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Grappling with Groups

I’m a fan of the power of social learning. When people get together (and the process is managed right), the outcomes of a negotiated understanding can be powerful.  However, in designing learning, working in groups has some real negative perceptions and realities. The open question is: what to do?

The problems are well-known. As my kids complained, on group projects some team members will reliably slack, letting the most driven student do the work.  Even with a commitment, there can be differences in working style: getting started early versus preferring to do it under pressure.

Some things have been tried. When I assigned group projects, I told my students I expected them to do equal work, and would grade accordingly. If it didn’t end up being the case, they were to each write up a report on what each team member did, including themselves. Others require this, regardless, and that sounds like a smart way to make concrete a requirement for contribution.

One thing to be addressed is invigilation. Is the work being tracked in any way?  If they’re working in a collaborative environment that tracks contributions via versioning or some other way, then there’s a trail of work that can be scrutinized. Extra work, to be sure, but it’d serve as a tie-breaker if there was some question about contribution.

Another issue is support for working in groups. When I first assigned group work, it became clear that they didn’t know how (?!?!).  So I wrote up a little guide to doing group work, and those problems subsided.  Working together is a skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted. There should be some explicit statement of expectations if you can’t determine whether there’s reliable prior experience. (Certainly, it seems that the teachers weren’t providing guidance or oversight, in the case of my kids.)

As an aside: make sure the students know why you’re asking them to work in groups. I’ve learned that learners will be much more willing to undertake what you assign if you explain the rationale that justifies your choice!

Then there’s them question of just when group work makes sense. Given that the value-added benefit is the negotiated understanding, it would make sense to do that when the material is complex, and there’s a risk of an individual taking a unique, incomplete, and or imperfect understanding. At times when you want to assess an individual’s ability to deliver, you wouldn’t want a group project!

There’s also the issue of the nature of the task.  Are you just having them come to a shared understanding in representing their thinking (e.g. a response to a question) or actually produce a work product of some sort (a video, presentation, report, etc).  If you can get what you need with less effort, you shouldn’t assign a more complex project.

Which brings up the issue of the scope of the work. I would expect that the more imposing the total amount of work is, the more it would invoke those with time or effort concerns to be lulled to the lazy side.  Keeping the scope small might contribute to a greater willingness to participate.

Breaking up the deliverables is one way to manage student effort. If you have interim deliverables, it helps manage the process and the time.  Certainly, early in a curriculum, you could provide this scaffolding (and make it explicit), and then gradually hand off responsibility for the learners to internalize the self-management. (Meta-learning!)

Breaking it up can also manage to address the contribution. If individual submissions are required before group ones, you can at least have the learners having had to contribute thought before sharing and creating a greater understanding.

Finally, there’s the issue of group work in an independent schedule. In a cohort model (scheduled timetable) it’s easy, but otherwise, how do you do it?  If there’s ‘critical mass’, you can have learners arrange to meet with anyone available. If there’re more, you could even have them indicate working style preferences: quick, early, what media channels. Otherwise, it’s more challenging (or a non-issue, just don’t do it).

There are lots of issues and potential solutions for addressing group work.  I can’t say I’ve found an easy solution, despite having wrestled with it. I think it’s important, so I’m curious what you’ve tried and found out!

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