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?
Teachers who use group work frequently incorporate some sort of peer assessment activity as a means of encouraging productive interactions within the group. If part of the grade for the group work depends on an assessment by fellow group members, students tend to take their contributions to the group more seriously. Often teachers use some sort of point distribution system where a given number of points must be divided among members, and they cannot be distributed equally. The problem with these systems is that the feedback they provide lacks specificity. Students don’t know what they are doing that accounts for the score they’ve received, and this makes improvement less likely.
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.
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.
The body of evidence documenting the effectiveness of cooperative learning is already impressive. The large and regularly cited meta-analysis of Johnson and Johnson published in 1987 reviews 378 studies that explore the use of cooperative learning groups in a wide range of settings. More than half of the studies reviewed favored cooperation in groups compared with only 10 percent favoring individual effort.
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.”
It wouldn’t be the end of the year without a few top 10 lists. As we say goodbye to 2012, we’re doing our list with a little twist: the top 12 articles of 2012. Each article’s popularity ranking is based on a combination of the number of reader comments and social shares, e-newsletter open and click-through rates, web traffic and other reader engagement metrics.