Using Groups to Enhance Student Learning

A common mistake in using small groups is when instructors come up with a great assignment, ask students to count-off, and wait to grade their product. For the learning to be significant in group activities, the instructor needs to be an active coach as the groups follow predictable stages. 

Successful small groups have a growth trajectory and often follow a predictable process. Tuckman1 postulates predictable stages in the groups' process:  forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning.  Although, adjouning, the assessment state, was added later.2

Forming: Team members meet each other, Team members learn about the tasks, All team members learn what their roles will be; Storming: Team members learn how to work together, Team members learn about others members' abilities, Leader focuses the team; Norming: Theam starts to work and act together, Roles evolve into helping the team succeed, Team members are more likely to express opinions; Performing: Team members work hard toward goal, Members are flexible and help each other, Leader's role is blurred - everyone is focused; Adjourning: Team conducts an assessment of the work, Team recognized members' contributions, Team implements a plan for transitioning roles

 

Coaching students on how to resolve conflict in a small group setting can be an essential learning outcome goal.  When some students take advantage of the group, it frustrates other students.  Coaching the group to work through conflicts can head off this tailgating and create a better learning experience for everyone.

Reward students individually and collectively for their performance.  One of the reasons students don't like group work is because one or two students do the majority of the work and everyone in the group gets the good grade. 

Coach students on providing peer feedback and critique.   

Allow students to give anonymous feedback to the instructor about other students' contributions to the group.  You could do this via Blackboard, or other software like ipeer, or websites like catme.org.

When designing the assignment, be sure to consider multiple student perspectives, including ways for introverted students to make meaningful contributions. 

Foster synergy by structuring the assignment so that it would be impossible for only one or two students to complete it.  By working together, the end product of the group is greater than any one person alone could have produced.

Group work takes a lot of effort from the instructor, but the learning can be more significant.  Below are selected resources as you consider group activities in your courses.

In this video Dr. Andrew Feig, Chemistry faculty and Assistant Dean of the Graduate School, discusses how he uses groups to enhance learning in his course.

Additional Resources:

Designing Effective Group Activities is an excellent resource for designing activities and provides a checklist for evaluating your assignments (Figure 6).

Implementing Small-Group Instruction addresses common faculty concerns about using class time for group work, including, "How will I cover all the content?" and "What if my students are resistant to group work?"  This work is part of a larger volume, "Strategies for Engergizing Large Classes," which is available as vol. 81 of New Directions for Teaching and Learning.

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1 Tuckman, Bruce W (1965) "Developmental sequence in small groups". Psychological Bulletin. 63(6): 384–399.
2 Tuckman, B. W. & Jensen, M. A. (1977) Stages of small-group development revisited. Group Org. Studies. 2, 419-427.