Teaching Tip: Learning to be a group

If you would like to use more group work in your classes, but have had difficulty getting the groups to work as well as you would like, here are some suggestions from an expert in the field, Dr. Barbara Millis.  Her most recent book “Cooperative Learning in Higher Education” (2010) describes cooperative learning as a versatile and flexible approach that can be adapted to all disciplines.  Benefits of cooperative learning include deeper learning and critical thinking.  BUT as we all know from bad experiences with group work, if cooperative learning experiences are not well designed, they can result in less learning!

One particular issue for a lot of faculty is groups that don’t work well together.  In many disciplines learning to work on a team is an important course goal, and of course it’s a great life-long skill to have.  So how do we help students learn to work in groups?  Here are some suggestions offered by Dr. Millis.

When you assign several students to produce a major assignment together you will have to consider not only the quality of the task they complete but also the effectiveness of their interaction. If one of your course objectives is that students will learn to work altogether with colleagues, then teach them how. The steps are the same as for teaching and grading discussion:

  • Provide criteria and instructions.
  • Provide opportunities for practice and feedback.

Here are suggestions for guiding group processes:

  • Begin with instructions and guidelines for group work. Address the ways in which groups could go astray.
  • Construct a rubric by which the groups will be evaluated.  (or ask at the CTE for some samples)
  • Have groups compose and sign a written agreement, at the beginning of their work together, that details what all of them will be responsible for (for example, being on time for meetings, completing their share of the work by certain deadlines, communicating regularly with other group members) and what each will do (Mary will research this part; John will research this part; Ling-Chi will produce the first full draft; Jamal will edit the draft).
  • Ask the group to appoint people to certain roles such as record keeper, convener, and any others necessary for the group to work efficiently.
  • Ask the group for frequent feedback to you and to each other.  At the end of each meeting, whether online or face-to-face, group members can write to one another what they thought was successful about the group meeting and what they thought needed improvement.  Responses can be shared with you, and you can step in quickly if the group is struggling.
  • Ask a recorder to post or submit to you a record of the group’s activities. When did they get together? Who was present? What did each person do? What progress was made? What problems arose, and how did the group address them? What do they need from you, if anything?
  • Schedule a face-to-face or synchronous online meeting with each group at intervals to check the group’s progress and interaction. At these meetings, anyone who feels another group member is not doing his or her share should say so during the meeting so the issue can be discussed and you can facilitate.

How do you help students become more effective group members? What kinds of problems have you experienced with groups in your classes?  What questions do you have about working with groups?

Thanks to Barbara Millis of the Teaching & Learning Center and UT San Antionio (http://www.utsa.edu/tlc) for contributions to this tip.




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