by Amanda Reilly
Working in teams is an important part of being an effective learner and employee, yet students from high school through professional schools tend to groan when teachers assign a team project. How can teachers foster positive attitudes before, during and after group experiences?
“It’s not about loving the group work; it’s about developing the skills,” said Dr. Maryellen Weimer, professor emerita at Penn State Berks and the keynote speaker at the 2015 spring seminar of Simmons College’s Center for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Weimer, a renowned authority on effective college teaching, presented on successful methods for encouraging effective student group work. She said that although professors typically encourage their students to be “self-directed learners” (rather than “groupies,” who depend on others to learn), educators still must cultivate rewarding group experiences so that students can be productive in a variety of educational and professional scenarios.
Dr. Weimer detailed several ways in which teachers can facilitate student group work:
- Focus on the details. Early in their work together, group members must delineate expectations, clarify roles, understand each other’s work styles, and commit to how they will work together. When group members establish their own group norms, they lay a solid foundation for their work, such as a group member “bill of rights” – what the group has a right to expect from each member.
- Maintain an ideal size. What group size is most effective? Dr. Weimer argues that the ideal group is small enough for all members to share their opinions and large enough for diversity of views. A group with three members often does not possess enough diversity of thought and resources; in a group of six or seven members, some members may remain silent during discussions, and work may be divided inequitably. A group of five members is often ideal, eliminating the concerns associated with both smaller and larger groups.
- Thoughtfully construct the group. With diversity in mind, teachers should assemble groups according to a common interest. If you allow students to self-select, it is important to help them build diverse teams. Self-selection, however, can cause introverted students undue stress and social anxiety. Weimer has found that students who don’t know each other before they do group work often create the most outstanding work, whereas students who already know each other tend to socialize more and make less progress during group work, thereby not producing exceptional results.
- Don’t underestimate peer pressure. Students who don’t carry their own weight (e.g., “social loafers,” “freeloaders”) or who dominate and exclude (e.g., “alpha lone wolves”) have to acclimate to the group dynamic. Group conflict can be a valuable opportunity for personal growth. Dr. Weimer asks that groups share techniques for effective communication and team member accountability with the class, ensuring that each student brings something to the experience.
- Discuss and share best practices to help groups process problems. Facilitate group work by empowering groups to solve their own problems. This helps group members understand that they are responsible for their problems and that overcoming obstacles is part of the group work process. Collaboration is a valuable part of learning how to work effectively in groups, so it is essential for teachers to provide vehicles for students to communicate and share, such as online wikis or Google Docs. Urge groups to observe how other groups communicate, or assign groups the task of making study guides for other groups.
- Use peer formative feedback and provide summative feedback. Students are more accountable to each other when they understand that a portion of their grade is based on peer formative feedback. Formative assessment can help students identify not only their strengths but also opportunities for improvement. This type of process feedback can help groups with the parsing of duties, and assessment of their group needs. Also, remember that students place the most value on the teacher’s summative feedback, typically conveyed through a final evaluation of a group’s process and end product.
Group collaboration is an essential skill for students to learn before they enter the professional world, and the collaborative classroom is an ideal place in which students can develop this skill. With a foundation with which to build better groups, students not only learn teamwork accountability and commitment, but also enhance their ability to master course content.
Dr. Maryellen Weimer has a loyal following of educators from law, medicine, and business programs at colleges and universities across the country. More than 15,000 educators subscribe to her newsletter and read her weekly blog, The Teaching Professor Blog. If you are curious about how to incorporate learner-centered policies, practices, techniques, and approaches in your classroom, check out Dr. Weimer’s teaching resources and strategies at www.facultyfocus.com.
Amanda Reilly is the Program Associate for HLS Case Studies.