students in a group November 19, 2015

How to Improve Group Work: Perspectives from Students

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Many college courses today incorporate some form of group assignment, such as a project, presentation, or a collaborative paper or report. However, instructors are frequently met with resistance from students who don’t like working in groups and don’t want their grade to be affected by peers who may not pull their weight. Nonetheless, research shows that there are many benefits to group work, in terms of both active learning and expanding teamwork skills. Other benefits include better communication skills, critical-thinking abilities, time management, problem-solving skills, cooperation, and reinforcement of knowledge (Forrest & Miller, 2003; Hammar Chiriac, 2014; Kilgo, Ezell, & Pascarella, 2015). Furthermore, since the use of work groups and teams in the workplace has increased, it is important for students to have prior experience in group work. Certainly, a collaborative attitude and the ability to work with others are important at most places of employment.


By: Claire Howell Major, PhD Add Comment Enter the term “group work” into a Google search, and you’ll find yourself bombarded with dozens of hits clustered around definitions of group work, benefits of group work, and educational theories underpinning group work. If you dig a little deeper into the search results, however, you’ll find that not all of the pages displayed under the moniker of “group work” describe the same thing. Instead, dozens of varieties of group learning appear. They all share the common feature of having students work together, but they have different philosophies, features, and approaches to the group task. Does it matter what we call it? Maryellen Weimer asked this important question in her 2014 Teaching Professor article of the same title, with the implicit idea that one approach might be better suited for a given task than another. She believes that the answer to the question is yes. And she’s right. As the adage goes, it is important to choose the right tool for the job at hand. A hammer is not the best tool for drilling a hole, and a drill is not the best tool for driving a nail. Both are good tools, when used for the appropriate job. While there are several different forms of group work, there are a few that are more often used than others and have a body of research that supports their effectiveness. So it is with group work. If you don’t choose the best possible approach, then you will be less likely to accomplish the goals and objectives of the assignment. While there are several different forms of group work, there are a few that are more often used than others and have a body of research that supports their effectiveness. Three of these are cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and reciprocal peer teaching. Cooperative learning: In this form of group learning, students work together in a small group so that everyone participates on a collective task that has been clearly assigned (Cohen, 1994, p. 3). A classic example of this approach is Think-Pair-Share (Barkley et al, 2014), in which the teacher assigns a question and then students think for a minute independently, form a pair to discuss their answers, and share their answers with a larger group. The goal is that all students achieve similar outcomes. Each student considers the same teacher-assigned question, and they all work on performing the same tasks: thinking, pairing, and sharing. Collaborative learning: In this form of group learning, students and faculty work together to create knowledge. The process should enrich and enlarge them (Matthews, 1996, p. 101). An example of this form of group work is a collaborative paper (Barkley et al, 2014). In a collaborative group, students work together to create a product that is greater than any individual might achieve alone. They do not all necessarily do the same task, however, but rather may divide the work among themselves according to their interests and skills. The goal is not for the same learning to occur, but rather that meaningful learning occurs. Reciprocal peer teaching: In this form of group learning, one student teaches others, who then reciprocate in kind (Major et al, 2015). Arguably, this approach is a variation of either cooperative learning or collaborative learning, depending on the task. An example that leans more toward cooperative learning is the jigsaw, in which base groups study together to become experts (Barkley et al, 2014). The base groups then split, and new groups are formed with a member of each base group serving as an expert in a particular area. An example that leans more toward collaborative learning is microteaching, in which individual students take turns teaching the full class (Major et al, 2015). These three approaches are all tried-and-true group-learning varieties. They all have been shown to benefit students on a number of outcomes, from the acquisition of content knowledge to the development of higher-order thinking skills (Davidson & Major, 2015). How is it possible, then, to choose the right pedagogical tool for the learning task? Pedagogical considerations: In choosing any approach to group learning, it is essential to start with the learning goal. What should students be able to do after the completion of the activity? If the goal is for them all to gain the same information, cooperative learning may be the best approach. If the goal is for them to create new knowledge, then collaborative learning may be the best approach. If it is to share knowledge, reciprocal peer teaching may be a good approach. Learner considerations: When making any pedagogical consideration, it is essential to consider the students. Their level of expertise is important, for example, and if they are new to a subject and need foundational knowledge, then cooperative learning may be the best approach. If they are advanced students, then collaborative learning or reciprocal peer teaching may be more engaging for them. Contextual considerations: While contextual considerations are not always the most glamorous, they certainly play a part in our ability to carry out group work. For example, if the class is a large one, a short collaborative activity such as a Think-Pair-Share may simply be more manageable than a long-term collaborative activity; likewise, reciprocal microteaching may be a great approach in an online class but would not be as feasible in a large lecture scenario. A collaborative paper might be a great way to introduce graduate seminar students who work as research assistants at a flagship university to the process of co-authoring, but the same approach might not work as well for first-year students at a community college. The intent here is not to prescribe a specific approach based on a checklist of considerations. Rather, it is to say that, as teachers, we need to know what the instructional options are and to take into account the goals, the learners, and the learning context when making pedagogical decisions. Ultimately, we are in the best place to know what will work best in our unique situations, and it is thus our responsibility to choose well when deciding to use group work in the college classroom. References: Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H., & Cross, K.P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Cohen, E. G. (1994). Restructuring the classroom: Conditions for productive small groups. Review of Educational Research, 64(1), 1-35. Matthews, R.S. (1996), Collaborative Learning: creating knowledge with students, in Menges, M., Weimer, M. and Associates. Teaching on solid ground, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Major, C.H., Harris, M.S., and Zakrajsek. (2015). 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to put students on the path to success. London, Routledge. Weimer, M. (2014). Does it matter what we call it. The Teaching Professor, 28(3), 4. Claire Howell Major is a professor of higher education at the University of Alabama. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireHMajor. Add Comment Posted in Effective Teaching Strategies Tagged with assignment strategies, collaborative learning, cooperative learning, group work, group work strategies Edit Login Follow the discussion Comments There are no comments posted yet. Be the first one! Post a new comment Enter text right here! Comment as a Guest, or login: Login to IntenseDebate Login to WordPress.com Login to Twitter Name Email Displayed next to your comments. Not displayed publicly. Submit Comment Subscribe to Sign up for our FREE Newsletter! You have our promise not to sell or share your email address — ever! State authorization TOPICS: Academic Leadership Asynchronous Learning and Trends Blended and Flipped Learning Curriculum Development Distance Learning Administration EdTech News and Trends Educational Assessment Effective Classroom Management Effective Teaching Strategies Faculty Development Faculty Evaluation Instructional Design Learning Styles Online Education Philosophy of Teaching Teaching and Learning Teaching Careers Teaching Professor Blog Teaching with Technology Online Classroom newsletter You might also like:
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Choosing the Best Approach for Small Group Work

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Enter the term “group work” into a Google search, and you’ll find yourself bombarded with dozens of hits clustered around definitions of group work, benefits of group work, and educational theories underpinning group work. If you dig a little deeper into the search results, however, you’ll find that not all of the pages displayed under the moniker of “group work” describe the same thing. Instead, dozens of varieties of group learning appear. They all share the common feature of having students work together, but they have different philosophies, features, and approaches to the group task.


Male student on laptop April 20, 2015

Five Steps to Improving Online Group Work Assignments

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Online Group Projects – Yikes! You can hear the moans and groans of students echoing through your computer monitors as you start the first week of your online course. The reasons for requiring a group project vary from one discipline to another, but there are educational and career motives for requiring group projects. Students will have an opportunity to develop team skills, improve communication skills, and leverage their own personal interests and experiences to contribute to a group project.



Thinkstock-student-group-collaboration February 26, 2015

Use Team Charters to Improve Group Assignments

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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.


February 4, 2015

Group Work: What Do Students Want from Their Teammates?

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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.


ff-top14pt2 December 19, 2014

Our 14 Most Popular Articles of 2014, Part 2

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Today concludes our countdown of the top 14 articles of 2014. On Wednesday we revealed article number 14 on down to number eight. Today’s post reveals the seven most popular articles of the year. Each article’s ranking is based on a combination of factors, including e-newsletter open and click-thru rates, social shares, reader comments, web traffic, reprint requests, and other reader engagement metrics.

Here they are, articles 7-1, starting with number 7:


ff-top14-part1 December 17, 2014

Our 14 Most Popular Articles of 2014

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As another year draws to a close, the editorial team at Faculty Focus looks back on some of the top articles of the past year. Throughout 2014, we published approximately 225 articles. The articles covered a wide range of topics – including group work, course redesign, flipped learning, and grading strategies. In a two-part series, which runs today and Friday, we reveal the top 14 articles for 2014. Each article’s ranking is based on a combination of factors, including e-newsletter open and click-thru rates, social shares, reader comments, web traffic, reprint requests, and other reader engagement metrics.

Today’s post lists articles 8-14, starting with number 14.


three students working September 29, 2014

Students Riding on Coattails during Group Work? Five Simple Ideas to Try

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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?


two talking in comp lab September 26, 2014

Group Work Challenge: Assessing Team Members

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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.