Managing Groups

You’ve set your groups up as well as you could, but you are still worried about whether or not they will function well?

Having your students read Barbara Oakley’s article “Coping With Hitchhikers and Couch Potatoes on Teams” will give them (and you) some fantastic tips about how to manage those students who see group work as an opportunity to slack off.

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Evaluating Group Work

One of the biggest reservations that teachers have about assigning group work revolves around the issue of grading. How does one do it fairly? What if one or two members of a 5-person team end up doing most of the work?

One answer is to allow the students a say in the grading process. Knowing before the project even starts that they will be asked to fill out a self-evaluation and a peer evaluation form at the end of the project, and being aware that that evaluation will be factored into the final grade can be a huge motivating factor for keeping all students engaged and working productively.

Here is an example of such a form. I take each person’s scores (if they are in a 5 person group, there will be 5 scores per person), add them together, and average them. This final average becomes their “group participation” score on the rubric that I use for grading the project. How heavily you weight this aspect of the project is up to you.

Keeping Groups on Track

Once group work has begun, it would be a mistake to let the groups do their work without checking in with them. One way would be to have in-person meetings with each group at various stages of the process. But while these meetings can be useful for discovering how well the production is going, they can often mask internal problems within the group.

In order to get at that information, try having each group member fill out and hand in an Evaluation of Progress form halfway through their work. This information will reveal much of the inner workings of the group and will let the teacher know if she/he needs to step in to help resolve any problems.

Another benefit of using a form like this is that it allows group members’ complaints to be heard without feeling like they are ratting out a teammate. This can be very empowering, and helps to raise their faith that the teacher will intervene if needed.

Setting Groups Up for Success

Once in a group, students can’t automatically be expected to know how to work well together. It is therefore critical that the teacher provide information, insight and guidance to groups before their work begins. To that end, I spend an entire class period preparing them.

First, I show them a Powerpoint that outlines the stages that a group goes through from beginning to end. Much of the information comes from the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing model of group development that was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman.

I then go over the group tasks, policies and procedures that are relevant for the group work I am asking them to do. Here is an example of this document from a class in which the groups were each creating a print-on-demand book. The document clarifies the role of each group member, outlines meeting policies, and talks about what to do if a group member becomes problematic.

Finally, I have the class split into their groups to come up with an agreement about what they expect will happen during the group work process. Each group member signs it, and the agreement gets turned into me. This way, if a group or group member becomes dysfunctional, I can refer to this document to see what they agreed to that isn’t happening.

Thus prepared, the groups are now ready to go to work!

Forming Effective Groups

One of the best ideas I have found for how to form groups that work effectively comes from Professor Molly Lindner, of Kent State University. The article from which this comes can be found here. She suggests using the metaphor of a quintet (or a trio). She starts off by telling the students “about the qualities of a variety of musical instruments and the roles they play in producing the whole composition. Each instrument makes vital contributions; none is more important than any other. However, each has distinctive characteristics.”

She then gives the class a handout in which each instrument and their characteristics are listed, and asks them to mark the one that they are most of the time, as well as the one they are like some of the time.

The students hand in the completed questionnaire. My version of this document can be found here. The teacher then looks them over and forms the group, ensuring that each group has one of each instrument and never more than one “lead instrument”.

At the same time that I give students the instrument form, I also give them a schedule sheet on which they indicate their availability for group work.

Armed with that information, I first form groups by instrument, then look at the availability factor to tweak them. That way, students are temperamentally suited to work together well, and there are no excuses for why members can’t meet.

While no method of group formation can ensure that every group works perfectly, this method has proven itself to be very effective in my classes, and students seem to love it.

Making Groups Work

When I first started to have students work in groups, I made a huge mistake: I assumed that, once the groups formed and I told them what their task was, they would go out and do great work. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way!

In fact, I became so discouraged at how dysfunctional the groups were and how bad the work was that they handed in, that I abandoned groups for a while.

After doing some research, however, I realized that, with pre-planning on my part, there was no reason why group work could not be an energizing, efficient, and positive way for students to function. I no longer hesitate to have students work in groups.

For me, there are three components to making group work a success:

1. Form groups in such a way that they will be more likely to function well (see the “Forming Effective Groups” post),

2. Train the groups how to function effectively, and

3. Create a system for evaluating group work through each stage of the work process.

Yes, this means doing a lot of “set-up” work prior to the class, but if you do it well, the rewards are huge. I no longer hesitate to have students work in groups.