Often, students do not have the skills or expertise needed to work effectively in small groups (Shimazoe and Aldrich 2010). By applying facilitation strategies such as those described below, instructors can help students learn to work collaboratively and ensure that group work improves learning for all.
- Establish classroom ground-rules or expectations that can promote respectful, inclusive interactions in the classroom. These ground-rules or expectations should be determined at the start of the semester and guide students’ interactions in groups. Groups that develop shared expectations on how to approach and accomplish a task tend to have higher levels of helping behaviors (Gonzalez-Mulé et al., 2014).
- Define group member roles and rotate these frequently. Groups often function most effectively when members have designated roles (such as recorder, manager, or reporter) which can promote positive interdependence among group members, as well as maintain individual accountability. Roles are also critical in minimizing the possibility that students will take on, or assign one to another, roles that adhere to gender and racial stereotypes. For example, Hirshfield and Chachra (2015) found that in first-year engineering courses, females tended to undertake less technical roles and more communication roles than males. By having students’ alternate through different roles, you can help students learn the value of each role.
- Develop and communicate a set of clear instructions. Explain why and how students are completing the activity.
- What are the content knowledge and skills that this assignment is designed to help students learn and practice?
- Explain how to accomplish the activity in a PowerPoint slide or handout. Set time limits, e.g., 5-7 minutes for shorter activities, or 10-12 minutes for longer, multi-step activities. Breaking up a complex task into smaller pieces with timed checkpoints helps groups better understand how to work on complex problems and make sure they are on track to finish during the allotted time.
- Indicate group size and composition. Should students work with two or three neighbors? These instructions help students better understand how they will work in groups (Barkley et al. 2014).
- Provide careful discussion prompts. Ask students to answer specific questions but also to focus on the rationale behind their answers and be prepared to share the rationale. This prompt influences the quality of student discussions by creating a “reasoning-centered class” where students employ more reasoning rather than just trying to achieve the correct answer (Knight et al. 2013).
- Maintain your role as a facilitator and be an active listener during the activity. Move throughout the room to monitor group conversations without interfering or participating in the groups’ conversations. Watch for uneven participation in a group. What common mistakes are you observing in groups? Silently note these, but do not interfere or interject. Groups need time to develop group norms (i.e., their group work behavioral style) and allowing them to work this out is an important learning step. Therefore, let groups negotiate their own group dynamics.
- Be flexible. You don’t need to wait until everyone has finished the assignment before asking groups to report out. If necessary you can ask managers how much additional time is needed for their group. If students are struggling with the assignment, stop and provide assistance or direction to help them get back on track with the assignment.
- Provide closure. Bring the groups back together as a whole class to report out and discuss the results of the activity. Use your previous observations of groups to determine which groups you might ask to report out. Ask a group’s spokesperson to report on one piece of information or an idea generated during the group work.
- Follow up by asking the spokesperson to explain their reasoning behind the group’s response.
- Promote participation by asking other groups to respond as well. Ask questions to help the students connect and understand the ideas brought out during the discussion.
- Write the ideas generated by group work on the chalkboard so that all students can learn from the contributions of each group. Doing so underscores the importance of the knowledge generated by group work and encourages everyone to pay attention and record this knowledge in their notes.
- You may not have time to hear from all groups but can then call on those groups who did not have the opportunity to report that day during the next class period.
- Include time for reflection and feedback. Acknowledge the progress made and good group behaviors observed. Discuss opportunities for improving group dynamics. During the semester, occasionally ask students to reflect on their learning experience in groups. You can use these responses as feedback to assess and revise group work as needed. For example, you can ask students to answer the following (Ash and Clayton 2014):
- I learned….,
- I learned this because (what aspect of this experience helped them learn this)
- This learning matters because (how might knowledge or skill help them in the course or in a larger context?)….
- Issues that might arise during group work. Working in groups can be a particularly challenging experience for students who are introverts or dominating types (Taylor 2011). Having clear ground rules to explain the process of group work and instructions on how to accomplish the assignment can help alleviate angst in both groups. It can also be useful to remind students of their roles to help ensure that all group members are fully engaged.
- Questions to help facilitate groups
- Does your recorder have questions from the group that you need to address?
- Does the manager have ideas that were suggested but not yet discussed?
- What will the spokesperson report for their group progress at this point?
- Ask the reflector for each person’s contribution or what the consensus is on their progress so far.
Creating successful group work activities in your class requires some preparation, but the benefits to you and your students can be gratifying. Check out our workshop schedule for more information on teaching with group work.
Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2004). The articulated learning: An approach to guided reflection and assessment. Innovative Higher Education, 29(2), 137-154.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
Gonzalez-Mulé, E., DeGeest, D. S., McCormick, B. W., Seong, J. Y., & Brown, K. G. (2014). Can we get some cooperation around here? The mediating role of group norms on the relationship between team personality and individual helping behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(5), 988.
Hirshfield, L., & Chachra, D. (2015, October). Task choice, group dynamics and learning goals: Understanding student activities in teams. In Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 2015. 32614 2015. IEEE (pp. 1-5). IEEE.
Rienties, B., Alcott, P., & Jindal-Snape, D. (2014). To Let Students Self-Select or Not That Is the Question for Teachers of Culturally Diverse Groups. Journal of Studies in International Education, 18(1), 64-83.
Shimazoe, J., & Aldrich, H. (2010). Group work can be gratifying: Understanding & overcoming resistance to cooperative learning. College Teaching, 58(2), 52-57.
Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2012). Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Taylor, A. (2011). Top 10 reasons students dislike working in small groups… and why I do it anyway. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 39(3), 219-220.