The value of group work in the college classroom is well established, with decades of research demonstrating its benefits for attainment of cognitive skills as well as deep learning. In business communication courses, group work is even more essential because it emulates the way in which organizations expect their workers to complete projects.
Nevertheless, assigning students into groups can present a dilemma. Should students pick their own partners? Should groups remain the same throughout the term? Although no one method works for all situations, research points to four ways to create groups, each with advantages and disadvantages.
Randomly generated groups In this method, the instructor decides the number of groups and students count off to form the groups, which sit together in various areas of the classroom. (If teaching remotely, use Zoom’s breakout room function and choose Assign automatically.)
- Introduces students to unknown classmates, thus encouraging viewpoints from multiple perspectives and improving students’ social skills
- Aligns with “real life” assignment of roles in workplace team projects
- May create unequal distribution of student abilities
- Possibly cause poor group cohesion in long-term projects since some students may feel that random distribution is unfair
Self-selected groups Best for brief, in-class activities, this method works well when the instructor wants to avoid taking time to divide the class up. Students often just turn to their neighbor and pair up.
- Eliminates instructor involvement
- Allows students to partner with prior acquaintances or study group members
- May result in lack of group diversity
- Could cause inequitable distribution of student abilities
- Potentially lead to groupthink as a result of members’ need to cohere to the group
Instructor-generated groups Instructors gather data about students’ skills and interests prior to assigning groups and use that data when creating groups.
- Nets positive outcomes for team projects as a result of diverse groups with complementary skills in most situations
- Consumes more time for instructor
- May lead to resistance and resentment due to the seemingly arbitrary nature of the teams
Mixed method groups Students chose their groups but must work with new individuals each time group assignments are given.
- Works well for classes with under 30 members and for repeated activities performed in pairs or threes (i.e. low-stake grammar exercises, post-lecture activities, discussions)
- Improves teamwork skills critical to the workplace by requiring students to work with all group members
- Provides opportunity for instructor to discuss inclusiveness to assure that perceived less desirable team members feel welcome
- Risks alienating students with less developed social skills
- Requires instructor to keep track of partners for each assignment
- Allows students to pair up with known classmate without instructor’s knowledge during the classwork
The business communication classroom provides ample opportunities for students to practice the kinds of real-world workplace situations they will experience. Teams that work well—and even those that do not—provide business communication instructors with teachable moments that relate to situations students will face after graduation.