HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
Effective Group Work Strategies
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.
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.
If the course involves a graded group project, should instructors let students form their own groups or should the instructor create the groups? This decision is not always easy or obvious. Some students lobby hard to form their own groups, arguing that knowing each other ensures that they will be able to work together productively. On the other hand, in the world of work, most of the time employees do not get to pick their collaborators. There’s a task, and those with knowledge and relevant skills are formed into a group and assigned to complete the project, solve the problem, or develop the product.
There are many reasons why students don’t like group work, and in the online classroom the list of reasons grows even longer as the asynchronous nature of online courses not only makes collaboration more difficult but almost counterintuitive.
Problem solving is “what you do when you don’t know what to do.”
What a simple, straightforward definition for something often defined in much more complex ways. But problem solving doesn’t always mean the same thing. It might be the solution to a specific problem, like those that appear on math quizzes, or it might be a collection of possibilities that respond to a complex open-ended problem. But however it’s defined, problem solving is one of those skills all teachers aspire to have their students develop.
One of the common objections to group work is that bright, capable students are held back when they share group activities and grades with students of lesser ability. This is of concern to teachers and students. Often very good students strongly oppose group work. They worry that an ineffective group with weak or nonproductive members will compromise their grades. Many openly express the belief that they can do the activity, project, paper, or presentation better on their own and would prefer doing it that way.
“We cannot assume … that students will learn how to become better group members simply by participating in group activities.” Diane Baker (reference below) makes this observation in a first-rate article on peer assessment in small groups. Here’s a sampling of the ideas, information, and resources included in her article.
Utter the words “group project” and you’re likely to hear at least a few groans from your students. The reasons for their dislike of group work are many, but logistical difficulties of getting everyone together and lazy group members who don’t pull their own weight are two of the biggest complaints.
Faculty who regularly use group work are always on the lookout for new and better ways of handling those behaviors that compromise group effectiveness—group members who don’t carry their weight and the negative attitudes students frequently bring with them to group work.