Changing perspectives on group work

I’ve noticed that students change their opinions about in-class group work over the course of their four years in college. During the first couple of years, most of the students I have worked with are not big fans of group work. When I’ve asked them why, many have said that their peers are not the experts, so they can’t learn anything from them. Many had experiences in high school where their group members didn’t contribute to the project and they ended up doing it all themselves. They often believe that group work is a waste of time. Groups will just kind of do minimal lip service to the activity you’ve set out for them. It’s pretty clear that these students are just biding their time, waiting for the activity to end and for the professor to tell them what they should have learned during the task.

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You can see this during student presentations. The audience members vary in their body language. Some will sit attentively, perhaps even jotting a note down now and then. Others will just sit passively, with a blank look on their faces. Still others seem engrossed in their laptop and you wonder if they might be trolling the internet or checking Facebook or Instagram. A few don’t even hide their boredom, but seem to snooze a little. I always feel sorry for the presenters. Of course, students need to learn how to give an engaging presentation and their peers often are the guinea pigs as they practice their skills. (It’s hard for me to stay awake and engaged sometimes!)

I’ve had some class sessions where the groups are nearly silent, with most staring at their notes or handout, not even looking at the other members of their group. This kind of group phenotype is much more common among first or second year students.

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In contrast, in classes with mostly third and fourth year students, a transformation often occurs. Groups are animated, with each member contributing to the mix. The group members take notes on what each other says and there is the kind of give and take that shows each is respecting and even learning from the input of the other. While the quality of student presentations still varies (and seniors will sometimes tell me that they would much rather have me present instead), the audience members take notes, seem to pay attention better and try to extract meaningful material for their own learning.

How can we improve the student experience during group work during those first years?

  1. Compose the groups yourself. Assign students to the groups based on their performance in class. So, have a talkative, prepared student, a talkative, less prepared student and a quiet student in the same group. Perhaps the quiet student will feel more comfortable and will begin to open up. Have different groups through the term, so everyone in class gets a chance to work with everyone else.
  2. Assign specific roles to each group member. One can be the “reporter,” given the job of reporting out to the full class the results of the group activity. One can be the scribe, taking notes, or drawing diagrams. Keep track and make sure each student gets to experience each role over subsequent class sessions.
  3. Give students some guiding questions to prepare in advance of the group activity. Then, after the group activity, the students can turn in the answers as a homework assignment.
  4. Link the group activity to events or concepts that are of everyday interest. For example, if you want your groups to discuss aspects of a difficult concept like evolution by natural selection (the biologist in me!), you might want to ask each student the evening before to find an example they have learned about previously and found interesting.
  5. With younger students (first or second year), I have found that the group activities need to be more concrete and specific to get conversation going. In addition, crafting activities or group work where students bring in some personal interest (like a favorite organism, or personal experience) really grounds the group and helps them generate discussion.

If your students have some good experiences during their first years, they will learn that their peers are smart and can contribute to their own knowledge.  They will learn that they are also valuable resources for their peers. By scaffolding group work in the first couple of years, your students will learn to value working with others in more sophisticated ways in subsequent years.

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What ideas have you tried?


One thought on “Changing perspectives on group work

  1. These are really great tips for teachers to use when assigning group activities. I think collaborative work is one of the best way to encourage students to be engaged in their learning. However, there always the occasion where you’ll have some students relying on their members to do most of the work and they do very little or nothing to contribute to get the task done. That’s how I discovered that assigning students specific roles in a groups is one of the best way to get all the students to participate. I grade students on lab performance which is assigning students a group grade base on the group carrying out the task together. They have to rely on each other to complete the task. When they are assigned group roles, it’s amazing how they look after each other because they all want to get the same grades and don’t want to be blamed for bring their group grades down. So much get done and they really do help each other out and not keep the answers to themselves.

    I also think your tips on giving students some guiding questions to prepare in advance and linking their group activities to concepts that interest them is great. It certainly a way to get them more involve in the conversation or activity if they have a bit more background knowledge of the concepts.

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