Monthly Archives: May 2019

But I HATE Group Work Part I: Getting group formation right

In the next series of posts, I’m going to tackle something that is close to my heart– as I recently finished grading 100+ individual assignments that reflected on group projects across two of my upper year courses.

I am struck by the number of reflections that start off with or contain the phrase something along the lines of ‘I normally hate group work, having had a number bad experiences in the past…’.  If I had to estimate, I’d say at least 80% of student reflections contained something along these lines.  And, by the way, whether or not they like group work is definitely not part of the prompt they are given to guide their reflections!

I find this somewhat alarming for a few reasons. One of these is student well-being. The number of students who follow up their ‘I hate group work’ statement with some kind of reference to how much stress it causes them is concerning.  Second, most (well designed) group projects are meant to improve student learning, both in terms of content and  the development of professional skills such as leadership and team-work.  That these learning outcomes are either not being achieved or recognized by students is something we should reflect on.

Finally, given the topics I currently teach (Conflict Negotiation, Peacebuilding, Human Rights Advocacy) I’m concerned that students’ initial and sometimes sustained reaction to group work is so negative.  Whilst of course they are there to learn content, which can be learned individually,  many of them aspire to work in these or related fields.  No jobs in these areas allow for purely individualized work.  None of the global issues about which they are learning  will ever be solved without extensive cooperation between individuals and institutions.  Indeed the following line appears in one of my syllabi in a prominent place:

 “One last note on group work:  this is a course on peacebuilding and conflict resolution”

I even make a note of reading this line out loud to the class on the first day, followed by a dramatic pause and a stern look towards the audience.  This often elicits a few awkward giggles, and several students have noted to me how this was actually really important for them to hear—how they were actually considering dropping the course when they saw it had group work, but this convinced them to stay.

Yet, the ‘I hate group work’ refrain persists.

In this first of post four posts on group work, I’ll explore some options on how to formulate groups in the first place– to try and ensure not only a better start, but a more productive experience for students (and therefore also a less stressful experience for instructors).  In my next three posts I’ll offer some further thoughts and advice on designing and delivering group work on issues that come up frequently in discussions with students and colleagues:  what to do about free-riding; preventing the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality; and some of my thoughts on grading and assessment.

Below I will describe the following options for group formation, and briefly reflect on my own thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses: a) Student Choice/No Instructor Input b) Student Interest c) Mixed Ability/Skills/Diversity d) Random Allotment

I should note that I don’t think there is one right way to ‘do’ group formation. I have used all of these in some way with varying degrees of success and failure.  For me, making a choice depends on the number/type/attitude of students I have in the room, the reason for choosing group work and my current workload.  What follows is simply a list of things to think about and consider regardless of which approach you choose.

Student Choice/No instructor input: This first options is probably most familiar to all of us.  How many times have we, either for informal class discussions or even for formal group assignments just told students to ‘get into a group and do xyz’.  Simple, straightforward—let your students make their own decisions with little to no direction.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  This does allow students to have greater ownership over the process.  It can increase their sense of agency and with a bit of instruction (ie giving them advice on WHAT to consider when forming groups), it can work very well.  Also, our students are adults and so many people feel that on these grounds alone they should have the freedom to make their own choices as it pertains to their learning, and indeed that there are lessons for students to be learned in terms of making their own  academic/professional decisions. To be honest it can also prevent, if things go pear shaped, them being able to ‘blame’ the professor–ie ‘If you hadn’t put me in such a crummy group or made me work with this student, I wouldn’t be in this mess’…

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  This system can also be exclusionary.  Perpetual nerds with no natural athletic abilities like me will remain scarred for life after a childhood full of being picked last for gym-class baseball, soccer, volley-ball  teams.  OK, I’m being melodramatic and I actually didn’t care.  I learned to love/own my bookishness at a very young age. But I digress.  In a classroom setting as people rush to get into groups based on either already existing professional/friendship groups or based on who they think are the ‘smart kids’ they want to work with—various groups of students will be excluded.  These include but are not limited to exchange students, transfer students, students who because of caring/work/chronic health conditions have not been able to be on campus as much/foster friendships within their programs, student who have struggled on a previous assignment for reasons out of their control and are thus deemed unreliable/unintelligent.  The list could go on.

