Effective collaboration is a foundational skill that is taught as early as kindergarten. By the time students reach college, one would think they would be expert team players. Unfortunately, any professor can tell you that’s not usually true. Students struggle to communicate competently, schedule meeting times, and manage conflict. This often leads to tearful office hour appointments or angry emails about slackers and alliances. So the following is advice based upon my experiences and research I’ve conducted regarding effective group work strategies for the college classroom.
Determine what type of group work will allow students to achieve the learning outcomes. Group work is not one size fits all. There are many forms of collaborative learning and each serves its own purpose. So first think about what you want students to accomplish from working together, then decide upon a method (such as team-based learning, peer instruction, or project-based learning)
Instructors, not students, should form groups. When students are allowed to choose their own teammates, they almost always (1) choose their friends and acquaintances or (2) choose people who sit near them. I don’t blame them; that’s the easy and comfortable option. But this often results in homogenous groups. Thus, especially for higher-stakes projects, instructors should strategically form teams that are composed of members who are diverse and who share common blocks of time to meet outside of class. This can be accomplished by administering surveys that address variables such as personality type, learning style, conflict management style, course-related knowledge and experience, habits, and schedules.
Discuss principles of effective teamwork. While students have been collaborating with peers for most of their educational careers, many don’t have a scholarly understanding of group dynamics. I’ve found spending a class period sharing the research on assigning group roles, establishing expectations, and managing conflict has improved my students’ success. If you don’t have class time to devote to such a discussion, provide your students with resources, such as handouts or links to websites that they can refer to as they work.
Require a team contract. For higher-stakes assignments, such as semester-long projects, have students write a contract that details expectations and consequences of violating those norms. During the team’s first meeting, I suggest students brainstorm all the things they hate about group projects then turn those complaints into a list of do’s and don’ts. I ask students to provide me with a copy of their contract that each team member has signed. This document can then be used by the group to mediate conflicts.
Establish a policy to deal with social loafing. I work hard to maintain a “no drama” environment in my classes. So I have a policy that outlines procedures and consequences for students who violate their team contracts. This policy has shown students that I will not (and they should not) tolerate slacking off. Whatever type of policy you create, make sure you require students to provide documentation of the contract violations and to meet with you separately. This helps to prevent unwarranted complaints or students “ganging up” on a teammate.
Require teams to provide you with regular progress reports. To identify problems early and to ensure students are not procrastinating, I require teams to update me biweekly. I ask students to identify a member of the team who is responsible for providing me with those updates either face-to-face or via email. This has helped immensely to address concerns and to steer students in the right direction when they’re faltering.
Ask teams to complete regular assessments of one another. An interesting meta-analysis published in Teaching of Psychology concluded that peer assessments within groups do not improve learning outcomes. I hypothesize that the typical way peer evaluations are completed is to blame. Often, instructors will require students to complete a cumulative assessment of their teammates at the end of the project. Perhaps they’re asked to distribute points or assign each team member a grade. But by the time a project is completed, students may have “checked out” and are less motivated to provide a thoughtful assessment (“the project is done; I don’t really care anymore.”). Also, this type of evaluation doesn’t allow the team to examine their dynamic while they’re collaborating and, therefore, eliminates the opportunity to make improvements. A potentially better approach is to first instruct students on the principles and importance of constructive feedback then ask them to complete periodic assessments as they work together. Perhaps at the termination of the project, students could write a letter to you reflecting on the evolution of the group.
Encourage students to use technology. One of the biggest complaints students have about group projects is finding time outside of class to meet. Many students have jobs, internships, and other extracurriculars that make matching schedules frustrating if not impossible. There are a multitude of technology tools that allow students to collaborate when not in the same physical space. Google Drive allows students to work together on documents, slides, and spreadsheets on any device that connects to the Internet. Google Hangouts, Blab, and Skype allow students to videoconference. And there are many collaborative whiteboard apps, such as Realtime Board. The availability of free software and apps really limits how often students can claim “we can’t get together.”
I hope these suggestions help you to help your students get the most out of collaborative learning. If you have other tips for effective group work, please share!
References and Resources:
Faculty Focus Special Report: Effective group work strategies for the college classroom: http://www.cincinnatistate.edu/online/faculty-resources/Effective%20Group%20Work%20Strategies%20for%20College%20Classroom.pdf
Major, C. H. (2015, Sept. 21). Choosing the best approach for small group work. Faculty Focus. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/choosing-the-best-approach-for-small-group-work/
Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2 (1), 9-34.
Tomcho, T. J., & Foeis, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39 (3), 159-169.
Weimer, M. (2012, Feb. 22). My students don’t like group work. Faculty Focus. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/my-students-dont-like-group-work/