With some work and intentionality, we can begin to chip away at the negative group work narrative and reframe it in a positive light.
Who loves group work? No one apparently. Yet, we continue to push for its use in our classrooms as we all, teachers and students, grumble about our dissatisfaction with group projects. Breaking the “we hate group work” cycle is imperative. We want our students to have positive experiences in their groups so that they grow as people and are prepared professionally.
Why do Group Work?
Fully admitting my own tribulations with group assignments (as a student and a teacher), I would argue that we have good reason for implementing collaborative learning activities in our classrooms. Research shows that, in collaborative learning environments, students feel a sense of ownership over their learning (Cockrell, Caplow, and Donaldson 2000), and classroom research indicates that these active learning techniques, like collaborative learning tasks, are highly effective in the classroom (Prince 2004).
Adding further value to group assignments, educational research is beginning to show the effect collaborative learning tasks have on creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces. As students collaborate, their openness to diversity increases (Loes, Culver, and Trolian 2018). The National Association of Colleges and Employers includes teamwork as well as equity and inclusion as core competencies that employers look for in college graduates (National Association of Colleges and Employers 2021); therefore, we would be doing our students a disservice if we avoided groupwork.
I must also admit that I understand the pain points that we all have felt in collaborative spaces, but I contend that collaborative learning is not the problem. We, as educators, have made some assumptions about what students have learned about group work. Many of us have, perhaps optimistically, not planned for when group work goes awry, and we are faced with the inevitable and somewhat opaque task of grading collaborative assignments.
These structural issues reinforce the “we all hate group work” narrative. The good news is that we can break this cycle; we just need to meet students where they are.
A lot of us use group work in our classrooms, and we all have likely participated in group work when we were students and even now as professionals. Though, I wonder how many of us have been explicitly taught how to work in a group, and I am not sure that many of us take time to do so in our already jam-packed semester. Bosworth (1994) suggests that we must take the time to teach, demonstrate, and model collaborative skills and to give students chances to practice and reflect.
Orient Your Students
In their book, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) outline methods for properly preparing students for successful group activities. They suggest orienting students to the collaborative process. This begins with a clear explanation of the assignment and the expectations for students and having the group set ground rules. In their groups, they can ponder what is beneficial and what is harmful to the group’s process.
After they have taken some time to think about the process, the group can sign and/or create a group learning contract. This contract could be created by the instructor instead, but having students participate in the creation of this contract can make for great student buy-in. In this step, students will be agreeing to policies, procedures, and penalties regarding the collaborative project (Barkley, Major, and Cross 2014).
During the group formation process, it may be helpful to have students assign roles. You can engage learners in conversations about their strengths and interests so that the group can assign members to roles that clearly delineate responsibilities for the project. It may also be beneficial, depending on the length of the project, to have roles rotate so that students get experience with different parts of the project and with different roles within the group (Barkley, Major, and Cross 2014).
Considering How to Grade
Perhaps one of the biggest sticking points is that we must grade these projects, and we must find a way to do so fairly. Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) offer some insights for preparing our evaluations/assessments for our collaborative learning tasks. As instructors, we have some decisions to make regarding the assessment of our students’ groups. Should our assessments be graded? If graded, should we base it on the group’s work or on each individual’s work? Should we assess the product, the process, or both?
We know that grades can be a motivating factor for students, and this can create tension in collaborative classroom environments. This tension intensifies when a student feels a group member is not doing their share of the work.
We can mitigate some of this tension by providing clear grading guidelines, especially if those guidelines create a mechanism for individual accountability. Determining the weight to put on the group vs the individual is a tough call, but Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) provide guidance for this decision that I find useful.
For low-stakes group assignments/tasks, you can emphasize the group grade, and for higher-stakes group assignments, you can emphasize the individual grade. Students who place high value on grades may be less anxious if they know that 75% of the grade, for example, is based on what they accomplish and not on the group product.
Ok, we’ve done all the recommended planning, oriented students to the group assignment/task, and we have explicitly stated how the students will be evaluated, but the group has still hit a snag. Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) provide some possible mechanisms for handling these conflicts. I’ve highlighted a few below with some of my own commentary, but if you get a chance to check out the book, which I recommend, they dedicate an entire chapter to solving common group problems.
- Provide models. These can be groups that are working well, or you can have explicit conversations with the class about what makes for a good group dynamic. Some students need examples of helpful group behaviors and expectations. These highlights can help them reflect on their own contributions, and they may work to change their behavior for the good of the group. Going back to the premise of this article, we cannot assume that students understand best practices for group dynamics. We must remember that even an eager student can throw off a group’s dynamic if they talk over everyone else, and they may not even realize that they are dominating the discussion.
- Allow the group time to work things out on their own. It may be tempting to dive in and fix the problem and some students may want you to do so, but we deny them an opportunity to develop critical collaborative skills as they navigate how to bring the group together effectively.
- Troubleshoot with the group. Get them together and discuss what is working, what is not working, and help them develop a plan. You may also find it necessary to have individual conversations with students. Some students do not recognize that they are doing anything counter to the group dynamic and might need some explicit instruction on how to better mesh with the group. These conversations should not be punitive or accusatory. Ask probing questions to see what might be getting in the way of success and help them plan out next steps. You might even build this into the process of the assignment. Take some time during class to sit with each group to discuss how the project is going. Be sure to get ample input from as many members as possible and leave the door open for someone to approach you individually if they are concerned about the group but feel as though they cannot discuss it openly.
- Reform groups. This obviously creates a unique challenge to the course, especially if already in a time crunch. But this may allow for new flourishing groups and in the end, students may be better off for it. You may need to rethink the exact product that students submit, especially if the grade is mostly based on process. But offering this kind of flexibility might be paramount to success.
List adapted from Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014)
It is not the students’ fault, or ours for that matter, that we are stuck in this loop, but with some work and intentionality, we can begin to chip away at the narrative and reframe it. Of course, there will always be some hiccups in the group process. But we should remember that “Groups take time to mature, and some of the most valuable learning experiences come from learning to work through difficult disagreements” (Barkley, Major, and Cross 2014, 85).
I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Is group work the problem or have we been approaching this all wrong?
Barkley, Elizabeth, Claire Howell Major, and K. Patricia Cross. 2014. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bosworth, Kris. 1994. “Developing Collaborative Skills in College Students.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 59 (Fall): 25-31.
Cockrell, Karen, Julie Hughes Caplow, and Joe Donaldson. 2000. “A Context for Learning: Collaborative Groups in the Problem-Based Learning Environment.” The Review of Higher Education 23, no. 3 (Spring): 347-463. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2000.0008.
Loes, Chad, K. C. Culver., and Teniell Trolian. 2018. “How Collaborative Learning Enhances Students’ Openness to Diversity.” The Journal of Higher Education 89, no. 6 (April): 935-960. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2018.1442638.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. 2021. “Career Readiness: Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce.” Last modified March 2021. https://www.naceweb.org/uploadedfiles/files/2021/resources/nace-career-readiness-competencies-revised-apr-2021.pdf.
Prince, Michael. 2004. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research.” Journal of Engineering Education 93, no. 3 (July): 223-231. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x.
Shane Lanning is an Instructional Consultant in the Division of Online and Strategic Learning. Their academic background includes an MA in Linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), which they earned at Ball State, and they are currently pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. They previously taught as an Instructor of ESL in the Intensive English Institute where they developed a passion for international students and internationalization efforts; moreover, Shane strives for an inclusive teaching practice and is interested in exploring how to best achieve community in a rapidly evolving educational landscape.