how that works for three common ways of forming groups.
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?
I often get questions about group work. Recently, the question was phrased like this: “Can students learn anything in groups?” And, like faculty sometimes do, this questioner proceeded with the answer. “I don’t think my students can. When they work in groups they have no interest in doing quality work. Whatever the first person says, they all agree with that and relax into a social conversation.”
Here’s an empirical result I would not have predicted. It emerged in a meta-analysis of research on group learning activities as reported in 32 studies published in Teaching of Psychology between 1974 and 2011. I’ll be doing a detailed highlight of the entire article in an upcoming issue of The Teaching Professor. But the finding that surprised me involved the use of peer assessment within groups: “Our hypothesis of better learning outcomes with peer assessment was not supported. In fact, the data suggest that the opposite pattern may exist.” (p. 164)