Group discussion can be a very useful pedagogy if implemented well. I’ve written about asynchronous discussions here, but the same theory applies to synchronous too. Group work is another beast altogether. There are a number of ways that the positive intention of getting peers to cooperate and collaborate on a task can be thwarted, but of most concern is the inability to ensure equal participation of all members.

There are two ways of looking at this (of course there are more, but …). The Ringelmann effect suggests that an individual’s participation or output decreases proportionally with a group’s size. This is likely because every one thinks every one else is doing the work and so can relax a little. This may suggest why you can’t expect a group of 3 to produce 3 times the work of an individual.

The other way to consider this is to think of the advantage of drafting, the strategy of riding behind another cyclist.

In road racing, bicyclists group together in a pack known as the “peloton” or a pace line called an “echelon.” Cyclists who are part of the group can save up to 40 percent in energy expeditures over a cyclist who is not drafting with the group. 

Of course the analogy is a bit of a stretch, more about physics than psychology, but it certainly rings true from my experience of employing group work in classes. To add weight to the entanglement, David Didau exhorts us to consider the opportunity vs the cost of group work, cautioning about rushing into the pedagogy to satisfy ideology: ‘Bad groupwork is worse than almost any other classroom sin, ending in the tyranny of the strong and the persecution of the weak’. To mitigate against this, I propose the learning design utilises two strategies, and both are about setting clear expectations.

1. Make sure individuals know what to do in the group task

We’ve all done it – sent everyone off to the group and then when you’ve wandered into the space found that students didn’t know what to do – and hence haven’t started. Often we fall into the trap of the Curse of Knowledge and assume that what we have said or instructed is clear to students. Providing explicit instructions of what to do when the group work begins is absolutely crucial. A detailed breakdown of each step of the task, despite how blatantly obvious it may seem, will prevent students genuinely not knowing what to do or using unclear instructions as an excuse to not participate (which we all know happens).

In the remote setting, perhaps even better is to get groups actually working before they go into the breakout room. Present the instructions, ask if they are clear to students and suggest to them the onus of responsibility to ask now before they go into the room if there is any confusion. Make the first task in the group something that can be done as an individual. This will get the ball rolling with everyone in the group and prevent inertia when the group actually breaks out because no one wants to make the first move. Provide a question as part of the task to begin discussion about the first activity and assign it to a member of the group as you begin to set the groups up. That is, as you are about to send a group off, assign a role to one of the team.

This assignment of roles is certainly worth considering, but perhaps more useful is to explain to students the purpose and possible benefits of participation in the task and provide a model for them to see ‘what a good one looks like’. Providing resources that show students what to do in certain situations and how to handle particular behaviours, adding to their schema of group work, is far more likely to help than just hoping students will be able to work out what to do when they are left to their own devices.

2. Make sure students know what the output of the group work entails

Clear expectations about what group output looks like is also crucial. Setting up what the learning outcomes are and how will they be demonstrated are an essential part of the learning design. Crucially though, detailing what the various stages of success are provide small goal posts for students and ensures they are working towards the outcome/s. When you eventually get into the breakout room to check on progress, you can address what you see against the expectations you set. The explicit break down of what success looks like empowers you with assertiveness when the group hasn’t produced a sufficient amount of work. The number of times I’ve gone into a group and excused a lack of progress with the statement: ‘Ok, now you know what to do so when I return I am expecting this…’ – arrgghhhh.

Group work may well be one of the most difficult pedagogies to get right, but when it works it can be a very powerful and satisfying strategy. Try these approaches and see if they reduce some of the barriers to making group work a productive and student active learning experience.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

Cover image source

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