In today’s workplace, employers often look at potential employees and evaluate their interactive skills. These are skills that allow you to interact well with others in the workplace, and help you be a productive member of a team. Group work or collaborative learning is a great way to help students develop these in demand skills.
Humans usually gravitate to working in groups. It is part of our nature. We often associate with groups because of the social aspects; however, in a higher education environment, the purpose of the group is to identify and execute learning activities.
It is important when attempting to design group work courses and activities to make sure you know what you want the group structure to look like. Most groups are successful when they have a limited number of members. Limiting members to between 3 and 6 members is ideal. Too many members produce group situations where some students are not very active in the group, and less members can cause the students to feel overwhelmed with the workload of the groups.
Don’t forget that groups, even small groups, are quite complex. A group has to contend with many aspects of cooperation such as work interaction, social organization, shared aims, and producing a collective product or view. Because small groups deal with such levels of complexity, it is a good idea to help your students adapt to the group work environment.
First be sure when creating groups that you as the instructor pick the groups or help the students form groups. Without any stipulations, students will form groups of comfort. They will gravitate to familiars first, and don’t necessarily think about what makes a group successful. As the instructor/facilitator you need to help students understand this importance.
Help students form groups that have a diversity of skill sets and perspectives. Having a group that has a single skill set or perspective can be detrimental to the quality of work they produce.
Group communication and etiquette
Be sure to inform students about their commitment to the group and the importance of their role in the group. Many students have an aversion to group work. This often comes from a preconceived notion of group work or a bad experience with group work. Their fears often range from being forced into an uncomfortable social situation, to fearing that the group work load will fall on their individual shoulders. Try helping students in the groups determine their role within the group. Be sure they understand the importance of the role. Without their contributions, the group project will fail or be incomplete. This importance also helps students comprehend the trust that is being built within the group. Each student plays an integral part in completing a group work and each member trusts the other member to being committed to finishing their parts. Make sure your students are aware and have been informed about this trust element.
Set the ground rules. Let students know that opportunistic behaviour is not tolerated in the group work. What this means, is that each student pulls his or her own weight. Equal participation needs to be established.
Be sure to get groups to establish a communication strategy amongst themselves. Often time group work becomes put off because of a lack in the communication plan.
Keeping groups motivated and on task
Another key to successful group work is establishing the objectives of the group. Without key direction, students will not know what outcome to work towards. A key job of the instructor or facilitator is to help students understand their objectives and to help guide them over or around any hurdles that could hinder the group from completing the work. Get students involved in understanding the objectives of the assignment by having them plan activities around the objectives. Have them ask questions and design procedures that will help them map their way to a completed objective. By being part of the planning process, students can feel more involved in the project or task, and can draw connections between learning elements as they help map their way through the project or assignment.
Also, when designing group work, make sure that the work is dynamic and engaging. Boring and repetitive tasks can kill the group dynamic and make the tasks of the group seem menial and unimportant. Getting students to engage in discussion about their objectives is a great way to keep them engaged with the material. Building in discussion sessions as part of the task can keep students engaged and focused on productivity.
Assessing Group Work
Determine how you would like to assess the groups that you will form in your course. Are you going to give a single group mark? How does this transfer to an individual grade? Will only you be marking all group submissions or will you involve some peer evaluation? These are questions you need to address in planning for group work. Some ideas you could incorporate into the assessment process is a formative self-evaluation of work. Have the individuals formatively assess the progress of their group and submit it to you. You can then pass strategic feedback onto groups and help their productivity increase. This type of assessment also helps you stay cognizant of any structural problems that can occur within the groups. Consider using peer evaluation as part of the summative assessment process. Arguments have been made that instructors are not aware of the group dynamic and, therefore, can not grade the groups work fairly. Incorporating peer assessment into the mix of how you evaluate the groups is a great way to understand better the challenges and successes of each group.
All of these elements come into play when creating group activities. Setting up and facilitating group work can be a lot of work for an instructor, but the pay if is great. Students tend to learn more from small group activities that include discussion, more so than they would trying to retain information from a lecture.
If you need help creating group activities in your class, please contact the Teaching Centre today. We will be glad to help.
Reasons for success in group learning environments
When students form into groups they realize that the success of the group is determined by the effort of each individual group member. Students feel socially tied to the group. If you have discussed with the groups the importance of their commitment to each other, then this feeling is reiterated. Generally students strive to succeed because letting the group down, has adverse effects towards them as well. Most people understand that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Most people do not want to be seen as the weakest link and strive to achieve individually, which is really helping the group propel forward. Individual responsibility among the group goals is key to the group success.
Group work in higher education: a mismanaged evil or a potential good?
Best Practices for Group Learning in Higher Education
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.