Group work has become an essential in the undergraduate teaching toolkit.
When it works well, its benefits are significant. It can stimulate metacognitive skills, foster connection and widen exposure to new practices and ideas. Engaging actively in their learning, participants develop sought-after competencies such as negotiation, problem-solving, teamwork and evaluation.
But, like anything dependent on human interaction, it can also fail spectacularly. Pitfalls are plentiful, and include resistance, confusion, conflict, fear of criticism – and the reliance of some group members on others to do the work (known as ‘social loafing’).
So to help you deliver the best learning outcomes for your students, here’s your 10-point guide to facilitating group work:
1. Set expectations early, clearly, and preferably in writing. Define each group’s objectives and the details of the process, time limits and deadlines.
2. Ask students to let you know if they have an undisclosed disability or impairment which might make group work a challenge, so you can agree ways to address this in advance.
3. Minimise resistance. Nip any potential resentment in the bud by taking a proactive, positive approach and setting out the advantages of group work.
4. Lay the groundwork. Linda C. Hodges, Director of the Faculty Development Centre at the University of Maryland, recommends ‘scaffolding the practice of having students work together; start with small casual groups, provide icebreakers, create guiding questions for discussions, give students examples of language for positive discussion and civil disagreement…’
5. Monitor numbers. Avoid big groups and poor distribution by ensuring each group has between four and six members (considered optimum for small group work).
6. Consider designating roles. This can help reduce the risk of role allocation along the lines of gender or racial stereotyping. Groups also often work better when members have clearly defined roles, enjoying improved interaction and greater accountability.
7. Invite students to explore, identify and agree to standards of behaviour for group work, highlighting the importance of attentive listening, not raising one’s voice or speaking over others.
8. Work the room. Maintain an active presence by walking around the groups, observing, asking probing questions and clarifying points.
9. Rethink how frequently you use group work as a learning tool. Extroverts may thrive on it, but its repeated use can have a negative, draining effect on the introverts in your class. Consider giving students plenty of time to prepare their input and develop their ideas in advance. Read one introvert’s response to the popularity of academic group work here.
10. Encourage review. What may have seemed unstructured at the time can now be processed critically, and the learning distilled and shared. Invite students to evaluate their contribution, discuss group dynamics, feed back effectively to each other, and find ways to modify their approach in future.
Now’s a great time to reflect on the role of group work in your teaching. Gather student feedback, analyse learning outcomes, compare notes with colleagues and find fresh inspiration below to inform your practice.
Journal on Excellence in College Teaching’s series of PDF guides on small group teaching
Carnegie Mellon University’s ‘What are best practices for designing group projects?’
Cardiff University’s Dr Iain Mossman on dignity and respect in the classroom
University of Waterloo’s guide to making group contracts
Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice’s ‘Strategies to Improve Student Reaction to Group Work’