Why Groupwork is Important, and How to Get it Right

The following is a guest post by Brandi So, an instructional designer and online instructor. If you would like to submit a guest post, please contact us

After seeing a presentation on the benefits of small cohort discussions in online courses, I started integrating a synchronous small group chat assignment in my face to face and online classes. I immediately saw the benefits of the assignment – students were making personal connections that bolstered their academic support network, as well as reinforcing course content in a way that I, as the teacher, could have never delivered for them. But as much as the success of the assignment sold me on its worth, it is the moments of perceived failure that have cemented my conviction to groupwork, small discussion cohorts, and synchronous student collaboration.

Some experiences can feel like failure, like when students differ on what constitutes acceptable communication styles in informal academic settings. Or when a cohort member fails to deliver on their commitments, and the rest of the group has to decide how to manage the setback. Despite how uncomfortable addressing these challenges can be – for myself included – the students learn lessons they’ll likely never forget, while gaining important job skills along the way.

Group work is about a lot more than just deepening student understanding of disciplinary content, although that is certainly one of its benefits. Groupwork offers opportunities to gain exposure to different perspectives, mindsets, cultural expectations and working styles. In essence, it helps our students gain crucial collaboration skills for a diverse workforce. Being sensitive to and proactive about differences in communication styles is critical for cultural competency, and taking on challenges when unexpected setbacks arise is a workforce skill that every student needs.

So, maybe you can tell that I am a fan of groupwork. And as a teacher whose professional mainstay is actually faculty development, I thought I’d share my suggestions of how to do it well – lessons I’ve learned the hard way, in most cases.

  1. Always start with the meta. Tell students what skills they will gain from the experience, and give them the language they can use to explain their skills to future employers. Telling employers that they have experience using virtual collaboration tools, balancing deadlines and goals within a team setting, and interacting with diverse colleagues is not merely lip service. These are critical job skills, ones that you can include in your evaluative rubric if you’re in the mood to drive the point home. As for the disciplinary skills, I like to head over the Arizona State University’s online learning objectives builder to create learning outcomes that actually measure the skills I am trying to teach.
  2. Get ahead of the “bad citizen” problem. One quick internet search for “group project memes” will quickly confirm that what students hate most about groupwork is the inevitability of a member not doing their fair share. There are several ways to get ahead of this problem, and students will feel much more confident if they know they have some tools at their disposal. Here are a few: Create discreet roles that each student must perform; have group members sign a team contract; incorporate a self- and peer-evaluation into the assignment; or have a mid-point check in for the project.
  3. Make the grading criteria abundantly clear, and give credit for individual contributions. Depending on the assignment format, you can sometimes monitor the individual contributions of each student. Other times, you might need the students to assess their own contributions and those of their peers. Regardless, in a higher education environment I think it’s fair to balance the scores between the overall score of the group, and an individual score for each student. Sometimes, I make the individual score worth 25% of the overall grade. Sometimes it’s half. It really depends on the assignment, and the ways in which students are expected to contribute to the overall goal. Last, use a rubric to score the group assignment, and share it with the students in advance of the due date. You can find lots of great group work at Rubistar.org, or create your own.
  4. Don’t go it alone – you don’t have to invent everything yourself. One of the most redeeming qualities among passionate educators is their commitment to sharing resources. I love the zombie-themed Surviving Group Projects resources from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Educational Innovation. And I always head to Merlot.org to search for curated learning materials in my discipline or learning format. In fact, I rarely begin designing an assignment without first looking at what my colleagues across the globe are doing as well. These time-saving gifts from the world of education are sure to inspire, refine, and elevate your teaching.

Author’s Bio: Brandi So is an instructional designer at Touro Colleges and University Systems, a instructor of American Literature, and a specialist in online education and active learning. She holds a doctorate in literature from Stony Brook University, and is an advocate for universal design for learning, open educational resources, and widening access and success for at-risk populations in higher education. You can reach her at: Brandi.So@touro.edu

Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not constitute or imply an endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by Touro College.

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