Monday, April 12, 2010

Group Work

One of the big liberal arts goals things is that students should learn to work well in groups or teams. It's also something employers say they want of new hires coming out of colleges. And it makes sense. I know I appreciate it when my colleagues pull their share of the cartload of work and when they help make coming to work pleasant rather than not.

And so in our classes, we instructors try to give our students experience working in groups.

Now, I don't know that we teach them how to work in groups. Do we? I haven't really thought about it. Should I give a little introduction to working in groups and say something about keeping in touch, communicating, recognizing that other people will get sick or have other problems that make being flexible vitally important? Hm. Okay, I'm not sure what I'd say or how, but it's something to think about. Does anyone out there actually teach students to work in groups?

One of my classes is doing a group project this semester. And my first year writing class does regular group work, especially for peer revision sessions. (Now that I think about it, I do guide peer revision groups more than groups in upper level classes.)

The thing is, on any peer revision day, at least one person will be absent which means rearranging some (since I've probably already made arrangements for the person out for a band or athletic trip), and then another will come in 20 minutes late, and blah blah. And for any class doing group work, at least one group will have some serious problem along the way.

This semester it seems to be that a student is ill a lot, and so not meeting with the group or doing work or whatever. And the others are frustrated. And he's frustrated and ill.

I need to figure out a more flexible strategy for dealing with the student who gets sick and doesn't participate in group work. What do you folks do for the group and for the student?


  1. I've never figured out a good way to deal with this, either. Like you, I feel like I ought to be teaching them more about how to work in groups, but I don't even know how to do so. And a lot of my students have complicated lives: toddlers who need child care, learning disabilities that make it very difficult for them to give their peers useful feedback, that sort of thing. (It was way easier when I was in grad school at a university where most of the students were traditionally aged and living on campus.)

    The other problem is varying levels of preparation and commitment to the course. I feel like the students who care about their grades and are capable of doing high-level academic work always, always end up getting shafted when they're in a group with someone who doesn't. But you can't just match all the C and D students with each other, because then it's like the blind leading the blind. I don't know what to do about it.

  2. Anonymous2:58 PM

    Each year, one of our small group communications' profs does a workshop on how to integrate group work into the classroom. It's extremely useful, and each year I get something new out of the training. Perhaps you can seek out an expert like that?

    Not that it solves ALL the problems, alas, but I usually get a few good tips.

  3. I actually have a grading rubric for the students to fill out on one another. In addition to my standards, I ask the students to add their own rules and punishment to the rubric. Their grades on each other count for a percentage of their final grade in the class.

    At the beginning of the class, I give them a photocopy of a chapter called "Speaking in Small Groups" from Beebe's Public Speaking Handbook. This handout tells the students how to take leadership roles in group interactions.

    Hope this helps!

  4. As a parent, I've seen my kids doing so much group work it astonishes me. When I tell them about my education, where every grade I earned was my own, they are so jealous. My youngest daughter is fed up with always seeing herself and the other hard working kids continually paired with kids who sit back and let them do all the work. SHe feels like these other kids are getting a free ride off all her hard work.

    Just the two sense of a kid raised in the catholic school system in the 60s.

  5. I do a group work assignment that I really like in one of my lit classes. The basic contours of it are this:

    1) Each group member is assigned a specific individual job within the group. Together, it's a complete assignment. But the individual roles matter (i.e., one person can't just do the whole project).

    2) The grade for the assignment includes two portions awarded by me, and one portion awarded by the group members themselves. My two portions are first a grade for the whole group (so how the entire assignment came out) and an individual grade specific to each student (based on their role in the group). The students then evaluate both each other and the group's performance as a whole, and those evaluations are averaged to give a grade to students from their peers. (And yes, I use a rubric to show students what the various portions are "worth" in terms of their own grades.)

    I think the above is a strategy that allows the assignment to teach them how to work in a group. They see how the parts come together to form the "group" assignment, but they're also getting credit for their individual role (so nobody is doing all the work while others slack or feel steamrolled and left out). It makes transparent what's supposed to happen in the assignment, while at the same time it's clear that a student can boost his/her individual grade by performing well on the task for which he/she is responsible (which typically makes the entire group perform at a much higher level).

    While I get where Margaret is coming from, I do think that well-placed group assignments can really help all students (both great students and less great ones) to learn more. However, *effective* group assignments take LOADS of planning on the front end (in my experience) and they need to have a direct connection to the individual work that students will submit - otherwise they fail.

  6. Oh, and one last thing in response to Margaret's comment: for me, if the strong students are picking up the slack for the weak, those strong students are failing at effectively completing the assignment, too, even if the assignment comes out great. The point is not only to have a great finished product: it is to have students work collaboratively to achieve that finished product. In other words, if the best students do all the work, they don't know how to work effectively in a group any more than the slackers do. If I allow that to happen, then I'm not teaching any of them well.

  7. The best peer-review group I participated in while in college was arranged to take place outside class time at each student's own convenience. The course was a creative writing course that required multiple drafts of each of the 4 papers assigned during the term.

    Each group had a folder in which to leave their papers in a box in the library. Students were responsible for getting to the library sometime between class sessions and reading and commenting on each other's drafts. Groups remained stable through multiple drafts of the same paper and changed when a new topic was assigned. At the end of each paper assignment, group members graded each other on their peer review as well as on the quality of the other students' writing.

    This method may not have taught us much about working cooperatively, as we weren't all working together to complete one project, but it did teach us to give and receive criticism. Knowing that our criticism would be graded encouraged us to go beyond the basic friendly critiques found in many writing courses and search for ways to help each other improve our writing.

    Thoughtful critique is an important skill that I have taken with me as I have moved into the work world. I think I am well-equipped to particpate thoughtfully in meetings thanks, in large part, to the "group work" that I did in that writing course too many years ago. I often sit in endless meetings wishing my colleagues had learned something about useful contribution!