Why Group Work Is Important
Love it or hate it, group work is an important part of education. Learning to work cooperatively with diverse people is a core 21st century skill, one which employers increasingly value and expect new workers to have mastered. Experience gathered from group work in educational settings directly transfers to and prepares students for successful collaboration in work teams. By collaborating in teams, students learn a wide range of discrete as well as soft skills that make group work worth the effort, including those below.
- Technology skills
- Social skills
- Coping with stress
- Creating work plans and schedules
- Forecasting needs and hurdles
- Time management & meeting deadlines
- Working with difficult personalities
- Managing & navigating unmet expectations
- Following up & messaging
- Development of academic/professional voice
Pedagogically, group work supports a constructivist approach to learning, in which students contribute to the learning environment, build knowledge both individually and collectively, and co-create the classroom environment. Constructivist theory posits that learning is a social process and values student interaction with and contributions to collective knowledge. Group work and student collaboration are foundational methods in constructivist classrooms that help students develop the knowledge and skills that allow them to meet learning objectives. Additionally, group work is seen as a key element of student-student interaction.
Considerations for Successful Groups
The first thing instructors should consider when planning to incorporate group work is to reflect on WHY they are assigning it- as an objective of learning or as a means of learning. Group work for the purpose of learning collectively, producing collaboratively, or for gaining experience working cooperatively are all valid reasons to include group work.
Additionally, instructors must consider the limits of the asynchronous modality when creating group assignments. We all know how difficult it can be if the group you end up working in is not harmonious; For students in asynchronous online courses, group work can be even more difficult, with challenges like different time zones, different daily schedules, and lack of face to face collaboration opportunities. Even the most thoughtfully designed group activities can run into problems. What happens when one student fails to contribute? Do the other group members take up the slack and cover for their absent partner? How should a group handle an overbearing group member who takes on more than their fair share of the project? Anticipating the potential hurdles that may arise when planning the group project and incorporating support and resources for struggling groups can alleviate these barriers to a large degree.
An important consideration when creating group assignments is Conrad & Donaldson’s Phases of Engagement model, which advises instructors to structure group work so that students can build up group cohesion through low-stakes activities like icebreakers, introductions, and discussion forum posting towards the beginning of the term before ramping up to more complicated collaborative projects. This scaffolding of tasks helps groups bond and build community among members, facilitating better working relationships and the trust necessary to work through the intricacies of a complex group project. The theory can be helpful when approaching a series of courses within a specific degree program as well, moving from simple group projects in lower division courses to co-facilitating and transformative ongoing engagement at the upper levels.
Another model that can help instructors understand how to structure group work is Peter Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which describes a pyramid of features that are required for groups to function effectively. Lencioni claims that trust is the foundation of any functioning group, followed in ascending order by managing conflict through healthy discourse, ensuring commitment and buy-in, providing a method of accountability for team members, and a focus on collective results over personal prestige. Avoiding dysfunction by clearly structuring group work to anticipate and provide tools for dealing with these problems can ensure teams get off on the right footing and can work together smoothly.
Additionally, instructors should consider the type of collaboration that is common within their own discipline, whether it be performing distinct roles within a team or more general projects requiring cooperation. Designers often work together creatively to develop and improve products; medical teams must work collectively but in distinct roles to serve patients; computer software developers must be able to distribute work and manage tight deadlines; public-facing personnel must be able to amicably respond to a range of customer behaviors. Connecting group work explicitly to real-world work scenarios helps students see the value and relevance of their learning, which helps increase engagement and dedication. Structuring group projects to mimic the type of work tasks they can anticipate also provides the added value of preparing students for scenarios they will actually be faced with on the job.
Finally, since asynchronous group work relies heavily on technology, ensure that the technology to be used by the group is familiar or can be mastered quickly. Provide detailed instructions or tutorials for how to use the technology, plan for how to handle issues students might face with technology, and share resources they can tap should they run into problems. University instructional technology support can be linked to, and websites and apps often offer training videos.
Types of group work
- Pair/partner work
- Informal cooperative active learning
- Group essays or projects
- Group presentations
Setting groups up for success
- Set up groups of the right size, preferably with an odd number of participants
- Make groups heterogenous to encourage peer-to-peer learning
- Provide opportunities for students to activate their unique background knowledge and perspectives
- Provide detailed instructions for group interaction expectations
- Provide guidance on strategies for dividing the workload, such as setting up roles (ie: organizer, recorder, liaison, etc.)
- Provide detailed instructions and rubrics for expected process and product
- Split the grade for group work between collective and individual grades
- Build in check-ins with instructor early on and midway
- Plan for interventions if groups are not functioning well
- Allow team members to evaluate each other’s and their own performance for contribution, cooperation, & timeliness