Secrets to Successful Group Work

by Janet Mizrahi, The Guffey Team, UCSB Writing Program

My program is committed to including a major group project into the curriculum of our introductory business communication course, and after teaching this assignment for 17 years, I’ve learned that the secret to positive team experiences lies in guiding students while they learn by doing. That, however, requires specific pedagogical strategies.

Below are some tactics you can weave into your own teaching when you include a group project in your curriculum.

“Sell” the project. Be enthusiastic about the benefits of group work by listing its benefits: more bodies to share the workload, diverse opinions and experiences to add varying perspectives, and different individual skills that result in a better end product. When touting the “real life” aspect of the assignment, mention that the collaborative experience is a great interview story to relate to a potential employer. If the team worked well together, students can explain why. If the team experience was problematic, the student can reflect on a lesson learned with real-world applications. Sharing these upsides of group work help early student buy-in to the assignment and leads to better collaborative experiences.

Choose a group formation practice. Grouping students yourself or allowing them to form their own teams are both valid practices. If you group students, you create a more realistic situation: In the workplace, we rarely choose with whom we must work. On the other hand, students who choose their own groups can better mesh schedules and work styles.

 Discuss teamwork skills and behaviors. Provide students with the background they need to be positive group leaders and productive group members. Many business communication textbooks (including Business Communication: Process & Product, 9e and Essentials of Business Communication, 11e by Guffey and Loewy) contain helpful sections about these topics. You can also provide handouts or point to online resources that offer advice to positive team behaviors.

Make students accountable. Some experts recommend team charters as a way to improve group participation. Such documents spell out responsibilities and consequences for not meeting those responsibilities.

Include strategies to deal with underperformers. Students often complain about “slackers” when naming what they dislike about group work, so it’s a good idea to have some practices in place for dealing with this issue. I ask students to assess their group experience in a letter or e-mail as a way for team members to vent steam, and so I learn about how the group worked as a unit. Students are asked to numerically rate themselves and their peers on specific behaviors (attends meetings, adds to meetings, meets deadlines, etc.) and discuss performance and that of their teammates in a narrative. These documents play a part in the final grade I assign to individuals.

My colleagues and I have also devised an escape clause of sorts: Teams may “fire” a member (after discussing it with the instructor) if they have proof that the member has not responded to attempts to confront his or her lack of participation. I back this up with an alternative assignment to write a 10-page research paper about the benefits of teamwork in the workplace. That seems to be enough to encourage active participation because I’ve never had a team activate the escape clause.

Provide class time for group collaboration. My colleague Gina Genova and I collaborated on a two-year study to help us define what our students saw as impediments to working in groups. We were surprised to learn that the biggest problem was making time to meet outside of class. Accordingly, we started allowing students to collaborate in class most days, at least for a few minutes. It’s a big help, students tell us.

Assign scaffolding exercises. Work plans, progress reports, Gantt charts, and rough drafts that build up to the final project are great ways to help students stay on track. Teach students to break up the project into a series of steps that lead to the end product, and help them manage their time by highlighting important due dates in your syllabus.

Group work is never easy for student and teacher alike. However, we can improve everyone’s experience if we provide students with some basic strategies for working well with others.


How do you guide your students through group work? Share your thoughts and ideas!

 

 

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