Checking on whether my students in a recent class were understanding some thorny content, I did a quick survey and was heartened to receive engaged
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
There is abundant evidence that having students work in groups improves educational outcomes (R. E. Slavin, 1987; Springer, Donovan, and Stanne, 1999; R. Slavin, 1996;
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
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.