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Making Group Work Real

By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

This Past Halloween, my university website featured some fanciful take-off books from the Goosebumps series. The books had humorous titles like Battery Life, Too Much Coffee, and The Return of the Forgotten Quiz. The one that most caught my imagination, however, had the title The Group Project. This gave me the chills. Isn’t the group project the gold standard way to engage students, to introduce real-world cases, to contextualize instructional concepts in an active learning modality? So since when did the group project become associated with student horrors?

The pedagogical pedigree of “group work” in the technical writing classroom is, of course, rock solid. Few would disparage the practice of breaking up a classroom into groups for a little social learning. I have always seen group work as oases from the stress of teaching and a chance to pass the learning along to students, but while I’m up at the front of the room tidying up my papers or tapping my pencil thoughtfully, the students may not see group work quite the same way.

Why Is Group Work Dysfunctional?

Group work is controversial among students. Maryellen Weimer, in an article in The Teaching Professor, claims that her students “don’t like group work.” She recites the top ten reasons why, and among them is “group exercises mean we do the work and the teacher doesn’t.” That’s not quite as revealing as “I can’t sleep during small group exercises,” or “I don’t like the people in my group,” but it points to something important that makes the practice look phony to students: it disingenuously offloads the learning onto the students.

Group work is not focused. One of the worst justifications for group work is the theoretical one. That argument goes like this: A lecture, as one-way communication, is tediously factual, and it overwhelms even the brightest student’s ability to file facts away for recall in a meaningful context. Classroom group work provides that meaningful context. Students value other classmates’ ideas, and to be effective in the group, students must articulate their ideas clearly. Doing so engages them with the ideas actively rather than passively. Students experience the ideas.

That experience, however, often seems to fall flat for lots of reasons. One being the inherent inequality in classroom group work. A former student at Vanderbilt said that some groups get a head start, because they already know one another. Or someone takes charge. Or no one takes charge. Domination or chaos. The student found both extremes to be “time-wasting.” Chances are that productive, two-way conversation was limited in either case.

Equally interesting is the criticism this student made of another strong argument for group work: it fosters workplace communication or people skills. Teachers will sometimes justify group work therapeutically, claiming that disgruntled students will later thank them for forcing them to be social. Many students consider themselves to be pretty social already, and when you get right down to it, group work does not mimic workplace communication. Work meetings have subtle constraints of the workplace that you can’t mimic by turning your desks to face one another.

Techniques to Improve Group Work

What can a teacher do to make group work work? Weimer claims that “Teacher design and management of group work on projects can do much to ensure that the lessons students learn about working with others are the ones that will serve them well the next time they work in groups.” Weimer suggests ten techniques to improve group work.

  1. Emphasize the importance of teamwork
  2. Teach teamwork skills
  3. Use team-building exercises to build cohesive groups
  4. Thoughtfully consider group formation
  5. Make the workload reasonable and the goals clear
  6. Consider roles for group members
  7. Provide some class time for meetings
  8. Request interim reports and group process feedback
  9. Require individual members to keep track of their contributions
  10. Include peer assessment in the evaluation process

The design and management solution is also recommended by a number of the scholars reviewed in R. S. Hansen’s 2006 article on the benefits and problems with student teams in the Journal of Education for Business. Hansen explores the literature on group work and comes up with a basic rationale for the technique: employers like it. Says one of Hansen’s sources, employers like group work because it teaches teamwork competencies and skills.

Technical communication teachers take to this rationale like believers to a tent meeting. Whatever looks like it’s responding to employer requirements is automatically in the teaching bag. When you look closely at it, however, this rationale has its logical flaws. For one thing, what about the gap between course content and professional skills? If I’m teaching document organization, for example, who said professional group skills should be an additional learning outcome? The problem may not be in the management and design of the group work, or the lack of teaching on how to do group work. The problem is that if I stick my head out of the classroom and look down the hall, I find that all the other teachers are trying to do the same thing.

Why the persistent dysfunctionality of student group work? My suggestion is that if it is phony from the start, no amount of design and management can overcome this flaw. More design and management for group assignments that don’t really need to be group assignments make them even worse. I have tried it, and I get the stink-eye from my students every time. Now they have to report on progress where there really was no progress. Now they have to take on roles but they don’t really need to. Now they have to assess their peers when they just can’t come up with anything positive about slackers. It leads to what Martin Buber calls “inauthentic communication.”

Take the Open Approach

My suggestion for making group work work is to ditch the micro-management approach and try to make it more transparent and authentic. Self-forming teams of students who share self-defined learning needs. Face it, students are social already, and the workplace will cover “how to do team work” in their first week on the job. Let them get the message there. Restore the classroom as a learning, not performing, environment. It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to make sure you get this point,” and it’s another to ask, “Who wants to learn more about this?”

It helps to see group work as a failure of lecturing. The professor who can sense confusion is on the right track to learning. Nobody wants to make the students feel stupid, so making sure they get it should be a top priority.

Here is an example of how this approach can work. In the course of the day, look for troublesome ideas, student roadblocks, bottlenecks in understanding. Definitions are a good start. Terminology or meaning is always something students like to be clear about and often don’t quite get. So terms like reflexive modernity, rhetorical effectiveness, and systems thinking are great candidates for a quick group discussion and clarification. “Who wants to make sure they understand this idea?”

Find these potentially confusing ideas and ask students if they would like to take some time to share this, or apply it, or otherwise try to make it clear to themselves. Try telling students that if they feel they understand something, we’re moving on. But if they are confused, lost, befuddled, or otherwise not getting it, sharing their questions with other students can really be helpful.

The benefits of this approach may be that:

  • Groups are self-forming based on real learning outcomes
  • Students get to develop their person skills more authentically
  • Fewer slackers who get credit for just sitting there
  • Reporting of real accomplishments
  • Spontaneous and genuine reporting of progress and learning

Group work is here to stay, but the design and management approach isn’t the only road to making it less horrific than it already is. Taking an open approach to group work by letting students self-select based on instructional needs could make all the difference.

If your students shrink in fear of group work, maybe it’s time to re-write the book.

Resources

Hansen, R. S. (2006). Benefits and Problems with Student Teams: Suggestions for Improving Team Projects. Journal of Education for Business, 82:1, 11–19.

Weimer, Maryellen. (2017). “My Students Don’t Like Group Work,” The Teaching Professor, 12 July 2017. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/for-those-who-teach/my-students-dont-like-group-work/.

1 Comment

  • Perhaps part of the problem is that in the workplace, groups working together rarely are at the same level of experience. Leadership generally falls on those with the most authority or experience, although sometimes it depends on natural leadership ability. When I think of my group work experience in college courses, it doesn’t seem much like what I’ve experienced in the workplace.

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