Category Archives: 2. Featured Articles

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!



Hooking Students in First Five Minutes of Class

Have you ever tried to start class only to be greeted by sounds of unzipping backpacks and chattering classmates? Sometimes coaxing students to focus at the beginning of class can be a challenge. However, we miss a golden opportunity to create an engaging atmosphere that inspires active learning if we let those first minutes slip by.

Although we all have days when we must begin with routine announcements or other business, you may want to consider some alternative strategies to grab students’ attention immediately—and keep it.

Begin with questions. Try projecting several questions about the day’s topic for students to think about as they seat themselves. For example, say the day’s lesson will focus on the direct organizational strategy. Questions that might encourage students to think about the lesson could be Why do many colleges use the direct strategy when sending rejection letters? or Do you ever have a difficult time finding specific information in an e-mail? Questions from the previous night’s homework can also prepare students for attentive behavior.

Review material. Help students recall what they learned in the prior class by asking them to volunteer specific ideas or concepts. Write their responses on the board, making sure to revise for accuracy, and use the exercise as a segue into new material. If you take roll, you can ask students to respond with a fact they took away from the last class session when you call each name.

Assign quick writes. A low-stakes writing exercise helps cement new ideas and retrieve prior knowledge. (It’s not necessary to collect the papers as long as you monitor students’ activity to ensure they stay on task.) Just the act of writing—especially in writing courses—helps students transition to the classroom, where they are expected to think and focus. Try asking the class to compose a tweet that encapsulates a learning objective or to write a quick summary of a news item you exhibit.

Create a loop of slides. Put together a series of slides that feature course-related content for the day, multiple-choice questions, quotes from readings, or fill-in-the-blank sentences. Or you might want to remind students of due dates or long-term project milestones they should be thinking about.

Practice grammar. The first few minutes of a class session are a great time to present a quick grammar lesson that becomes part of a midterm or quiz. Starting these lessons the first minutes of class can encourage students to arrive on time, too!

Allow teams to collaborate. If you have a group project, allow teams the first minutes of class to catch up with one another, even if it’s just to discuss a time to meet outside of class. Students will become engaged instantly if they’re working together.

The semester flies by, so taking advantage of those first minutes of class to reinforce learning makes a lot of sense!

What do you do to make the most of the beginning of your classes? Start a conversation!




Start the Semester Strong

None of us entered our field because we wanted to alienate students. Yet unwittingly, much of our traditional first-day agendas do just that. Reading the syllabus as a contractual obligation, warning about late work and poor attendance, and being the “sage on the stage” can create the opposite of an atmosphere that will excite students about our courses.

So just what will engage our students from the get-go? At Spartanburg Community College, new faculty watch a video called Voices of Our Students that was created by a student intern, reports Dr. Tena Long Golding. The video contains students’ perspectives about their college teachers and reveals that students describing a “great professor” use words such as honest, relatable, engaging, concerned, invested, and enthusiastic.

Students in the video also describe what makes for a “favorite professor.” They list the following desirable traits:

  • are consistent and predictable
  • believe in students’ ability to succeed
  • entertain when lecturing
  • help students having trouble by being available and offering feedback
  • make connections between course content and the “real world”
  • motivate students using a variety of methods
  • open discussions after lectures
  • share personal anecdotes
  • view students as individuals

As we start our new academic year, perhaps we can use these student impressions to help us create more meaningful courses—and maybe even become those “favorite professors.” Below are some ways to start the new semester off on the right foot.

Offer a meaningful promise about what students will learn. Tell students what they will take away from your course. A statement such as “Everything you read and write about in this course will be relevant to your futures as business professionals” will likely grab their attention.

Engage the class with multimedia. Our millennial students are used to being dazzled by images on their screens. Can you create or show a short video? Play a podcast? Project photographs? You’ll wake up even the most uninterested students if you appeal to their need to view learning at least in some part as entertaining.

Demonstrate consequences of poor classroom behavior. Perhaps you can make your own cellphone go off or respond to a text message while you are speaking. While going over the syllabus, you might tell a “sad story about Missing Student” who skipped so many classes and got so hopelessly behind that she [fill in the blank.] Present your pet peeves to students in a creative way.

With a little effort and a few tweaks to the standard way of starting a new course, this may be your best year of teaching yet!

Do you have any first-day activities or strategies to engage your students? St