Patch Eighteen – The Greater Good

Group Work

Maxine Mann – Dean of the Schools of Business, Trades & Technology at Fleming College

Be prepared for the groans, the eye-rolling, the “Please, can I do this on my own ?” or the “why can’t we pick our group?”

Oh the joys of group work!  And of course, you will tell the students that they will be working in groups “in the real world” and not choosing their team mates and that this will help them in the future and… they still will be very unhappy.

Can you blame them? The issues you faced in group work, as a student, haven’t changed. There is always someone who doesn’t pull their weight, someone who then tries to compensate for that, someone who doesn’t care or worry about deadlines, someone does his/her work in a different manner from what the group had decided would be the process, someone who completely misunderstood the outcome, someone always on the phone during discussions, and then to have to share the final mark…

As well, our students are placed in groups in so many of their classes, scheduling meetings to do work together becomes problematic, even with technology. The group fails to function well as they can barely find time to meet face-to-face, an exercise in frustration, to use that old cliché.

This is not to discourage you from placing students in groups for projects or assignments but rather to think back on your own experiences with groups that did function and how you might replicate that in your classroom.  Remember that although humans are social animals, we don’t necessarily have the skills to function well in groups with deadlines and objectives. We like ‘social’ when it means coffee and sunshine on a patio. We all need some help with this process.  Here are some suggestions that will support your teaching while balancing the thorny dilemma of understanding why students dislike groups yet knowing the value of group work:

  • Be clear that group work is the best method to achieve the learning outcomes for that class. Don’t use groups as a way to decrease your marking load or because it “seems like the right thing to do.” What will the students gain from the experience? How does the work reflect the course’s objectives? Are you prepared to spend the time to reinforce the value of group process and make their group work experience a successful one? Students will know whether the group aspect of their class adds value or not; be sure you believe it is valuable.  If working in groups on an assignment truly is the best way to learn, then onto the next steps.
  • Spend time creating a class charter, a paradigm for working together that leads to success. Start your classes with a charter. What are the expectations students have of you and what do you expect of them? I have heard comments such as “Class starts on time and ends on time”, no cell phones, etc.  Don’t be vague. Be specific. To say “people need to respect each other” is lovely, but what does that actually look like?  For example, listen when someone is speaking. Get into the nitty-gritty, write it down and re-post it so students can see it again; e.g., on your learning managements system or at the start of each class on the whiteboard.
  • Now with charters being a norm, have each group develop their own charter. These do not need to be complex but do need to set out the parameters of the group and, yet again, must be specific. How often will they meet face-to-face? How often will they connect through text or e-mail or other means of communication? How will a member inform the group if that person is falling behind? What is the final goal of the assignment /project? Yes, completing it is a valuable goal but do they as a group want a mark of 70 on the overall project? 80? How that might that be achieved? What other goals do they have; e.g., being done three days in advanced to practice the presentation at least once? How will conflict be resolved? (See Conflict Resolution below.) Ensure every member gets a copy and you get a copy of their charter, too. This is your back-up if there are future issues. Try to convince them to keep their charter short, 1-1.5 pages in length. This forces the group to be succinct and makes the charter achievable.
  • Do regular check-ins with groups and not just “How’s it going?” Set aside time to meet to assess where they are and whether it appears they will reach the goals. Your interest reinforces the importance of the group process.  Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and make several suggestions for them to stay on track. After all, you are modelling the skills needed for future group success. Don’t allow students to give you vague answers either. “We’re pretty close” doesn’t mean a thing! Does that mean 50% completed? 70%? Or nothing has been done at all?  This isn’t an interrogation but specific questions allow them to be clearer regarding next steps. Ask each student what he/she is responsible for in the group and his/her progress. You can ask  them to show you their work– copies of research notes, rough drafts of PowerPoints, whatever is part of the final assignment.
  • Give some class or seminar time to work on the project or assignment. Remember many student groups fail because they struggle to find a time to meet. By allowing some time, you are saying the project matters and it will give you insight into how the group is functioning. Yes, they can go to the library or another location to work but make sure you do not let this become a time to leave. For example, maybe you could specify that they return in 30 minutes with an update of what was accomplished in that time, which they present to their class. Make the process of being a group important and students will start to take it and you seriously.
  • Be prepared to resolve conflict. How many people do you know who are good at resolving conflict? Students fear this the most: they fear being disliked, they fear having to face, in another class, the person with whom they’ve had a conflict, or being labelled as troublesome or worse in social media. Many mature students feel resentment as the younger students look to them to resolve conflicts. I once had a mature student say to me ”Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I like dealing  with this stuff anymore than they (her younger peers) do.”
  • Your final feedback should provide specific feedback to the group regarding the final assignment and your perceptions of their group process. This will be key as they move into yet more groups throughout their education.
  • Keep a sense of humor and enjoy the process. What is more fun than seeing a group that gets into sync with one another? As students advance in group work skills, they become much more like great jazz bands; they and you will be able to spend less time on the process and more time on the creativity groups can generate.

Conflict Resolution

Discuss conflict right from the day you ask them to write up their charters.  Be clear that conflict will be a natural part of the process. Have the charters outline how conflict will be resolved.  Focus on what steps will be taken to resolve conflict within the groups, but make it clear you can be called in if necessary.  Under what conditions will they ask for your consultation? Again, you are there to model how conflict can be resolved and, if not resolvable, to suggest other options.  I often hear from Faculty “In the real world, they would need to work it out” , but in the ‘real working world’ when groups stop working and tensions create inefficiencies and sometimes unpleasant scenes, supervisors and managers do step in.  That is your role in this case.

Even in the best classes, a group will fall apart. There are so many reasons for this! It can be personality conflicts, a student who is not completing work due to lack of interest or life issues, conflict from other classes, someone said something nasty on social media — you name it, it will happen! Have back-up plans in mind; e.g., could a group now consist of only two people? How might you mark that assignment versus a group of five? Could there be marks for an analysis of the group’s break-down?

Most importantly, know thyself! If you are someone who does not like conflict, feels overwhelmed by it, lacks the confidence or skills to intervene, this process will be difficult.  And worse, students will be able to tell very quickly that you are not able to help them and you will lose them; watch your class attendance quickly go down. Be sure to get some training in conflict resolution or consult with other Faculty and ask their methods are for resolving in-class conflicts.

Remember why groups are important.  Groups aren’t just “Because in the real world, you’ll work in groups.”  Groups are powerful ! As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of people of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world;  indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Featured image: “Teamwork” flickr photo by byrawpixel https://flickr.com/photos/byrawpixel/34034856490 shared into the public domain using (CC0)

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