If there is one thing university students hate to do, it’s group work. Worse still, it’s the best students who hate it most! Why? They will tell you it’s because group work is inefficient, it’s slow, it’s hard, there are too many freeloaders, and grades don’t represent their individual performance. And then there are problems with leadership, cliques and unfair division of labour. All these objections are valid, which is why they should be dealt with before assigning group work to students of any age.
Group work is an important component of students’ educational experience. They must learn to plan, to cooperate, to problem solve, to deal with conflict, to manage their time and to produce a quality outcome. Real world stuff.
Let’s bear in mind that students are not born with the skills needed for this real-world endeavor. Part of their educational experience is to prepare them for these demands, which they will encounter in various forms throughout their lifetime.
Anyone who is familiar with cooperative learning will know the importance of these principles because they are the sine qua non of effective group work. They include:
- Control assignment to groups. Allowing friends to work together can be problematic – not only for the friendship but also for the students who are not part of the clique.
- Group work involves two components: Task (the assignment) and Maintenance (the interpersonal functioning of the group). Before giving students the details of the assignment, they need training on how to function as a working group. Guidelines and practice should enable participants to give one another feedback on their behaviour and contributions to the group. This will help them deal with inequities, slackers, leadership problems and a host of other group-related problems as they arise.
- Include individual accountability into the evaluation process. Hard work and valuable contributions should be recognized and rewarded. A system of peer and self-assessment help to ensure fairness and to convey that marks are earned, and not given.
- Meet with each group before the assignment or presentation is due. Help them to discuss their progress and to examine their difficulties. Simply leaving groups to their own devises will usually end in failure.
- Make their task meaningful. Someone other than the teacher should see the product of their labours.
- If students are presenting to others, give the audience specific tasks. Keep them involved! Nothing is worse than watching the rest of the class sleep while another group is presenting. One suggestion is to assign different tasks: Identify the main ideas, Formulate 2 questions for the presenters, Describe 3 strengths and 3 suggestions for improvement, etc.
- Finally, review the semester and help students to reflect on their progress, their accomplishments, and the skills they have attained, which will help them be more competent and confident in the future. There is no sound sweeter than well-deserved praise!