It’s about that time in the term where group projects are hitting the collective radar. For some students, nothing stimulates fear and anxiety like the prospect of having to work with people they do not know or facing the chance of losing complete control over a piece of their grade. For faculty, the fear of group dysfunction may be preventing us from using group projects at all. A recent Teaching Professor article provides some excellent strategies to consider.

In a study by Pauli et al. (2008), the authors describe the experiences of students in groups using the Negative Group Work Experiences (NGWE) questionnaire. They report commonalities among a large sample of psychology students in the following four areas: lack of group commitment, task disorganization, storming, and group fractionation. Below are some ideas for dealing with these common issues our students face when working in groups:

  1. Lack of Group Commitment – some students are frequently missing, unengaged, or unresponsive when contacted. Solutions: Do a group activity or two to make sure they get to know each other better and build relationships. Also design authentic tasks/assignments so students see the relevancy of their project to their chosen field. When all else fails, peer pressure from other members of the group may work.
  2. Task Disorganization – problems with diving up the work, not having clear focus, or trying to do everything last minute. Solutions: Provide some structure around how to organize the parts of the project and assign work. Have groups submit their benchmarks for each stage of the project with a timeline and check in with each group on their progress. You may even consider having a portion of the project grade on how well they organized the project and kept to their timeline.
  3. Storming – if brainstorming turns into a bigger storm than anticipated, students may argue, take sides, and refuse to compromise. Solutions: Discuss the value of conflict and what healthy conflict resolution looks like. Model this in your class. Take a break, assign a mediator, and make sure the conflict is focused on ideas and not people.
  4. Group Fractionation – This happens when group members withdraw or become excluded usually due to perceptions of ability or knowledge, ill-defined roles, or leadership. Solutions: Include descriptions of the behaviors required for each role, and consider using a survey before assigning groups that asks each student about their strengths (and weaknesses). Split students into group with their strengths in mind. You may even share these strengths with the group, so everyone has an understanding of who brings each skill to the group.

Students will appreciate the guidance and time spent on addressing group dynamics before they turn ugly. I have used similar techniques in my classes and students comment that having this type of direction would have saved them from previous group drama that didn’t end well.

What strategies do you use with group work to help ensure a positive experience for your students?

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One thought on “Power Up the Group Work

  1. In my communication classes where group work is required, I teach the class how to write group contracts. I explain that the contract is much like a course syllabus. Which is essentially a contract for the course.

    The first task for each group is to craft a “contract” that fits their needs, style, personalities and the assignment. They must agree to the content, type it up and each person must sign and provide their contact information. They keep a copy for themselves and provide me one as well.

    The contract gives groups the opportunity to establish their own norms and rules. Group members address their concerns up front and establish how they will handle “violations” and rewards. They usually address how they will communicate (Google Docs, email, GroupMe, etc.), how they will treat each other, how to address absences or unpreparedness and the like.

    The goal is not to eliminate conflict, as conflict is necessary for successful group work to happen. But voicing concerns, knowing the rules up front and agreeing on how the work will progress reduces much uncertainty and anxiety as they move through their project. I’d never dream of doing group work without it.


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