I’m not saying student choice is NEVER an option to consider, and often times there are one or two super empathetic students who are actually on the look out for this and address exclusion without being asked. But, we can’t rely on these students always being present or fully aware of the exclusions happening in the room.  For this reason, I think there are things we should consider and steps we might want to take if utilizing this strategy  to prevent forms of exclusion in our classrooms.

Student Interest:  With this method  students are asked about their interests (for example in terms of project type if there are different projects to choose from or case study/thematic area of interest…).  Student groups are then created based along these interests/preferences.  In small classes this can be easily managed by having students email you.  In larger classes a google form or other survey tool might make it more manageable.  I usually ask students to tell me their top 2-3 interests in case certain a project/case study fills up faster than others.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  SPOILER ALERT: This is my favorite method to use for assessed group work. I really like this method, first of all because it creates student ownership over the process and therefor has many of the benefits seen in the ‘Student Choice/No Instructor Input’ option noted above.  Related to this, students come to the group all knowing that their colleagues also have a shared interest in the topic/project.  It can immediately reduce some of the anxiety around free riding (which I’ll blog about in a future post).  There is also an automatic ice breaker built into this model as once students get into groups one of the first things you can have them do  is discuss why they listed this as their preference. Shared interests and these personal narratives can also lead to quite strong professional-personal friendships—which I’d like to add, I’m actually quite shocked at the number of students who in their final reflections make note of this.  Related to this, and this is a whole other set of posts, I am shocked at how many of my 3rd and 4th years students also say they have not made many strong friendships within their classes.  Concerning, but I digress.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  It can be a lot of work in a large class as you try and ensure everyone gets their top choices.  If you ask students for their top choice(s) there will definitely be an expectation (rightly or wrongly) on their end that they will then get one of these choices.  In cases where certain projects or cases prove popular this can be very difficult.  You either have a massive jigsaw puzzle on your hands trying to get it all to work out—this  can be VERY time consuming if you take everyone’s preferences in at the same time.  Or, if you do like I generally do and go with a first-come-first-serve approach (ie first to get their preferences in get first dibs), popular choices fill up fast and then students who are late to the game  are disappointed.  In some cases (but not always) the last options to fill up (whatever is left) are not full of entirely committed students, and the benefits noted above are lost.

Mixed Ability/Skills/Diversity    This is admittedly a system I have never tried, but have spoken to colleagues who’ve had great success with this method.  One colleague has students self-assess their skills in different areas related to group work (research, writing, organization/leadership etc) and then tries to formulate groups that have a good mix of skills sets.  Other colleagues who teach in classes where there is a real mix of students for example, in different years of study, will try and create groups where there is a mix of students from different years and/or programs.   In classes where there is a diversity in terms of international v domestic students and/or nationalities, colleagues might try and create mixed groups in terms of nationalities/background of students.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  Diverse groups are often strong groups—with multiple skill sets and perspectives coming together to create dynamic/well rounded teams.  If done well/right, this method can increase the likelihood that each person feels that they have a unique role to play, whilst other team members model/mentor other skills sets or positions.  A diversity in perspectives can also encourage greater critical thinking and can increase the likelihood of an output that has balance, innovation and/or considers a range of counter-arguments.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  As with the previous model (Student Interest) this can be a lot of work as you either have to conduct a skill survey, or trawl through the class list trying to make decisions based on available data about year/program etc.  Students might also not like not having any choice in who they work with which can limit their sense of agency.  Further, if a student has self-assessed as ‘strong in XYZ’ and then is actually not strong in XYZ, it can somewhat defeat the purpose.  Students might also develop a ‘divide and conquer’ mentality—deciding to divvy up the work based on what THEY are good at or their perceived role in the group, leading to less than ideal learning outcomes and threatening the coherence of the project/task.  I’ll blog about this problem in a future post

Random Allotment: With this strategy the professor simply creates groups using one of several techniques that lead to randomly selected groups.  For example, when creating groups for my simulation of the Good Friday Agreement, I simply assign students Alphabetically (Last names A-D will play the role of the British Government, E-G the role of the Irish Government and so on and so forth).  I’ve heard other professors (in smaller classes) draw names out of hat, lottery style (for a bit of drama and excitement).

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  If done right, this can prevent the issue of exclusion noted above.  Though, see cautionary notes below.  This is also the simplest instructor led process to manage.  I myself use it for ‘low stakes’ types of group work not associated with grades and where diversity of groups/opinion/approach etc doesn’t matter too much.  Other colleagues feel this is a good model as it also replicates the ‘real world’ where you don’t get to choose your colleagues and where who you are working with on a committee/project can indeed be quite random.  In this sense, it can teach students important transferable/professional skills related to leadership, conflict management and team work that they will encounter in their future lives.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this: An exception to the ‘this can prevent exclusion’ argument above  (and one of my fears about the lottery style allocation in particular) is if students have a way of voicing (dis)pleasure over the assignment of a particular student to their group. Envision everyone cheering when Popular Student A’s name gets pulled out of the hat and there being zero response to Unknown Student B’s name being pulled.  Even if groups are assigned less publically, the kinds of displeasure that might be signaled by some students that we couldn’t possibly be aware of could be problematic for students already feeling marginalized.  Further, leaving things entirely to chance can lead to real forms of inequity in group work if one group finds itself made up of mainly strong students who breeze through, other groups being of mixed abilities, and some groups possibly made up of primarily struggling students.  In these cases the groups and individuals within them could have vastly different learning experiences (and, grades) that don’t reflect either our aims for the assignments nor each individual student’s true potential.

Student Experiences as Living Content: Auto-Ethnographic Reflection as an Alternative Assignment

At a recent International Studies Association conference, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel entitled ‘Social Justice as Experiential Learning:  Activism and Advocacy in the Classroom’. Although the panel was quite small due to a range of unforeseen circumstances, we benefited from an incredibly engaged audience (and a fairly large one for an end-of-day Friday slot!).  Productive conversations were had about the strengths, limitations, and cautionary tales related to exploring advocacy and activism in academic settings.  I’d like to thank my co-panelists on the day (Dr. Aggie Hirst, currently at King’s College London and Dr. Chris Rossdale, currently at the LSE and soon to start at Bristol University) as well as the dozen or so actively engaged audience members for their input (some of which is included below). They all really pushed me to think through some of my own assumptions and fears about teaching and activism.  Of course, any mistakes or controversies in what I say below are my own, as I reflect on the session weeks later…


A broad range of learning strategies that in some way integrated activism or advocacy into courses were explored. Some were deliberate and were a central feature of a course. For example, in some cases students were required to engage in advocacy/activism as part of their course work as a form of experiential learning on courses related to Human Rights.  In other instances, the class activities were more informal, simply asking students to reflect on things they have participated in/witnessed in their own lives related to activism, social justice etc in order to understand processes, cases or ideas that emerge in class.  For example, some of my co-panelists reflected on how students might be asked to discuss current strike action being undertaken at their university, or reflect on a time where they themselves pushed back against patriarchy (or watched others do so) as a way of really trying to understand the processes/power relations related to labor or gender relations.

Of particular importance were discussions around the reality that there are incredibly diverse political viewpoints within our student cohorts, and the need to respect/not-alienate students whose political opinions and beliefs about ‘activism’ may differ from our own and in some cases from the majority of other students. These issues seemed even more pertinent now than they have been in previous years of teaching with increasing polarization in society and on campuses.  This led to rich discussions surrounding the use of the terms ‘social justice’, ‘advocacy’ and ‘activism’ themselves, which can sometimes be misconstrued and/or misused in both academic and political settings.

