Group work is a critical element of active learning (Freeman et al. 2014; Brame & Biel, 2015, Hodge, 2017; Tombak & Altun, 2016). The benefits of group work range from promoting learning, metacognition and academic success to developing social interaction, communication, and critical thinking skills. These skills are greatly valued in the workplace (Hodge, 2017; Weimer, 2013). However, it is important to point out that not any kind of group work will produce these benefits. Also, research alludes to student resistance to group work (Deslauriers et al. 2019; Hodge 2017, Sprague, Wilson & McKenzie, 2019). Why are students reluctant to engage in group work given its potential to promote learning and the development of valued transferable skills? The answer may reside in the gaps that are inherent in how university teachers structure, configure, implement, and debrief group work.
Structuring Group Work: What’s in a name? The term group work is often used to describe any form of instructional activity that involves students working together. However, group work falls under two categories: informal and formal cooperative learning groups (Brame & Biel, 2015). In informal cooperative learning, students work collaboratively in pairs or in small groups to retrieve and process knowledge. This type of group work reinforces individual and collective learning during a class period. The groups are casual and the assessment of group work is generally low stakes and non-graded. In formal cooperative learning–the focus of this piece–students work together over an extended period of time in structured groups to solve complex problems, answer controversial questions or complete multifaceted projects for a grade.
Configuring Group Work–Guiding Principles: Groups work most productively when the principles of positive interdependence and individual accountability are applied to the activity (Tombak & Altun, 2016; Scott, 2017; Sprague, Wilson & McKenzie, 2019). Positive interdependence denotes that the learning task cannot be completed by one person alone. Therefore, the contribution of each group member is required for success. Individual accountability means that “an individual public performance is required” of each group member (Kagan, 2011, p. 2). It is incumbent on the university teacher to establish the ground rules for interaction, communication, and completion of tasks in order to produce work that represents the best performance of the group. In the absence of careful monitoring of the ground rules of group engagement, the deleterious effects of social loafing, free riding and lone wolf tendencies will derail group effectiveness (Orlando, 2017; Weimer, 2014; Hodge, 2017).
Configuring Group Work–The ‘Why’ Question: It is crucial to present a defensible discipline-specific rationale for group work to students at the outset. Moreover, it is paramount to help students identify the pertinent knowledge, understandings, and skills that can be attained through successful group work activities in the discipline or field of study. Better still, these outcomes must be clearly delineated in the student learning objectives of the course.
Implementing Group Work: Some evidence-based tips for implementing group work include:
Be proactive in presenting a clear description of the task and why it requires group work.
Explain how expectations associated with principles of positive interdependence and individual accountability will be implemented to guide the process and product of group work.
Design complex, multifaceted and authentic tasks that call for all group members to contribute to the completion of tasks.
Teach the skills for handling group dynamics, communication, presentation and peer
evaluation. Help students develop a group contract to establish the guidelines for team
Form heterogeneous groups. “In most professional contexts, people don’t get to choose their project partners” (Weimer, 2014, p. 2).
Keep group sizes small. Groups of 4 – 5 students are considered to be most effective.
Help students break the task into manageable segments. Establish a deadline for the completion of each component and require frequent progress reports on product and process.
Provide opportunities for students to work on group task during class time so you can circulate, observe group interactions and the contributions of each member, answer questions and provide feedback (Brame & Biel, 2015; Hodge, 2017).
Develop a rubric for assessing the product and process of the group work. Establish the weights for group grade and individual grade in the course grading system.
Keep students accountable for their individual performance and to the group. Use self-assessment and peer-evaluation to monitor and review the quality and quantity of group members’ contributions (Scott, 2017; Sprague, Wilson & McKenzie, 2019).
Debriefing Group Work: At the end of the group project, it is important to close the loop of the learning together process by prompting students to reflect on the group experience (Brame & Biel, 2015; Hodge, 2017). The prompts for a reflective paper should address areas such as group process, the impact of group work on student learning, individual contributions to the group task and recommendations for improving group dynamics. Closing the loop also requires the university teacher to reflect on the structure, configuration and implementation of group work, and develop an action plan to inform future group work assignments.
Formal group work places time, coordination, motivation, group dynamics and intellectual costs on the university teacher and students. These costs can be harnessed to support the process of learning together through intentional structuring, configuration, implementation, and debriefing of group work. Besides, the benefits of a well-crafted group work task far outweigh the challenges.
Brame, C.J. & Biel, R. (2015). Group work: Using cooperative
learning groups effectively. Retrieved from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively.
Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(39), 19251–19257.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 111(23), 8410–8415.
Hodge, L. C. (2017). Ten research-based steps for effective group work. IDEA Paper #65. Retrieved from https://www.ideaedu.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/IDEA%20Papers/IDEA%20Papers/PaperIDEA_65.pdf
Kagan, S. (2011). The “P” and “I” of PIES: Powerful principles for success. Kagan OnlineMagazine. Retrieved from www. https://www.kaganonline.com/
Orlando, J. (2017). A solution to the free rider problem in group activities. Retrieved from https://www.teachingprofessor.com
Scott, G. W. (2017). Active engagement with assessment and feedback can improve group-work outcomes and boost student confidence. Higher Education Pedagogies, 2:1, 1-13. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/23752696.1307692.
Sprague, M., Wilson, K. F., & McKenzie, K. S. (2019). Evaluating the quality of peer and self-evaluations as measures of student contributions to group projects. Higher Education Research and Development, 38:5, 1061-1074. Retrieved from https://do1.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1615417.
Tombak, B. & Altun, S. (2016). The effect of cooperative learning: University example. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 64, 173 -196. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.14689/ejer.2016.64.10.
Weimer, M. (2014 a). A lone wolf approach to group work. Retrieved from https://www.teachingprofessor.com
Weimer, M. (2014b.). 10 recommendations for improving group work. Retrieved from https://www.teachingprofessor.com
Funmi Amobi is an instructional consultant and college liaison in Oregon State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Funmi provides consultations to faculty in individual and small group settings to support teaching excellence and student success. Funmi holds a doctorate degree in secondary education with major emphasis in curriculum and instruction from Arizona State University. As a reflective practitioner, she is a life-long student of the scholarship of teaching and learning. To schedule a Sparkshop call Funmi @ 541 737 1338 or email: Funmi.Amobi@OregonState.edu