The merits of group work for realising positive learning outcomes are well recognised and are thus implemented across all levels of a student’s academic journey. However, many instructors are well aware that this arrangement does not always achieve the desired results in their class. Some groups operate magically thanks to their members, bringing out each other’s strengths and making them shine. At the same time, others fail due to a lack of coordination, members not pulling their weight, and various other reasons that prevent the group from achieving a satisfactory result.
Ways to Improve Group Work
This begs the question: how can teachers deal with the problems that arise when group members do not bear their share of the responsibilities in group projects? Below, we tackle a few simple ideas to consider making group work as effective of a tool as possible in your teaching strategy.
Design projects that Consist of Several Phases
For example, a project could have three stages, starting with project idea brainstorming, followed by project development, and then preliminary project outcomes. Each phase requires all members to “check in” with each other’s progress up until delivering the final result. This approach ensures that groups will not wait until the deadline is around the corner before working and lets instructors touch base with every group and provide guidance, support, or mediation when necessary.
Include an Element of the Project that Encourages Members to Make Independent Choices
It is recommended to allow students some freedom in choosing topics that interest them within the scope of the course or are most meaningful or relevant to the team members. Doing so creates a sense of ownership among them and a culture of engagement, the two keys to accomplishing large group projects and especially for those that require students to complete the work in phases throughout the term.
Have Each Member Complete a Small, Non-onerous Individual Task
A project could have members write up a quick personal reflection piece wherein they each reflect on the process or result of their contribution to the group work. Besides the pedagogical benefits of students engaging in individual reflection, this project component inevitably provides insights into the division-of-labour problem that students and instructors frequently raise. Both parties can glean significant insights from such pieces, and teachers can then take them into account when assigning future projects or final grades. It also lets students better understand which areas work well and which need improvement.
When implementing this task, keep in mind to specify what sort of “reflection” is required to avoid the potential mismatch of expectations about reflective learning and the student’s understanding of what they are supposed to do. Ideally, they should engage in critical reflection, i.e. thinking that entails various levels of reflection and not simply describing or restating their efforts, which is called non-transformative reflection.
Prepare Students to Expect the Unexpected
When students have concerns, they should be encouraged to solve them themselves first and not direct it every time to their teachers. They should become capable of identifying the problem, coming up with possible solutions, and evaluating the best ones, which helps to balance personal learning with their project’s goals. At the same time, instructors need to promote a culture of openness that lets students know they can always seek guidance for difficult issues.
Compatibility issues arising between team members and conflicts regarding unequal distribution of work will always remain a possibility in any group work situation. However, teachers can easily implement the considerations described above to mitigate the likelihood of problems affecting learning and project outcomes. Lastly, they can also help teachers and students tackle the specific and common challenge of members neglecting to pull their weight while maximizing group work in terms of content and, most importantly, learning how to deal with and work alongside others – an invaluable life lesson best learned through personal experience.
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