The panel and audience explored alternative languages and frames which could be used to describe the types of things we are interested in having our students reflect on that are broader, less politically or ideologically charged, and thus potentially less alienating to students who neither see themselves, nor wish to be labelled as activists or engaged in social justice.  These alternatives terms included having students reflect on things they might do in their own lives to ‘encourage or work towards policy change’, how they are ‘active in the world’, or even just the reality of their ‘being in the world as members of society or a given community’.   These alternative phrasings have the benefit of allowing students to reflect on their own role in politics (whether big or small, deliberate or not) without faculty or their peers forcing a particular label on them or their experiences.  It also ensures that students who don’t believe their actions to be part of the ‘social justice world’ but still see their energies/opinions going to support political or social change in some way to find a place within discussions, course readings, and assignments and can similarly benefit from experiential learning.

Questions from the audience were raised in terms of how to assess student learning in these circumstances. Several ideas were put forward. I, myself, mentioned an auto-ethnographic assignment I have given to some of my students in the past.  There was interest in this, but alas, not enough time to go into extensive detail, and I promised to blog about it.  So, here we are.


Background & Benefits of Student Driven Auto-ethnographic reflection in a Peace Studies Context

First, I should preface this with the fact that in the course that I used this assignment, one of the weeks of the course examines a range of ‘critical methods’ where students complete a reading on auto-ethnography[1]. In a small seminar format, we discuss/explored the reading in more detail.  Ethnography is of course a specific method that is also sometimes mis-used (abused?) in our disciplines.  It is different from simply ‘observing’ and so care must be taken to also ensure students understand the difference between ethnographic methods/qualitative work generally and Ethnography.  Still, through this assignment, I hope to give students a sense of what auto-ethnography entails, its strengths and limitations and its utility in understanding their own position/actions in the world.

I’d also like to highlight what the students (and I, myself) got out of this assignment.  Student gains have been surmised from informal discussions and also the content of their auto-ethnographic reflections, but I am generalizing to protect their privacy.  First, from the student point of view it really allowed them (often for the first time in their studies) to ground their own experiences, in a formal written manner, in relation to course materials and concepts.   For some of these students, this assignment was a profoundly personal experience, cathartic even, insofar as it was the first time they had been given concrete scholarly tools to reflect on their own experiences of violence, their own activism/resistance, work-abroad, volunteerism and so on.  Not only did this help them learn the course material in a different/deeper/more profound manner, the personal impacts it had in some cases was notable (what one might call ‘the hidden curriculum’). I have also found that auto-ethnographic reflections allow students to be more analytically-critical of course concepts than they might feel able to in a more informal class discussion. As the written assignments are relatively private (only I see them) they feel safer to deconstruct and challenge ideas and literature based on their own lived experiences in the relative safety of this assignment.

From my point of view, I also have learned a great deal by allowing students to reflect on their own experiences.  It has helped me understand my (generally) younger students better. I like to think I’m still a ‘junior’ or early career scholar, but I am told that now that I’m 10 years post PhD I maybe need to reign that in. The issues, hopes and fears of my undergrads is often very far removed from my own and very different from what I remember being important as an undergrad.  It has improved my sense of empathy, but also provided insight into issues and cases that are more relevant to them that I can include in future courses.

Further, on a scholarly level, I’m of course well versed in the facts and dynamics around political opinions and group which are removed from my own interests and beliefs.  However, not infrequently, a student will write something auto-ethnographic about their experiences or political efforts with which I have no personal experiences with (only professional). And here, deep learning also occurs for me as I gain momentary insight into lived subjective experiences regarding a certain topic, as opposed to the more ‘objective’ journal article/book/policy documents from which I would otherwise assemble my knowledge.  I feel that some of these moments make me a better ‘peace scholar’ as it forces me to reflect on my own work and understandings of difference, negotiation, resistance, hybridity, agonism, and on and on.   In other words, allowing students to be producers of knowledge in the form of auto-ethnographic reflections has made my teaching environments more reciprocal.


