Provide a context for group work
Providing students with a discipline-specific context will help them understand the relevance and function of group projects, activities or tasks in the course; they will also see the advantages of group work, and be clear as to how group work contributes to their achieving the course objectives.
The closer group tasks resemble authentic tasks, the stronger students will be motivated to learn. You might begin by helping students identify the skills needed in your field of study to work effectively as a group—what specific communication, negotiation, conflict management, interpersonal and collaborative skills are essential or desirable?
Try the following to help students understand why group skills are important in your field:
- Emphasise how important group work is for employment.
- Invite a guest speaker from industry to outline how they use teams in the workplace.
- Ask students in the class who work part-time or full-time to share their experience of
group work. For example, what do they like most/least about working in groups? What kinds of
group activities do they participate in? What do they see as the benefits of working in
groups, from their experience?
- Outline some of the potential difficulties associated with group work. This gives students
a more realistic view of working in groups and prepares them for the more challenging
aspects of group work.
- Provide students with a handout (see the sample below) about the advantages of working in groups or teams and ask them to reflect on why group skills are important in their field of study.
Sample student handout
Advantages of working in groups
How do you think you might use group skills in the workplace?
How do you think working in groups in your particular field of study might differ from doing so in another context or discipline?
Provide a clear outline of the group task or project
Students are often confused about what is expected of them in groups, and what group work is all about. Point out that this is normal at the beginning of group tasks—group work is an evolving process. Reassure students by letting them know that they will have an opportunity in class to define and clarify their group task, based on the project/activity outline you provide, and to ask questions about any aspects of the task they don’t understand.
Clearly define the purpose of the group task. In class, take the time to provide detailed and clear instructions to all groups, and explain how you will interact with and monitor groups—e.g. whether you will circulate among the groups, sit in on group meetings, help groups deal with difficult issues, provide resources.
As well as outlining the group task or project, you might like to negotiate a set of guidelines for group work (see the page When Groups First Meet for more information on guidelines for group work). Clarify how much of the project you expect to be completed in and outside class time, how long you expect it to take, how students will be assigned to groups, how they should allocate roles and organise meetings. Also communicate the details of relevant learning outcomes, and of all assessment involved.
Making learning outcomes and assessment criteria clear
Explain to students the purpose and intended learning outcomes of group tasks and projects. Highlight the particular skills involved, such as negotiation, communication and interpersonal skills. Include specific learning outcomes for group skills in your outline of group tasks or projects, and in your course outline.
Below is an example of some learning outcomes related to developing students’ group work skills.
"At the end of this course you will be able to:
- articulate the factors that contribute to a successful group
- identify and establish group roles and responsibilities for a given project
- demonstrate project management skills such as the creation of timelines and
- implement strategies for dealing with conflict within groups
- work effectively in a group to prepare a written report on a given topic
- develop strategies for working effectively in a multidisciplinary team
- demonstrate an understanding of the structure of meetings (e.g. agendas)
- provide constructive feedback to peers on their contribution to a group project
- demonstrate interpersonal and reflective listening skills
- reflect on the progress of your group skills and identify areas for improvement."
As well as making your expectations clear to students, defining relevant learning outcomes provides a useful starting point for determining appropriate group activities and assessment criteria. Assessment criteria for group work will depend on the particular learning outcomes you set for your course, but they might include, for example:
- regular attendance at group meetings
- equity of contribution
- evidence of collaborative behaviour
- appropriate time and task management
- application of creative problem solving
- use of a range of working methods
- an appropriate level of engagement with the task
- evidence of a capacity to listen
- responsiveness to feedback/criticism.
(Adapted from R. James, C. McInnis and M. Devlin (2002), Assessing Learning in Australian
Universities. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.)
Students need to be clear about how activities and projects will be assessed. For example, let students know what weightings will be given to group processes and products, what the assessment criteria are for both group process and group product, and how individual and interactive tasks will be assessed. If you choose to incorporate peer assessment, or to assess learning journals or other reflective pieces of writing, provide students with clear guidelines.
Help students distinguish between cooperation and collaboration
[In a work placement as a Co-op scholar] I also needed good group work and
interpersonal skills. Group work assignments at university are almost
useless because everybody simply works individually on separate tasks
related to the one topic. More class time should be spent on working on
problems. —UNSW Co-op student, Workshop Panel, 2003
Part of making expectations clear to students involves helping them distinguish between cooperation and collaboration, and determine which is required in the group task that you set for them. Generally speaking, cooperative tasks involve each member of a group producing a separate part of a whole task or project. This may require students to balance the structure and content of various components, coordinate completion times or compile a presentation or written report; however, it requires a relatively low level of collaboration, i.e. participation in group processes. In more collaborative tasks and projects the final product represents the work of the group as a whole.
Students who have only experienced working cooperatively with peers may not understand why it is important to practise skills such as reflection, conflict resolution, interpersonal skills, negotiation and other group processes.
Discussing the assessment criteria for a given assignment helps students to distinguish between cooperative and collaborative learning and to understand the particular skills and processes valued in both forms of work. To check students' understanding, ask them."Why do you think we do this particular project in groups rather than individually? How do you think working collaboratively might enhance the finished product?"
For more information on designing and assessing cooperative and collaborative group tasks, see the following pages: