How to: Be a Karl and not a Groucho in groups

November 2, 2001

Making a group from a collection of people is no easy task. Paul Kleiman explains how to ensure that the experience does not turn into a health hazard.

While Karl Marx believed in the power of the collective, another Marx was adamant that he would not join any club that would accept him as a member. Groucho's famous riposte exposes the ambiguities many of us feel in relating to groups.

Group work is becoming more common. Employers want graduates who can communicate and collaborate, and they expect universities and colleges to provide training in those skills. While most students are drilled in exam technique or how to write essays, students are still thrown together to carry out assessed projects on the blithe assumption that it will somehow work out.

In an increasingly litigious environment, it is possible that students might consider a tutor's failure to do anything about the dysfunctional nature of a group (see box) a "material irregularity" in procedure that prevented her from achieving her best.

The Central School of Speech and Drama is leading a consortium researching assessment of group practice, supported by the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. Other members include Bretton Hall, Dartington and Goldmiths colleges and the universities of Salford and Ulster.

Cordelia Bryan, project director, says: "Our research suggests that there is precious little formal recognition and value attached to the acquisition and development of collaborative skills." Group skills such as cooperation, reliability and creative problem-solving are seen as important and relevant by students and employers, yet "our initial research indicates that lecturers have still to be persuaded and assisted in giving academic credit for them". There is no lack of material on how and why groups work. There is a whole industry based on it as commercial companies try to get teams to maximise their potential to increase productivity and profit.

Management courses in particular include the theory and practice of group work as part of the curriculum. But in the performing arts, where practical group work is the modus operandi , it can be non-existent. There is an assumption that if someone wishes to be an actor or musician, they have a natural affinity for working in groups. But no one group is the same. Some provide wonderful experiences but produce nothing of quality, others work negatively or even destructively and produce brilliant work. Rock 'n' roll is littered with examples of the latter.

Models are a handy way of understanding group dynamics. Heavily task-oriented groups can often achieve great things, but usually at the cost of personal relationships, health and individual needs. On the other hand, groups working on the principle of "let's all ensure we have a nice time" may produce very little except some good relationships and a high turnover at the bar. R. Meredith Belbin, an authority on the roles people play, identified the "Apollo syndrome", whereby gathering the best individuals in their field far from guarantees a successful group enterprise. Belbin asked: "Do you want a collection of brilliant minds or a brilliant collection of minds?" There are many approaches to understanding how groups work, but all should consider:

* What makes a group a group (rather than a collection of individuals)

* Some models of group behaviour

* Factors that can contribute to positive, productive experiences and also to negative, destructive experiences

* The nature and function of roles in groups

* Negotiation and conflict resolution.

Some courses also include a basic introduction to subjects such as Maslow's hierarchy of needs and interpersonal communication. Students should get the opportunity to reflect on their own group processes.

A guiding set of principles for the practice and assessment of group work, based on information from a number of institutions, would include:

* Group projects should be used where they provide the most appropriate and effective vehicle for learning and assessment

* Students should be informed in advance of the basis for the assessment of the group project and of any individual contribution

* If the group project or its assessment obliges students to exercise skills or judgement beyond those required for the subject per se, they should have adequate training, preparation and background in the exercise of that judgement

* A single mark for the whole group should not be awarded without some moderation - whether by the inclusion of an individual component used to moderate the collective component or by a rating of the contribution of individuals to the collective.

There are few things more satisfying than achieving a common goal while working with others. But it takes skill, knowledge and experience, as well as luck. But it is best to ensure the luck quotient is kept to a minimum.

Paul Kleiman is associate director of Palatine, the subject centre for Performing Arts, based at Lancaster University. Palatine forms part of the Learning and Teaching Support Network.


'My experience of group work' by a student of performing arts management

"We found it almost impossible to work together constructively.

'A' hardly ever showed up, and when he did, all he did was disparage the whole project.

It obviously hadn't occurred to the tutor that it might not be such a good idea to put 'B' and 'C' together as they had just split up.

'D' at least turned up for the meetings and did the things she was asked to do, but that was about as far as it went. She hardly said a word and never really contributed anything except her presence.

I know I can work well in groups and, if necessary, take a lead, but this wasn't even a group, it was a dysfunctional collection of individuals. I include myself in that because I was unable to function in the way I know I can.

It's a wonder we managed to present anything at all. I didn't enjoy this project and it was a waste of valuable time and energy. I felt I did my best under extremely difficult circumstances and I hope my mark reflects that."

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