With PhD in hand, I joined the academy without any real teaching training. As I sought to establish my teaching routine and define my teaching
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
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?
What’s the best way to put students into groups? It’s the first task that confronts teachers who want students to work together. And the best reply is one of those “it depends” answers. Here are the questions on which it depends.
Should teachers let students form the groups? Students often prefer this approach. They tend to pick people they know, classmates who are friends, those in the same major, and those who share the same race. It’s more comfortable working with people who are known and similar. When groups are composed of friends, they sometimes struggle with the transition to a more professional relationship. They’re used to socializing, but now there are tasks to complete and that means functioning in different roles. If the group work is a project that requires extended collaboration and will benefit from a variety of opinions and perspectives, letting students form the groups may not be the best approach. On the other hand, for short, ad-hoc group work and for students who may be shy and not used to working with peers, knowing others in the group makes the experience less intimidating.
Recently, in my first-year seminar class, I had an opportunity to re-think my use of group projects. I had set up the task perfectly, or so I thought. I’d anticipated all the typical group project challenges, designed solutions to those challenges, and convinced myself that the final group assignment would be smooth sailing. Except it wasn’t.
Five years ago, I transitioned from a totally lecture-based classroom to a more student-centered, engaging one. Initially, I found that when students were placed in groups, they didn’t necessarily work together. What I discovered was that the activities needed to be structured collaboratively to promote learning.
Group work is a valuable learning device that teaches teamwork skills which students will use no matter what profession they enter. It is perhaps even more valuable in online classes, as more and more organizations are using distributed employees who need to coordinate their work from a distance.
But group work also brings with it the danger of social loafing, those one or two students who do not contribute their fair share to the project. Not only does it undermine the quality of the project, but it creates frustration among other group members who see it as unfair to have team members not pull their own weight. This can have a dampening effect on the motivation and thus performance of other members of the group.
Collaboration helps to develop many of the key skills that will be required of students for their future success. Students can develop many of these so-called “soft skills,” or Essential Employability Skills, by engaging in group work and other forms of collaboration (Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development 2005). Collaboration leads to greater retention, improved student achievement, and increased self-esteem and metacognition, and it can be used to facilitate active learning and to promote inclusion by increasing contact among diverse groups (Bossert 1988; Bowman, Frame, and Kennette 2013; Hennessey 1999; Kennette and Frank 2010; Kramarski and Mevarech 2003; Rajaram and Pereira-Pasarin 2007; U.S. Department of Education 1992). Despite the many benefits of group work, instructors are sometimes hesitant to use it due to some of its well-known pitfalls (social loafing, disputes, individualized grading, student bemoaning, etc.).
Students who don’t carry their weight in a group continue to be a big concern for faculty who use groups and for students who participate in them. Most often faculty and students assume that these students are lazy and happy that they’ve landed in the group with others willing to do the work. And sometimes that’s the case. Some students are lazy. But research documents that this isn’t true of all students who aren’t participating in groups. Here are a few highlights from a study that considered how social-comparison concerns might prevent participation and approaches that help alleviate those concerns.