5 ways to make groupwork work in your teaching

Learning from academics is important to students’ learning, but so is working with their peers. The types of communication that peer-to-peer work requires provokes forms of motivation, reflection and criticality that cannot be generated any other way.

Furthermore, the main stream cohort of students may engage in topic-based discussions within their own social groups quite naturally, but those on the periphery of the cohort (such as part-time students, those with caring responsibilities, mature students and others) may not get the same opportunities. Getting peers to work in inclusive groups can help redress this.

Canvas gives student groups a space of their own, where the participants have the ability to create their own pages, discussions, collaborations and even online conferences. ‘Groups’  is a very strong feature of Canvas, but the success of any group work is likely to be dependent on the tutors’ involvement, because although some groups just work, many don’t -sometimes the group doesn’t gel or the participants do not see the point.

As educators who are concerned with inclusivity and equality, we need to be concerned about those groups and give every opportunity for them to work. So what can we do to encourage group work?

1. Align the group work objectives with the module learning objectives

Students are more likely to get involved if they know what they will get out of their participation. If tutors signpost how group activity will contribute to their module learning objectives and their final assessment, this will be a great motivator in getting students to work together.

Designing assessments to include a reflective element where  students discuss what they learnt during their group work is one way to meet this aim.

2. Embed group work in face-to-face teaching

In order to get group work to happen outside of the classrooms it is useful to get the group familiar with one another inside the classroom. Whilst it is not desirable to get all work done in the same group, it is recommended that your group does at least one task together during a seminar or face-to-face teaching session, either as a starter activity or as a concluding activity to a piece of work they have done outside class.

For different types of group work see 4.

3. Pre-empt challenges in group work

Working in groups is not easy. Some people dominate discussion and others do not get involved at all. Sometimes there are disagreements or personality clashes. In order to reduce these types of problems, there are a number of things to consider:

  • What is the group’s purpose? What will learners get out of contributing to the group? It is useful if you can define an outcome. For example, in reading groups the outcome could be the production of a group summary of core points in the readings.
  • Is the group size right? Four or five students is usually the ideal size for most group work.
  • What is the lifespan of the group? A clear lifespan for the group will give students a goal to work towards.
  • Will group members have different roles? Giving each member a different role, such as secretary, leader and researcher, can help prevent conflicts.
  • Are the students proficient in working in a group? You can introduce learners to concepts which enable better group working such as active listening and methods for giving and receiving criticism.
  • What should students do when there are conflicts? Be prepared to help students to resolve conflicts and make their groups work.

It would be nice to imagine that students will continue to contribute to group work with or without our involvement, but it is recommended that you regularly monitor group work and iron out any issues before they get too serious. You could set up a regular written or verbal report or submission from individuals or the group as a whole.

4. Expect your group to engage in a variety of activities

Group should work together on a number of activities so the members become familiar with one another and they are able to communicate with more confidence. When they are able to communicate more freely with the group their motivation to achieve the group objectives should grow and they will have more opportunities to critically analyse the subject matter and reflect on their understanding.

There are countless activities that you can expect the students to do. Usually they will include a group-based element which they can do in their own time and an element that includes the rest of the cohort.

There are some activities that you should with the students during face-to-face teaching time. These would include:

  • Discussing what it means to “actively listen”,
  • Setting the expectations they have for one another of giving and receiving feedback
  • Setting objectives for the week ahead
  • Giving each other roles

There are other group work activities that have elements that the groups can do outside of face-to-face teaching time such as:

  • Think, pair, share is an activity where the tutor gives the group questions based on a theory or an academic reading and expect them to think about it on their own and then discuss their potential response with the group (or at least a peer). Finally when the group is with the rest of the cohort they share their analysis with the rest of the students and tutor.
  • Jigsaw is a group exercise where a group already exists and you create temporary groups based on a theory or an academic reading around the seminar room which group members join. Members of the temporary group become experts on the topic and then return to their own group to explain what they have learnt.
  • Snowball is a group exercise where the tutor asks a group to compile a list based on a theory or an academic reading by thinking on their own and then coming together with the group to share their list ideas. Again when the group is back together with the rest of the cohort they share their list with the rest of the students and tutor.
  • Rainbow is a group exercise where each group member has their own colour  and the tutor gives them an open question based on a theory or an academic reading to discuss. Group members with the same colour as members in other groups get together to share what their group had discussed

Whatever the group seminar activity it should be clear how it contributes to the learning objectives of the module and how they will finally be assessed.

5. Evaluate the groups’ performance

Like all of us, students respond best when they think their effort is valued. In Higher Education, value of student effort is usually measured by their achievement in assessments. If students do not see the value in group work they may decide that they are not going to get involved. However, if the objectives of group tasks are aligned with the learning objectives of the module, engagement in group work will improve the depth of students’ understanding and should therefore contribute to improving their assessment grade.

In summary, group work can improve students’ depth of understanding. Some of your students will get the opportunity to work in informal groups by dint of the fact they have friends in the cohort, but some will not unless you set up opportunities for them to do so.

Setting group work during face-to-face teaching and using Canvas groups to continue their work is one way to provide this opportunity. We know it can be challenging to get students to engage with groups so I hope this post has provided some strategies to help them work.

If you’re interested in using group work in your teaching feel free to contact the TEL team. Please also have a look at our blog post highlighting the Groups feature in Canvas.

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