Things to consider and cautionary notes

I think it also worth noting that if you hope to use this assignment—that there being a relationship of trust and reciprocity between you and your students is essential.  For the benefits above to accrue for either side (student or instructor), there needs to be a mutual understanding regarding the ability to be open and to have one’s privacy and vulnerability respected. At the same time students have to understand what is expected of them—that you are still required to hold them to a scholarly standard and that they may need to accept some criticism of the scholarly aspects of what is otherwise a very personal piece. To help achieve this,  I ‘modelled’ the auto-ethnographic approach by telling very personal stories regarding my doctoral research in Kosovo with my students, which I think was essential in helping them understand what auto-ethnography might look like.  Whilst talking about my research experiences, I linked it to debates from the reading and seminar discussion on critical methods.

The vulnerability I showed in this exercise also, I believe, allowed student to trust me more in terms of sharing their own stories.  This assignment also came at the end of term.  I’m not sure this assignment would work in a larger class setting or in any setting where I was unable to develop a good/trusting relationship with the class. I feel very fortunate to have created an environment in which (some) students feel comfortable exploring a wide range of ideas and beliefs with me in their assignments, and from these students I have learned a great deal about the more personal narratives of political beliefs and organizations of which I have limited personal and only professional knowledge.   I recognize that perhaps not all students feel this same sense of security of course, and can endeavor to do more.

Two further cautionary notes in relation to this assignments.  First, I am a firm believe that this type of assignment should be optional— for a variety of reasons, I believe students should, not be forced to explore their own lived experiences from outside of the classroom in writing with an instructor. In my courses, the auto-ethnographic reflection assignment has always been an option (in place of something more traditional like a term paper or case study portfolio). This relates to the second cautionary note regarding the emotional or psychological impact of this assignment type.  I encourage all students who plan to undertake this assignment to meet with me ahead of time so I can discuss this assignment with them and consider what (if any) supports they might need during and after the assignment is completed.

Marking this assignment also requires special care, not only in terms of it meeting the required ‘academic’ rubric—but also in terms of us as instructors providing feedback that is both academically rigorous whilst at the same time is supportive and empathetic to the students’ experiences.  My feedback on this type of assignment often requires more time as I have to not only explore the academic merits of the piece with the student (as a scholar), but also respond (as a human) to some of the quite personal reflections that do tend to come up in this assignment type.  It is not a type of feedback that can be rushed, nor is it formulaic as it can tend to be with other assignment types.  One should consider this in their assigning of similar assignments—the impact on our work load, both in terms of time and emotional labor is considerable.

What I give to students

Option ‘X’ Auto-Ethnography

For this assignment students will write a 3000 word piece which uses their own personal experiences as ‘data’ for exploring a course theme/topic.  Students may write about their own experiences living in community impacted by conflict, their own experiences in trying to build peace as an aid worker/volunteer/citizen or their own experience as a member of a resistance group/community.  If there is another personal experience that you believe relates to the course themes, please discuss this with Jen before beginning this assignment.

The assignment should not simply be a 3000 word description of your experiences.  You should consult the literature on auto-ethnography and read through a couple of examples of auto-ethnography to get a sense of what is expected of you.  You will need to connect your experiences to the course in some way (and thus some of the wider peace studies literature). Do your experiences provide illustrative examples of the peace studies literature?  Do your experiences challenge or require us to ‘re-think’ some of the peace studies literature?  Do your experiences suggest that new ways of thinking/categorizations/conceptualizations are required to help us understand what ‘peace is’ and ‘how we build it?’.  These are some of the questions you may want to think through as you consider how you will link your ‘data’ to the course.  This should also be a structured piece of work with an introduction, conclusion, and references.

If your narrative includes descriptions of other individuals, please be sure to anonymize these people in the text.  If you share any personal details of people who it would be difficult to anonymize (perhaps a family member), please be sure to get their permission to include them in the text.

[1] Reitan, RH (2015) ‘Paradoxical Peace: A Scholar-activist’s Auto-ethnography on Religious Pacifism and Anti-capitalism’ Globalizations, 12(1): 25-42.