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.