The Innovative Educator

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Group work doesn't have to suck

Editor's note: Group work can suck because teachers sometimes do a poor job of giving credit where credit is due.  Innovative educator Diana Laufenberg has some thoughts on how to make group work better.  
I will be working with a group of roughly 65 professors at West Chester University.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to the about PBL and the pedagogical foundations that support such learning.  The organizers of the event did a survey and asked if the attendees had any requests or questions.  One consistent theme ran throughout the submissions:  How do we create functioning, collaborative groups?  So I did a little thinking about the pieces of the puzzle the I consider when to facilitate effective collaboration and searched for some reputable sources for more ideas.
My thoughts on group work and collaboration:
  1. Group work is tricky.  For me there are two goals with group work: individually assess student capabilities and fostering more effective collaboration skills.  In order to accomplish this goal I grade a portion of the group work as individual and the other portion as group.  For instance, at SLA we use a common rubric.  There are 5 categories and for most group projects I assess the students individually on Research, Knowledge and Process while assessing the group grade through Design and Presentation.  This allows for students to evidence individual learning while also collaborating on a group endeavor.  I find that this lessens the… I’ll do everything myself syndrome that plagues group work.
  2. Another idea is to contract for the work…  I create a work contract that identifies the different roles/products the group members are responsible for completing.  All members of the group sign the contract.  When there are concerns or questions, the contract is referenced and used to settle confusion or disputes.
  3. Allow students to identify one person in the room they would like to work with and then pair up the partners.  Choosing to work with at least one person they know or trust goes a long way to moving the collaborative process along.
  4. Allow for mid-project reflection.  Ask them how it is going.  Let them tell you when it is going successfully or poorly and you should have some suggestions for course correction.
  5. Let students self-assess work.  This gives you an interesting insight into how the student views their accomplishments while also providing some context to the whole learning endeavor.
  6. Use a project management tool to keep track of the progress.  There are any number of project management tools out there to pick from – or or or… google it, the list goes on.  having the work process out in the open provides a level of transparency between group members and the instructor to communicate what is happening in the day to day working of the group.
  7. Call out the free rider.  It is incumbent upon the instructor to address issues of the ‘free rider’.  I have often severed them from a group and given them an adjusted (and hefty) individual version of the work if they persistently underperformed after multiple conversations about improving the working relationship.
  8. Don’t make every project group work.  It is completely possible to have meaningful collaboration with your class while creating an independent project.  Class time can be used to workshop ideas, assist in thinking, run scenarios, etc.  Just because someone is working independently, doesn’t mean the classmates can’t collaborate on their work.
  9. Try to work on a group project yourself.  Own the fact that it is challenging, and have some compassion for the difficulty that comes from working with others.
  10. Be prepared to keep tweaking your approach, talk to your colleagues, adjust the parameters… tinker.  This is a process much like anything else and there is no list with all the special tricks that if you complete, you will have the perfect groups.  This is learning as much for the instructor as the students.
 What ideas do you have in the way of suggestions for effective collaboration and group work?
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