In group work, students work together as a team. They collaborate. Working together is essential. In one way, students acquire knowledge by working together on something; in another way, learning to better work together can be a goal in itself in group work.
When to opt for group work?
Research agrees: group work is an effective and efficient way to teach students certain things. But what exactly does group work teach the students? Check if your course unit has any learning objectives that students best achieve by working together in a group. For example:
- (meta) cognitive goals: actively listening to and thinking along with fellow students, reflecting critically on their own understanding, identifying misconceptions, clarifying confusion, exposing conflicting statements, summarising and explaining topics in own words, developing, adjusting and following up on plans, etc.
- cooperation skills: communication, management, leadership, etc.
- social skills: giving feedback in a non-threatening and supportive way, taking into account the suggestions of others, etc.
Does your course unit have these kinds of learning objectives? Then group work is obviously a good option. But remember that group work is, above all, a collaborative task. That means that students must work together to deliver a product; therefore, the work cannot be split randomly amongst group members and cannot be carried out by one person without the input from other group members. So think carefully: does the assignment generate useful collaborative tasks that will lead to learning? Or is it only a time-consuming task that makes it difficult for students to consult with each other without adding any value? Group work will then result in disengaged and dissatisfied students.
How to design group work?
As a lecturer, determine the following elements before starting the group work. That way you get a good picture of the group work and make conscious choices. Then you clarify your choices to the students.
Start with clear objectives
- What do your students need to know and be able to do once they’ve completed the group work? See above for examples of common learning objectives in group work. Check out the course competencies of your course unit and translate them to concrete, clear objectives for the group work. Achievable goals, authentic problem statements and appropriate complexity increase students' motivation to actively participate in the group work.
- Based on the objectives, determine what the task should look like and what resources the students need to receive. Avoid free assignments: they facilitate free-riding behaviour. Also, use these objectives as a basis to develop the assessment format and criteria. After all, the assessment method determines the way the group functions. Read more about how to assess group work.
- Finally, remember to clearly indicate on the course sheet how the marks for end-of-term and continuous assessments are calculated and what portion of the exam mark they carry. Always mention on the course sheet that as lecturer-in-charge, you are ultimately responsible for the final grade of the group work. For example, if it is really necessary, you may deviate from the mark given by others (e.g., fellow students or external parties) or from the pre-arranged calculation key (e.g., if, according to that key, each group member should get the same mark). In such a case, always provide sufficient justification.
Decide how to organise and divide the groups. Also, determine the size of the groups.
Format of the groups
Make a considered choice between possible group formations: jigsaw, the master system, interdisciplinary group work, complementary group work, project work, parallel-group work, problem-based learning... How group work is organised has an influence on what students learn during group work, e.g., endurance, ways to deal with conflicts or to build knowledge collaboratively.
Any competition between the groups can be motivating and stimulating. Also give each group a clear identity, for example, by assigning a different research topic to each group. Both elements promote a team spirit.
A group of four to six people is ideal. According to the Ringelmann effect, the greater the group, the lower the individual performance.
If you choose larger groups, make sure that individual contributions are visible to avoid free-riding behaviour. For example, ask students to keep a logbook and to draw up and submit an allocation of tasks, follow up in the interim, organise peer feedback or assessment, etc. You can also give students roles which may vary throughout the group work. Examples are:
- organisational roles such as chairperson, reporter, equipment manager, timer, mediator, etc.
- substantive or field-specific roles as a customer-manager employee, pupil-parent-education minister-director-teacher, builder-architect-contractor, lawyer-accused-judge-civil party-prosecutor, etc.
Consider forming random groups. For example, students should learn to work with people whom they do not know very well. That in itself can be an educational experience, but it is also recommended when students have to judge each other in group work and you want to minimise the impact of friendships.
For heterogeneous groups, if possible. Heterogeneity can mean:
- differences in intellectual skills, prior knowledge, etc.
- differences in task-related skills, interpersonal skills, knowledge of group dynamics, etc.
- differences in areas of interest, balance between men and women, etc.
- Heterogeneous groups are a powerful tool for students to learn to deal with differences and to learn to exploit the added value of diversity. A heterogeneous group creates a variety of new perspectives that stimulates thinking.
Do not change the group composition during an ongoing assignment (unless it is part of the group formation, for example, a jigsaw). If different assignments are offered in a course unit, change the group composition with each assignment. That way, students are more motivated to take on different roles within the group processes and connect with different group dynamics.
How to supervise group work?
Provide interim feedback. Students generally find that very meaningful. Feedback is motivational as it provides students insight into their own learning process and functioning. In group work, especially when it comes to long-term assignments, it is advisable to organise interim contact moments with the different groups.
If you are the evaluator of the group work, it is better not to guide the group work yourself. Leave the guidance to other lecturer(s), assistants or external persons. Also schedule different feedback moments. There are different forms:
Scheduled contact moments
A weekly contact moment is especially relevant for students who participate in group work for the first time. A rigid follow-up motivates and lowers the threshold. In the beginning, leave enough room for the students to ask additional questions about the assignment. Towards the end you will notice that the contact moments are more focused on the content. Ask the students to write a report on the contact moment after each meeting. That is an added value for both the supervisor and the students. Writing down agreements facilitates later follow-ups as you can refer to them at a later stage. Depending on the assignment and the experiences of the students with group works, you can also choose to provide only one or a few contact moments, rather than one a week.
Supervision and intervision
In supervision and intervision, you have a process-oriented conversation with less focus on the content of the task. When that conversation takes place under the guidance of a supervisor (read: counsellor), there is talk of a supervision interview. When the group is composed of equivalent interlocutors, there is an intervision conversation.
