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My colleagues consistently encourage me to use group work in my classes to facilitate student learning. I teach a variety of classes, including labs, large and small lecture-based courses, and seminars. In my labs students usually work in groups, and I started to include group exercises in my non-lab classes. However, I am tired of student complaints. Strong students complain that they do work for other people and that their grade is “unfairly” affected by other members of the group. On the other hand, weaker students complain that they do not get to learn, since the stronger group members do everything for them. I frequently see that some of the groups break down, resulting in individual students working by themselves. Other groups use the “divide and conquer” strategy, resulting in poor learning of the material overall. In addition, the quality of the patched-together reports prepared by those teams varies greatly depending on who was responsible for what part. The atmosphere in the class quickly becomes tense, and each of my new group-work assignments is always met with a universal sigh of disbelief and frustration: “More teamwork…?” What am I doing wrong?
—Eager to Stop Group Work
You are not alone. The symptoms you describe are not unique to your classroom, and many of us have faced them in one way or another. Group work can take various forms and can become quite a drag on a class if not implemented well. Thus group work remains a topic of discussion in secondary and higher education circles. Educators have used various approaches to group work, and extensive research demonstrates benefits from implementing group discussions and group projects in the classroom. When used correctly, group work can engage students in collaborative learning, fostering their interactions as a goal-driven team, which can have a tremendous effect on their understanding of content and development of communication and problem-solving skills.
Being able to work effectively in a team is one of the critical skills identified as necessary in undergraduate education. One of the VALUE rubrics from the Association of American Colleges & Universities is designed to assess student skills in team environments (www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/teamwork). Most innovative approaches to biology education emphasize the need for the teachers to create classroom environments where students can take responsibility for and work toward their learning. Student interactions can take various forms, from “think-pair-share” activities in a large lecture hall to a student team developing a grant proposal or conducting authentic research in the laboratory. Whichever form and shape group work takes in your classroom, you might want to consider questions about several aspects of the process when developing your strategy.
Do you give students sufficient time to think through the problems and talk about them? Are the questions you ask students open-ended and sufficiently deep to stimulate the discussion and difficult enough to challenge even high-achieving students in your class? Research on group work indicates that group work is more likely to be successful if the task is designed for positive interdependence, meaning that all students in the group need to work together to complete it. See more approaches and ideas about the tasks you make your groups complete in the papers by Kimberly Tanner.1,2
Do you allow students to work in self-selected groups or make groups yourself? It seems easier to just let students pick their partners. However, this approach frequently backfires, since in selecting their groups students gravitate toward roommates and friends. In such groups students sometimes socialize more than work. More importantly, this approach frequently leaves out minority or less-popular students, who either start working on their own or feel like outsiders in their groups. Maximizing diversity in your groups is usually a good approach. Students of different backgrounds, majors, interests, and academic skills bring different perspectives to the group. The Comprehensive Assessment of Team-Member Effectiveness (CATME; http://info.catme.org) is a resource developed with support from the National Science Foundation that allows instructors to form and support group work in their classrooms.
Individual and Group Accountability
Do you have a structure that ensures that everyone on the team is responsible for his or her learning and that the team needs to produce a final product that will be assessed for its quality? Instructors choose various approaches to achieve this (see reference 1 for some ideas), from assigning a strict role to each member of the group to implementing peer-assessment of each of the group members.3 The CATME tool has a built-in system for peer assessment of the individual team members’ work as well as the work of the group as a whole that can be used for formative as well as summative assessment. Whichever approach you use, your classroom structure needs to encourage, demand, and assess participation of each of the students in the process.
Group Work Skills and Approaches
Do your students know what it means to build an effective team? This is a point that is most often missed by faculty and where group work most often goes awry. Spend time with your students discussing working in teams, help them set expectations, and give some support in resolving conflicts. Consider designating roles so that every group member is responsible for some aspect of the work and is expected by the team to act in that capacity. Build in opportunities for reflection and feedback and encourage students to think about how they and their peers are contributing to their group’s work. Such an approach can help students reorganize their group if necessary and also reveal problems and tensions early on, allowing you to intervene.
Students working in well-functioning groups do indeed learn better and are frequently more satisfied with their class. Even more importantly, this approach helps include all students, from shy to outgoing, from high achievers to the ones who struggle, regardless of their standing in the class and popularity among their peers. These suggestions are just a beginning. Structuring and restructuring group work in your classroom is a difficult and sometimes frustrating process, but I hope you are willing to try some of these approaches.
On a personal note, I found that calling my groups “teams” and my group assignment “team projects” and being transparent with the students about why they work in teams really helped with students’ attitudes and helped overcome “group hate.” Here is my favorite quote about group work, and I hope you will find some inspiration in it as well: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
—Irina Makarevitch (EdComm member), Hamline University
1Tanner K (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE Life Sci Educ 12, 322–331.
2Tanner K, Chatman LS, Allen D (2003). Cooperative learning in the science classroom—beyond students working in groups. Cell Biol Educ 2, 1–5.
3Wenzel TJ (2007). Evaluation tools to guide students’ peer-assessment and self-assessment in group activities for the lab and classroom. J Chem Educ 84, 182.