Many students have had little experience working in groups in an academic setting. This article will help students who are working in group. It also provides teachers (and students) with tips on assigning group projects, ways to organize groups, and what to do when the process goes awry.
A Note to Faculty
Some reasons to ask students to work in groups
Asking students to work in small groups allows students to learn interactively. Small groups are good for:
- generating a broad array of possible alternative points of view or solutions to a problem
- giving students a chance to work on a project that is too large or complex for an individual
- allowing students with different backgrounds to bring their special knowledge, experience, or skills to a project, and to explain their orientation to others
- giving students a chance to teach each other
- giving students a structured experience so they can practice skills applicable to professional situations
Some benefits of working in groups (even for short periods of time in class)
- Students who have difficulty talking in class may speak in a small group.
- More students, overall, have a chance to participate in class.
- Talking in groups can help overcome the anonymity and passivity of a large class or a class meeting in a poorly designed room.
- Students who expect to participate actively prepare better for class.
Note: If you ask students to work in groups, be clear about your purpose, and communicate it to them. Students who fear that group work is a potential waste of valuable time may benefit from considering the reasons and benefits above.
Large projects over a period of time
Faculty asking students to work in groups over a long period of time can do a few things to make it easy for the students to work:
- The biggest student complaint about group work is that it takes a lot of time and planning. Let students know about the project at the beginning of the term, so they can plan their time.
- At the outset, provide group guidelines and your expectations.
- Monitor the groups periodically to make sure they are functioning effectively.
- If the project is to be completed outside of class, it can be difficult to find common times to meet and to find a room. Some faculty members provide in-class time for groups to meet. Others help students find rooms to meet in.
Forming the group
- Forming the group: Should students form their own groups or should they be assigned? Most people prefer to choose whom they work with. However, many students say they welcome both kinds of group experiences, appreciating the value of hearing the perspective of another discipline, or another background.
- Size: There’s nothing hard and fast, but if the group is small and one drops out, can the remaining people do the work? If the group is large, will more time be spent on organizing themselves than on productive work?
- Resources for students: Provide a complete class list, with current email addresses. (Students like having this anyway so they can work together even if group projects are not assigned.)
- Students that don’t fit: You might anticipate your response to the one or two exceptions of a person who really has difficulty in the group. After trying various remedies, is there an out – can this person join another group? work on an independent project?
Organizing the work
Unless part of the goal is to give people experience in the process of goal-setting, assigning tasks, and so forth, the group will be able to work more efficiently if they are provided with some of the following:
- Clear goals: Why are they working together? What are they expected to accomplish?
- Ways to break down the task into smaller units
- Ways to allocate responsibility for different aspects of the work
- Ways to allocate organizational responsibility
- A sample time line with suggested check points for stages of work to be completed
A Note to Faculty and Students
How to Get Start for Group Work
- Groups work best if people know each others’ names and a bit of their background and experience, especially those parts that are related to the task at hand. Take time to introduce yourselves.
- Be sure to include everyone when considering ideas about how to proceed as a group. Some may never have participated in a small group in an academic setting. Others may have ideas about what works well. Allow time for people to express their inexperience and hesitations as well as their experience with group projects.
- Most groups select a leader early on, especially if the work is a long-term project. Other options for leadership in long-term projects include taking turns for different works or different phases of the work.
- Everyone needs to discuss and clarify the goals of the group’s work. Go around the group and hear everyone’s ideas (before discussing them) or encourage divergent thinking by brainstorming. If you miss this step, trouble may develop part way through the project. Even though time is scarce and you may have a big project ahead of you, groups may take some time to settle in to work. If you anticipate this, you may not be too impatient with the time it takes to get started.
Organizing the Work
- Break up big jobs into smaller pieces. Allocate responsibility for different parts of the group project to different individuals or teams. Do not forget to account for assembling pieces into final form.
- Develop a time-line, including who will do what, in what format, by when. Include time at the end for assembling pieces into final form. (This may take longer than you anticipate.) At the end of each meeting, individuals should review what work they expect to complete by the following session.
Understanding and Managing Group Processes
- Groups work best if everyone has a chance to make strong contributions to the discussion at meetings and to the work of the group project.
- At the beginning of each meeting, decide what you expect to have accomplished by the end of the meeting.
- Someone (probably not the leader) should write all ideas, as they are suggested, on the board or on large sheets of paper. Designate a recorder of the group’s decisions. Allocate responsibility for group process (especially if you do not have a fixed leader) such as a time manager for meetings and someone who periodically says that it is time to see how things are going (see below).
- Save some time toward the end of the first meeting (and periodically as the group continues) to check in with each other on how the process is working:
- What leadership structure does the group want – one designated leader? rotating leaders? separately assigned roles?
- Are any more ground rules needed, such as starting meetings on time, kinds of interruptions allowed, and so forth?
- Is everyone contributing to discussions? Can discussions be managed differently so all can participate? Are people listening to each other and allowing for different kinds of contributions?
- Are all members accomplishing the work expected of them? Is there anything group members can do to help those experiencing difficulty?
- Are there disagreements or difficulties within the group that need to be addressed? (Is someone dominating? Is someone left out?)
- Is outside help needed to solve any problems?
- Is everyone enjoying the work?
The goal is to produce as many ideas as possible in a short time without evaluating them. All ideas are carefully listened to but not commented on and are usually written on the board or large sheets of paper so everyone can see them, and so they don’t get forgotten or lost. Take turns by going around the group – hear from everyone, one by one.
One specific method is to generate ideas through brainstorming. People mention ideas in any order (without others’ commenting, disagreeing or asking too many questions). The advantage of brainstorming is that ideas do not become closely associated with the individuals who suggested them. This process encourages creative thinking, if it is not rushed and if all ideas are written down (and therefore, for the time-being, accepted). A disadvantage: when ideas are suggested quickly, it is more difficult for shy participants or for those who are not speaking their native language. One approach is to begin by brainstorming and then go around the group in a more structured way asking each person to add to the list.
Examples of what to say:
- Why don’t we take a minute or two for each of us to present our views?
- Let’s get all our ideas out before evaluating them. We’ll clarify them before we organize or evaluate them.
- We’ll discuss all these ideas after we hear what everyone thinks.
- You don’t have to agree with her, but let her finish.
- Let’s spend a few more minutes to see if there are any possibilities we haven’t thought of, no matter how unlikely they seem.