How to ... Get groups to work

March 12, 1999

WHAT - Students can often learn more about their subject by working on tasks in small groups. Sally Brown suggests ways of ironing out the difficulties in teamwork.

WHY - Employers and professional bodies value the ability to work in a team. But poor logistics and personality clashes too often dominate the process.

HOW - Asking students to participate in group work without fully briefing them is a recipe for disaster. It is not safe to assume that simply allocating students to a group and giving them a common task will result in them working effectively together.

Lecturers need to plan group work carefully, to clarify at the outset what is to be achieved by working in this way and to anticipate potential problems before they show themselves.

Many students in higher education will have had earlier negative experiences of working in groups where things have gone wrong, and may be extremely resistant to taking part in what you propose. Some fear that their marks will be reduced by the work of less able or lazy students, others that they will be exposed in front of their peers as incompetent or lacking expertise.

The cultural background of some students makes it difficult for them to be comfortable with this way of working, perhaps because they find it difficult to push themselves forward in front of their peers, maybe because they find mixed-gender groups problematic or because they feel that the tutor should always be in the driving seat. Training will need to be given by tutors to help students recognise what constitutes acceptable and non-acceptable group behaviour.

Depending on the size of the learning programme and the nature of the subject, there may be time to devote considerable attention to group processes and behaviour, perhaps looking at particular types of group behaviour and role analysis.

Where time is short, you may only be able to undertake a rapid exercise or two to help students start to think about group behaviour. One such exercise involves asking students to work on a small practical task, for example asking each small group to make a container from junk materials to enable an egg to be dropped from a height without breaking and allocating an observer to each group to report back on what kinds of behaviour helped or hindered group activity.

Another activity comprises providing a cartoon of a group of animals sitting around and asking the students to think about what kind of stereotypical behaviour they might associate with each animal. A monkey might be thought of as continually playing tricks and thereby being a bit of a nuisance, but also perhaps being very cunning and good at solving problems.

The lion may be courageous and a good leader, but might always want to dominate. The elephant might act as the collective memory but might, according to fable, be terrified of the mouse, whose reticence could be regarded as unwillingness to participate by those who confuse self-effacement with inability.

Tortoises and hares, crocodiles, donkeys, bees, laughing hyenas and spiders might all also represent behaviours that can then form the basis of a discussion on groupwork to consider and set ground-rules and to recognise effective group behaviour using shared and agreed criteria.

Coping with disasters Common problems with group work include students:

* Refusing to work in groups

* Complaining that the group cannot work together

* Complaining that the marking is not fair because everyone got the same grade but some did little or nothing to earn it.

It is difficult to deal with such matters fairly when they occur. It is much better, before the groupwork begins, to advise students that working as a member of a group is a fundamental skill within the programme and that it should be treated as such.

This works best when the learning outcomes of the relevant programme refer specifically to the achievement of the group as a whole working successfully. Indeed, developments in programme specification as prompted by the Quality Assurance Agency suggest that explicit reference to these and other key skills should be made.

Students need to be warned that a failure of group dynamics is a problem for the group not the tutor to resolve, except in extreme cases where something unprofessional or dangerous has occurred.

Organising group work Much has been written about group formation and group size, but there are no simple answers.

When deciding how to organise this, you will need to make a number of decisions: do you want students to form into groups themselves by friendship and association or do you want to allocate them to groups?

If you allocate them, will you do this randomly or will you try to engineer them in particular ways?

You might, for example, want to spread the most able students among the groups to ensure that the tasks get done by all (by choice, the best students naturally tend to select each other), but this is likely to lead to some grumbling about mark dilution and may lead to process difficulties. Do you want to form them into learning teams?

On a building management course, for example, you might insist that each group contains at least one person with experience of building work, at least one person with A-level maths or equivalent and one person with experience of competence-based assessment as on EdExcell courses.

These learning teams would be able to share experiences and bring different strengths to the process. This approach takes a fair amount of knowledge of students and also takes more organisation than random grouping, but can be most productive in terms of learning gain.

Students in random groups cannot (or should not) complain about unfair allocations, but such groups tend to have more process difficulties than groups that allow an element of choice in working arrangements. A compromise approach allows students to nominate one other person they would like to work with, then tutors can engineer how to fit these pairs into groups according to their curriculum delivery aims.

If you have a particularly strong representation from one gender or cultural group, you may wish to organise groups so that the minority students do not concentrate together.

This is a thorny issue and there can be value in encouraging international students to work in mixed groups, but tutors need to be aware that this can make individuals feel isolated, especially if they are from an ethnic group that has very positive mutual support mechanisms. It can also be boring for the rare female students on an electrical engineering course to find they are never allowed to work together.

Group size Again, there are no hard and fast rules on what size of group works best. The bigger the group size, the greater the likelihood that lazy or incompetent students can take advantage of their hardworking peers. Most would agree that this frequently happens once group size exceeds about six or eight students, depending on the volume and duration of the task.

Pairs work well, but there tend to be problems if one student lapses or falls ill; threes reduce this risk, but can get cliquey, especially if two students gang up on or exclude the third; fours and fives have a good critical mass, but can split into competitive halves.

The group size decision is ultimately the tutor's, but should be an informed one that recognises the pros and cons and implications of a particular choice.

Group work has enormous benefits for students and tutors alike: it can reduce the marking load for tutors to some extent and provide experiences that emulate what students are likely to encounter in their professional lives, where team work is the norm. For students it can make learning more enjoyable by providing peer support and encouragement, as well as helping them to develop valuable life skills. But it needs meticulous planning and effective ongoing support if it is to work well.

Sally Brown, head of quality enhancement, University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

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