In the case of consulting credit, each group is entitled to a predetermined number of hours of guidance. Whenever they are stuck, groups can make an appointment with a supervisor. By limiting the consulting credit, you encourage students to think for themselves and actively look for solutions.
What are the different phases of group work?
The instruction phase
During this phase, you explain the assignment to students: What is involved? Why did you choose group work?
Info about the assignment
- Introduce the topic, activate prior knowledge and evoke interest in the topic and assignment. This can be done, for example, by presenting a lecture, organising a study visit or inviting a guest speaker.
- Explain the assignment and provide instructions on the working method. What method(s) can students handle for the assignment, how much time can they spend on certain phases, what roles should they distribute amongst group members? The least experience students have in collaboration, because, for example, it has not yet been brought up in the programme, the more guidance you offer as a lecturer.
- Clarify what is expected from students in terms of the assessment. What is being assessed and how, and what are the assessment criteria and instruments? What are the assessment points and what are the (interim) deadlines? Who are the assessors?
- Also, indicate what the guidance will look like. Who can the student approach with questions and when? Who can they contact if they don't find a solution for an unproductive group member?
- Provide time to deal with students' questions about the assignment. It is not recommended to change the assignment during the process. Take any issues with you to the next time you organise the group work.
Info about working together
- Specify why collaboration is necessary for the assignment and what its added value is. If learning to work better is an objective of the assignment, clarify it to the students. What collaborative skills should students develop?
- Encourage students to put a plan of action on paper. This plan includes how they want to approach the task, who carries which responsibilities, what their short-term, interim and long-term objectives are, the minutes of the meetings, etc.
- Allow students to get acquainted with working in groups by, for example: giving a small assignment in which each student plays a role, providing training in meeting techniques or applying a practice case study, etc.
The implementation phase
In the preparation phase, you’ve already determined who will give guidance and when. During the implementation phase, guidance is task-oriented, then relationship-oriented, depending on the stage the group is at. At the start of the group work, task orientation will prevail, but do not lose sight of the relationship orientation.
Interventions for taks-oriented guidance
Answer questions from students and steer the group where necessary. Depending on the level of students and the experience in group work, you can provide relevant resources, give references or guide the students in their research.
Interventions relationship-oriented guidance
- Often students don't know how to work together and that is also something they need to learn. By creating a setting during guidance moments that promote interaction, you teach students how to have a greater impact on the group’s performance. For example, make sure that several students can voice their opinion or occasionally ask questions around the group. Watch out for cross-talking and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
- Observation of groups can also provide input for relationship-oriented guidance. Give students feedback on their way of working together through a review. Especially if collaboration or social skills are part of the objectives of the assignment, such a review is relevant.
- Finally, during a guidance moment, you can also ask students to rate themselves, each other and the general group functioning.
The reporting and assessment phase
Finally, students need to report on their process and product, so that you can evaluate both elements as a lecturer. This reporting and assessment can be done in different ways. Learn more about how to assess group work.
What are the points of interest in group work?
How do you deal with dysfunctional groups?
In group work, problems such as free-riding (piggybacking), social loafing (the individual contribution decreases as it becomes less visible) or other (social) conflicts between group members. By making conscious choices when you design the assignment, you can largely avoid these problems:
- An authentic problem statement with clear and achievable objectives increases the motivation of students.
- A well-thought-out group composition ensures that individual contributions from each group member are necessary and visible.
- Appropriate guidance and monitoring ensure that you can detect and resolve problems early.
- An adequate assessment takes account of the contributions of all group members. For example, consider the group process, a group presentation, the attitude of students, the individual input, peer assessment in which students rate each other, etc. Learn more about how to assess group work.
What do you do if, despite the above measures, students indicate that there is conflict amongst each other that they cannot solve by themselves as a group? Here are some tips:
- Intervene in relationship conflicts, not in constructive conflicts. In the case of relationship conflicts (e.g., interpersonal contradictions, tensions and hostilities...) productivity of groups can decrease very quickly. Allow constructive conflict relating to task-related aspects. This stimulates discussion, promotes a critical view of problems and lead to better decisions. Conflict-free teams have the risk of becoming apathetic and stagnating.
- Don't ignore the signal. It is advisable to intervene as a supervisor. If not, the productivity of such groups will decrease significantly.
- Avoid splitting up the group. Instead, listen to the students' complaints and especially, check what the problem is by talking to all group members. Take on a neutral position so that the group members can solve the conflict and continue to work on the assignment constructively.
- Dig deeper into factual and concrete information in discussions, filter emotions from the conversation. Ask about the distribution of tasks and how it is working out for the group members. Don't be guided by the version of one part of the group; talk to all group members. Always obtain the objective facts to decide which steps to take to move forward.
- Solutions for group conflicts can often be found in a change of role distribution, the clear demarcation of the sub-assignments and responsibilities of the group members, individual guidance of (a) group member/group members, etc. What solution do the students themselves propose?
- Don't feel compelled to give students an immediate answer when students don't find a solution or propose a doubtful solution. Solutions such as excluding a group member or dissolving a group can have major implications. Ask the students for a moment of reflection and tell them you will get back to them later with an answer.
- Dissolve a group only if there is no other option.
- Only deviate from a group mark or calculation key if there is no other option. By mentioning on the course sheet that you as lecturer-in-charge remain ultimately responsible for the final mark of the group work (see also UGent test principle 15), you can, if absolutely necessary, deviate from the mark given by others (e.g., fellow students or external companies) or from the proposed calculation key (e.g., if, according to this key, each group member receives the same mark). As a lecturer, always ensure you can justify the final grade.
Information above based on the work of the Universiteit Gent. VU Amsterdam made small amendments and additions to fit with the VU Amsterdam context.
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