Ah group work. Every student’s nemesis. A lot of teachers don’t like it either because we know how much students hate it and because rarely is it less work for us in spite of having fewer projects overall to manage. What is it they say about hell being other people? And yet we assign group work over and over because we know it *can* have value. The trick is how to help students experience / see that value in the context of your class (and not just hope it all comes flooding back to them when they’re sitting in their workplace conference room confronting issues of leadership and accountability). The internet abounds in advice on successful group work in the classroom. I bet your teaching and learning center / school / department runs occasional workshops on the subject. My own approach has been disorganized at best and a rather slow reckoning over many, many years of adjunct teaching. The advice I offer below mimics some conventional wisdom on the subject, and I do not consider myself having “arrived” at a terminal point where all my student groups work harmoniously toward the same goal every time. I am constantly tweaking to see what might work a little better in the next iteration. That being said, I have a few tips that might help if you find your group work assignments are bombing every time.
- Facilitate Bonding Outside of the Group Work Assignment
One of the rookie mistakes I made as a new teacher was holding no space to encourage students to bond with one another before the group work. In most cases, they didn’t even know their classmates’ names before the group work. This is not a promising start, and it is one of the reasons it was so hard to do group work last fall over Zoom. The students did not have a lot of chances to speak privately with one another – to bond – and to come to a place of understanding and respect from which they might develop a good group dynamic. That’s why we have things like icebreakers in PD, offsites, and retreats. A team functions better if they know even a little about the people they’ll work with. It goes without saying that helping students learn one another’s name is a good first step (it’ll help you too). Nothing pleases me more than walking into a class that is bursting with personal conversations or watching them leave together, still talking.
2. Define Roles and Responsibilities
Use a spreadsheet or document to help students assign roles and responsibilities to themselves. You might scaffold what kinds of roles are “typical” for a group of this type to help them see their options or you could let them decide what roles there ought to be. The goal is to have them agree, before any work is done, who is responsible for what. This helps with accountability and takes some of the pressure off of students who are afraid they will be judged based on their peers’ performance instead of their own.
3. Facilitate a Means of Communication
Yes, they can go into the LMS and find the “email” tool and send each other emails that way (bleh), but trust me when I say that it will all go more smoothly if they have another mechanism to stay in touch. It can be as simple as emailing each group so they have a group email chain that they can use or a spreadsheet where they can share their preferred emails/phone numbers. Some groups, if given the choice, will set up their own methods like groupme or slack channels. I leave it up to the group, but I do make them agree on one method or another so they know where to look for one another’s messages.
4. Make Time in Class for Group Work
One of my other rookie mistakes what not allowing enough class time for group work to happen (assuming some amount of it will happen outside of class). In the case of my current classes, I set aside the last 15-20 minutes for group work, which might seem like a lot, but it has been invaluable. Trust me when I say that they could always use more group work time – not less. All the slack channels in the world don’t make up for the chance to communicate face to face to make a decision, get a quick update, or show someone something. At the end of every class session, I ask them to articulate (or write down) each member’s next step so it is clear what they should work on in the time between class periods.
5. Anticipate Issues
There’s always something and that’s the rub. There will always be a group that malfunctions a bit: A group member that disappears or never responds. A dominant personality who takes over every single decision and activity. A contest of wills that seems like it will never be resolved. It helped me to reframe these frustrations (in my own mind and then with the students): To know that difficulties arise is to take some of the pressure off (myself and them). To know that I will help them navigate the issue, that no one will be unfairly punished for someone else’s bad behavior, and that we are all human with limitations that they (and most of us) are still figuring out. I help them anticipate issues so that when they happen, they know how to handle them and so they aren’t surprised when they happen.
Here in comp studies we make a big deal of metacognitive writing, but my experience confirms that this is an integral component to solving for the issue I outline at the start of this post: helping students realize the value of their experience in the here and now. After many years of struggling with group work, I now include a reflection component which helps me see the details I might not otherwise have access to in their group experience and which helps them remember what they did, how it went, and why it might have longer term significance in their lives. This reflection doesn’t have to be written (hello multimodal options!) or even formal (it could be a class-wide reflective experience), but I highly recommend including it in some way, shape, or form. Most other groups have some such thing…a survey, an after-action report, a review. Not all of these options have the value we want them to have depending on how they are constructed, but they do have the potential to unpack the value of the group experience to the leader and to the group members.
As I wrote above, I don’t claim to know all the answers or to even have figured out the best way to facilitate group work, but I do know that these six tips make it easier and more fun for all of us. Group work doesn’t have to be literally the worst.
What advice would you add to this list?
Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).
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