March 24th, 2009

Designing Group Work


On one of my recent road trips, I had a stimulating conversation with two colleagues during which we discussed group work and the challenge of designing good activities for groups. Although the problems that emerge when students work in groups cannot be completely prevented by well-designed activities, they can certainly be made to occur less frequently or to lesser degrees. Let me offer some examples.

The divide-and-conquer problem—Students not very committed to group work love it when they get an assignment that can be divided into equal parts with each member responsible for one of the parts. This way they don’t have to meet or function as a group. Everybody just does their own thing and each “thing” is put in the group’s folder or said during that member’s four-minute part of the presentation. Group projects can be designed to prevent this problem. For example, each student in the group can be assigned a different content chunk, say a reading, and the group must do a paper or presentation that can only be done by integrating all the material.

The send-everything-to-me-and-I’ll-put-it-together-for-the-group problem—The member who most often volunteers to do this for the group is the person who doesn’t trust others to deliver quality work. This gives the member the chance to redo to his or her specifications. It may solve problems but it significantly erodes group cohesion and encourages free riding. Group work can be designed so that everybody in the group must review and/or “sign off” on the final product.

The free-rider problem—Probably the problem that most worries faculty is when individual students let the rest of the group carry the work load. A group design that includes some sort of peer assessment or requests a clear delineation of who did what goes a long way to prevent this problem.

The don’t-deliver-when-it’s-due problem—This is really just another version of the free-rider problem—a member who doesn’t come through with the goods when the group needs them. The design solution here is work due in installments so the group discovers early who doesn’t deliver and can take action to remedy the problem.

The we’re-not-getting-along problem—It may be a problem with too many leaders and not enough followers, or a case of baggage from past experiences. Well-designed group work empowers students to handle their own problems rather than taking everything to the teacher for adjudication. It might be something as simple as a handout describing the characteristics of groups that function productively, a discussion of the interplay between individual and group responsibility, or an opportunity for representatives from individual groups to share difficulties and brainstorm solutions.

Well-designed group work does make a difference; it’s just that designing good group work is a more intellectually demanding task than most of us realize.

—Maryellen Weimer