Group work

In April 2017 UCC developed a policy on group work to support staff who engage students in group work as part of their studies. The resulting policy provides a number of guiding principles to support staff to think about the various choices open to them when designing group work, and contains a helpful checklist at the rear of the policy

That policy becomes binding in 2018/19 and all modules that include group work as a form of assessment need to make this explicit in the Book of Modules. (DMIS is open from 16-27 April 2018 to facilitate these changes). 

A number of workshops were organised by CIRTL to discuss the group work policy and to share good practice examples from colleagues across the University. The following links bring you to the resources shared at the group work sessions.

Group work overview - overview of Group work policy
Group work in Chemistry - online solution to individualising marks in group work
Group work in Disability studies - group work supports for part-time students 
Group work in Microbiology - using UCC's group work policy to review existing group work activities

Group work is comprised of three stages: group formation, group management and assessment . Each stage requires careful consideration on how best to support student learning and will be dealt with in turn drawing on key literature.
Group formation
Students can be assigned into groups by the lecturer or tutor or they may self-select into groups. Random assignment into groups can mean that group members are unknown to each other and it may be necessary to help the groups to coalese. Some supports may include template group contracts to outline the expectations for each member and the consequences of non-participation. Where groups are assigned alphabetically be aware that some international students may consequently be grouped together thereby minimising the diversity in the other groups.

Students may also self-select but may require some direction to prevent streaming of students where academically strong students cluster together. Learning outcomes that recognise the benefits of diversity may mitigate against such streaming attempts. McCrea et al (2016) recommend a 'pair and group' strategy where students are asked to self-select into pairs, and these pairs are then randomly assigned to larger groups. This approach was shown to improve performance and to result in higher levels of student satisfaction.

If collaboration is a key learning outcome for the module then it may be necessary to structure the group work project so that students depend on each others contributions. For example there could be particular roles assigned in the group, e.g. facilitator, recorder, data analyst, presenter, innovator, timekeeper, artist etc. The students can determine between themselves who has the skills pertinent to the various roles. Alternatively the roles can be assigned by the lecturer or the students given an opportunity to try out each role.

Often students need help to develp teamwork skills, particularly on how to work with others on tasks they normally do individually. They also need support on how to deal with isses that may arise in groups such as non-participation, reaching agreement, differing standards etc. Key skills include the following:

Group work output related skills
  • assess the nature and difficulty of a task
  • break the task down into steps or stages
  • plan a strategy
  • manage time
Group work process related skills
  • explain their ideas to other
  • listen to alternative ideas and perspectives
  • reach consensus
  • delegate responsibilities
  • coordinate efforts
  • resolve conflicts
  • integrate the contributions of multiple team members
See Eberly Center resource "What are best practices for designing group projects?" for strategies on how to develop these skills.

Group management
Management of group work requires considerating how best to prepare students for engaging in group work as well as how to manage any emerging issues. Its important to clarify from the outset the purpose of a group work activity. Perhaps the task is so complex that it requires a range of different skills and perspectives beyond those of an individual, or maybe the focus is on developing group work skills that the student can draw upon in their future careers. From a teaching perspective you might consider group work to be the most appropriate pedagogical approach to foster active and collaborative learning amongst your students. The expectations and purposes need to be made explicit to the student and, where possible, be reflected in the module learning outcomes.

In the Irish context, few students have engaged in group work prior to beginning their third level sudies, and they may need some low stakes groupwork experience to develop confidence and skills in this area. Such activities could include analysing case studies, finding and sharing news articles, creating and enacting role plays, responding to student writing, developing assignment criteria for group work etc. There are multiple approaches for bringing groups together such as think-pair-share, snowball groups, jigsaw etc which enable the student to flex their ‘group work’ muscle in low stakes activities.

For more see University of Waterloo resources on Small group tasks and Small group approaches.

Group work can lead to conflict amongst group members particularly where students differ in terms of contribution. Groups can develop a group contract or group rules which set out the roles and expectations for the group members and establish the consequences of non-adherence. This aligns with the storming phase of Tuckman's stages of group development. The provision of formative feedback by the teacher is vital to ensure students receive guidance to develop their skills and to act as an ‘early warning system’ should a group be experiencing issues.

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