June 1st, 2010

Group Work Recommendations


At the recent Teaching Professor Conference, several participants talked with me about a couple of recent blog posts on group work and their concerns about how students function in groups when they work on major projects. The concerns that many faculty have about group dynamics can be solved by carefully designing the group activity. I thought it might be useful to revisit the findings of a really excellent study of students’ experiences in groups. The faculty researchers asked MBA students to answer a series of questions about their best and worst group experiences. Based on the results, the researchers offer these recommendations.

  • Provide teams with adequate descriptions of the outcomes and processes. Make the assignments very clear. Include details about what students are to do and how the project will be evaluated.
  • Maximize team longevity. For project assignments that involve considerable work and count for a significant portion of the course grade, get the students into those groups early in the course. Participating in some team-building exercises or preliminary assignments can help them develop the skills they’ll need to do well on the major assignment.
  • If the students know each other, involve them in the process of forming the groups. Self-selected groups did rate their cooperativeness and the indispensability of members more highly. The authors recommend some sort of “constrained self selection,” where groups are formed according to some already established criteria or groups and the instructor collaborate on membership decisions.
  • Be wary of traditional peer evaluations. Use of peer evaluations in this study was negatively associated with best group experiences. The authors offer an interesting explanation. “When poor team dynamics occur …, rather than confront each other and seek to resolve unproductive conflict, students may tolerate this conflict thinking that they can ‘burn’ those they are in conflict with … on peer evaluations.” (p. 483)
  • Set team size by pedagogical objectives. Size was not a variable that affected best or worst experiences for these students. The authors suspect that the size of the project itself influences the group size variable. If it’s a large, course-long project, make sure there are enough students in the group so that the work can be shared and completed. If the groups are larger, make sure the project has multiple parts so that every group member can make a real contribution to the team.
  • Look for ways to improve team training. Previous course work did not seem to prepare students for their current group work.

Reference: Bacon, Donald R.; Stewart, Kim A.; and Silver, William S. (1999). Lessons from the best and worst student team experiences: How a teacher can make a difference. Journal of Management Education, 23 (5), 467-488.

  • This is great information about group assignments. I have tried both self-selection and assigned groups and have found that self-selected groups are generally happier, but tend to favor stronger students selecting each other while weaker students are left in groups without a strong leader. Assigned groups can fix this problem, but often result in more formal and less productive group interaction. It's an interesting conundrum.

  • Larry Spence

    These design guides are very useful in my experience. I do think the first point about clarity of assignments needs further investigations. I have found the most important aspects of assignments are a)that it be more difficult and sophisticated than any one student could accomplish on their own and b)that it require some form of decision making on part of the team. Dividing tasks is okay if the students have to integrate the work at some point, like having each member teach the others about their research. Of course assignments of this sort are quite time demanding — dedicating class time to the work not only helps with scheduling it allows the instructor to see how the teams work together and spot dysfunctions early in the semester.
    Peer evaluations often become blackmail devices or means of corruption fostering the trading of extra-curricular services for academic work. Observing teams at work and getting preliminary drafts gives a better idea of individual contributions.
    Scheduling also affects the best size for a team. The larger the team the greater the difficulty in meeting outside of class.
    Team training is a key, absolutely.