Does Group Work Really Work? Six Strategies for Making It So

by Dawn on January 28, 2013

human-65921_640Drawing on the work of Etienne Wegner, I strive to foster a “community of practice” in the classroom, one in which each class member feels a sense of belonging and gains a sense of meaning through a shared identity and set of common experiences. I’m fairly certain that you, too, envision a classroom in which the questions and concerns of the one become the driving force of the many, in which all 30 or 180 group members are engaged in a shared passion for the (re)construction of a certain concept or the (re)solution to a certain problem.  I’m also fairly certain that you, too, have experienced those class sessions during which groups focus more on last night’s The Office episode and less on the task at hand. 

So, how can we better facilitate effective group moments in the classroom? Here I offer six strategies you might consider adopting in order to improve group work in the classroom:

Create Common Goals  Whether you, as instructor, establish the goals of a project or you allow the groups to design their goals, time should be dedicated to ensuring that the purpose and expectations of group work are clear; expected outcomes for a day, a week, and a quarter should be outlined clearly at the onset of any group activity (this reminds me of Brian Greenwood’s most recent post on effectively framing course activities).

Bond and Build   Whether inside or outside the classroom setting, encourage students to develop a sense of belonging by interacting socially and fostering a real sense of trust among their groups; team guidelines should be devised and groups might even create a resume of the team’s skills to build more strongly their team identity (thank you, Lisa Nicholson, for this excellent idea!).

Establish Specific Roles   Whether you select groups or have students self-select, students should determine who will play what roles in the group setting; for example, one student might serve as the group coordinator while another serves as the recorder or timekeeper, and others might serve as information seekers/givers, opinion seekers/givers, evaluators, elaborators, procedural technicians, and harmonizers. 

Norm and Perform  Once the group identity and the roles within have been established, the group should spend some time outlining their plans for reaching their goals; doing so as a group ensures  that each member is on the same page in terms of the tasks at hand.  Once activities are normed, members can set forth to accomplish their tasks.

Manage Conflicts  Frustrations are sure to arise in any group setting, due to disagreement amongst members or an uneven division of work.  If a harmonizer was identified among the group, then that individual can work towards resolving conflict perhaps by hosting a crisis clinic in which group members actively listen to one another and brainstorm ways to resolve conflict.   In most cases, students in the group should be encouraged to settle their differences without instructor intervention; such efforts help increase students’ communication and teamwork skills.

Review and Revise  I saved this one for last because I think it holds true both at the student and instructor level.  Groups should be required to review their strengths and weaknesses, to identify opportunities for growth and the threats to such growth.  As instructors, we should regularly engage in such self-assessment as well.  It is essential that in higher education we remind ourselves and others to re-envision our day-to-day practices, always in an effort towards mindful, transformative moments.  Group work can be, just as teaching and learning is.

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