Forum discussion on Group Work Summary by Sean Brown
Thank you for your participation and interest in the discussion on Group Work. I will try to summarize the main points of discussion but I also encourage you to review the discussion forum threads for some great active links, personal anecdotes, and explanations. There were also some humorous comics poking fun at group work, and just general group work bashing that I will not duplicate in the summary.
The main points of discussion were:
- Group Work – as a strategy for promoting active learning
Advantages of Group Work
Group Work – as contextual learning
Disadvantages of Group Work
Best Practices (role of the instructor)
Group work is a strategy for promoting active learning. This is the big message from Barkley (2010, p.124), who addresses the challenges and benefits of group work, albeit not as thoroughly nor as colourfully as we bashed group work. Active learning is a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content. Active learning is a model of instruction that focuses the responsibility of learning on learners. It tends to encourage engagement in the learning. It can lead to the development of self-directed learning skills and self-reflective practice.
Advantages of group work include: it can promote community, collaboration, teamwork and mentoring among the learners. Group members with more background knowledge, contextual knowledge or experience can share their stories and understanding with others in the group. Group work can take advantage of differing learner backgrounds, experience, academic skills and learning strategies. Applying new learning to action, for example by explaining or teaching another student, it reinforces the teaching student’s understanding and confidence Jeremy shared with us that group work has specific contexts in which it is both useful and engaging for learning. Patti brought up the point that “effective group work takes planning on the part of the instructor. A group activity that has a portion of individual activity tied to the group work can ensure the group work is effective.” Doug pointed to the issues of evaluating group work and the ethics of assigning the same mark to everyone in the group. Natalie appropriately asserted that we provide a marking rubric to the students so that our expectations are clear. Natalie further evidenced her position that peer evaluation “was part of doing group work… to teach students to work together, to assess strengths and weaknesses of their teammates, to allocate tasks and to keep an eye on deadlines. When you work as part of a group in the corporate world the finished product is a collaborative work. [Group work is authentic to the corporate work environment] Everyone together towards a common goal. If the project is a success it’s everyone’s success. That’s one of the reasons that I ask students to do a peer assessment, so that I can get feedback if team members don’t pull their weight.” Well said. Mark shared that his trade skills students “work in groups of 4 in the practical portion of the program because we have 12 apprentices and 3 cranes- so that decision was mathematical and cost based.”
In support of group work as contextual learning, Patti shared that “In an excerpt from Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of ‘making meaning.’ He believed that social learning tends to precede development. One of Vygotsky’s theoretical approaches was the claim that ‘higher mental processes have origin in social processes.’ (Wertsch, James V. (1988). Social negotiation guides learning among learners with differing contextual knowledge. Vygotsky (1980) indicates that contextual learning is a form of cognitive apprenticeship. Learners construct their understanding based on their own prior knowledge and shaped by social negotiation with peers in their group. Vivienne insightfully shared that “Learning individually has value, but co-operative learning implies a social context. It is not just what the individual gains from the process, it also provides a context for their thoughts, understandings and experiences. Rather than entrapment in the mindset of an internal dialogue, the discursive exploratory nature of the dynamic (dialectic?) leads to an individual having to justify, explain, listen and understand in a collective setting. This gives an added dimension to the learning process, denied to those restricted to solitary, individualistic, even solipsistic, learning experiences.” Vivienne furthers that “Some learning benefits greatly from group work. Social, environmental and political groups rally people together specifically to tap into internal experiences and understandings.” Will summed up that “contextual learning and learning contextual problem solving skills are an important part of a well-rounded education.” Patti, Vivienne and Will, well said.
Disadvantages: “In John Hattie’s research…. Group Work scored [0.59] the same as direct instruction. Maybe Group [work] has been oversold.” – Doug Mauger (2016) Doug shared this and many humorous cartoons for group work disadvantages. Barkley (2010, p.124) indicates that challenges with the use of group work may include inequitable participation, explained by Patti, “one individual takes over the group and does it their way or some group members don’t do their share of the work.” Some may resist group work due to poor prior experiences with group work. Some students engage in off-task behaviours e.g. texting, Facebooking. Some group members just don’t get along. Karen insightfully shared that “I was a huge advocate for group work. I mean, heck, isn’t it awesome to collaborate and brainstorm as a team? Then…..Susan Cain came along and deflated my balloon.” She succinctly expressed that Susan Cain’s rant for introverts is an extreme position against group work and other extrovert-oriented strategies. Cain herself stated that she did not intend for all extrovert activities to stop, but rather for us to find a balance. This is well supported by Doug’s sharing of Hattie’s effect size of 0.59 for group work. If we agree with Hattie’s premise that effect sizes greater than or equal to 0.40 are constructive or worthwhile as teaching strategies, then group work gets a pass. But there are other strategies that also should be included in our repertoire of teaching strategies. Doug succinctly stated that “Group [work] is not bogus but it has been oversold. Active learning can be a solo or team activity but the key thing is active learning.” Naomi suggests that “Learning to work as a team is still an essential skill however (team work, collaboration, responsibility and communication). I gained most of these skills outside of school playing on multiple team sports. How do the non-athletes or introverts learn these skills then? Group work is the answer but we need to find better ways to manage it.”
Barkley (2010, p.124) indicates that group work best practices maximize the opportunity for student learning. Patti stated that an instructor best practice “is to structure the group activity so there is individual and group accountability.” For example, the group presentation can be assigned 5% of each student’s grade and each student gains valuable experience with team work, collaboration, social negotiation, self-directed learning and presenting, with formative feedback; the written paper, which is individual and totally gives away how much effort the student put into the project, can be assigned a weight of 20% towards the individual student’s grade. The extent of the unfairness is minimized under these conditions. Opal shared this link that speaks to Choosing the Best Approach for Small Group Work. Jennifer shared that best practices include facilitating that the students get to know each in their group. Jennifer pointed out that the instructor should identify the goals of having students work in groups, and select/create an activity more targeted at meeting those goals. Jennifer furthered that “in the case of long-term projects it’s useful to have check-in points along the way. Depending on the project, this could be something like showing to the instructor a list of resources, or a draft, or some other evidence that the group and/or each individual is progressing.” Jennifer also shared the importance of the instructor showing the students how to use online resources such as online discussion forums, or DropBox or online search engines for research. Instructors can facilitate students arranging meeting times for their group, or even better, provide in class time to work on projects. Jennifer also pointed out that the instructor can provide students with a clear mechanism for providing feedback on their group members to help avoid at least some of the problems often associated with group work.
Mark wisely said “In summary, group work is a great instructional strategy not only in our practical but in the few situations we have during theory also. It’s not for every type of teaching, but works well in our program.” There are contexts which greatly benefit from group work learning. There are also contexts which do not lend themselves to group work.
Thank you for your interest, engagement and contribution to the discussion, including a big thanks for the humour, links and resources shared. Thank you Doug for your timely prompts. I hope you all enjoy and engage for the rest of the course.
Barkley, E. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Tips and Strategies for Promoting Active Learning: T/S 35, p.124. Jossey-Bass: John Wiley & Sons; San Francisco, CA.
Mauger, D. (2016). Forum Feb 8 – 18 Group Work (Sean): Group Work – as a strategy for promoting active learning. PIDP 3250 Instructional Strategies online course.
Vygotsky, L. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.