Written by Jessica Kalra, TCDC Curriculum Consultant & Biology and Health Sciences Instructor
Many faculty/departments at Langara have identified communication and collaboration skills as important learning goals for their students. In order to help our students achieve these goals, we as instructors, may opt to employ group assignments as part of our assessment strategies. However, the value of group work extends beyond just communication. Group work can be an important tool to engage students and help them build negotiation, time management, conflict resolution and organizational skills. In the context of our increasingly diverse classrooms, group work provides students with opportunities to develop and practice intercultural communication skills. Group work also affords instructors the opportunity to assign more complex and authentic tasks that would otherwise be impossible for a student to do alone. Moreover, if students are working in groups, they are learning from each other, which can encourage deep learning (Millis 2002, Weimer, 2011). Perhaps most importantly, employer focus groups have indicated that strong communication skills and the ability to work well in teams are skills that are prioritized when hiring, in some cases, above technical know-how.
Although the myriad of benefits of group work are clear to instructors, many students are resistant to it. The key challenges for students include navigating the different personalities, attitudes, motivation levels, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and schedules of each group member (Vittrup 2015). How can we as instructors, help our students appreciate the importance of group work and relieve some of the apprehension our students face when tasked with a group assignment?
To overcome some of the challenges of assigning group work consider:
- Only using group work when it makes sense. The University of Waterloo, Centre for Teaching Excellence suggests some helpful questions to ask when deciding whether or not to use group work for a specific task: What is the objective of the activity? How will that objective be furthered by asking students to work in groups? Is the activity challenging or complex enough that it requires group work? Will the project require true collaboration? Is there any reason why the assignment should not be collaborative? (Waterloo, CTE)
- Explicitly stating the learning outcomes of the assignment. A valuable exercise is to define the learning outcomes for the group assignment from both an academic perspective (e.g., What knowledge do I expect the students to have at the end of this task?) and from a social perspective (What collaboration skills do I expect my students to gain from completing this assignment in a group?). Furthermore, Roberson and Franchini suggest that for group work to be successful, students need to know how the assignment is “serving the stated learning goals and disciplinary thinking goals” of the course (Roberson 2014). It can be helpful to explicitly show students how group activities align with the course learning outcomes and how the skills they learn translate to the workplace.
- Designing the assignment to encourage interdependence and collaboration. The way students approach a task is highly influenced by how they’re going to be evaluated. If students are only being assessed on the product (i.e., a paper, presentation, project), the tendency, especially when there are language or other barriers, is for students to divide up the tasks, work in isolation, and then regroup at the end to put the pieces together. The benefits of group work are lost with this strategy. However, if their grade is based not only on the product, but also on the strategies and processes they used to effectively work together, students will shift their focus and efforts to this aspect of group work. In order to encourage collaboration and intercultural learning, design group assignments so that the assessment is based on the product and the process. An instructor may opt to assign roles and/or limit resources so that students must work together to complete the project (Eberly Institute, 2018; Johnson, 2015).
- Strategically designing the groups: When creating groups, the key is to use a strategy that fits the criteria for the assignment and ensures, as best as possible, optimal group composition. One strategy for intentionally creating groups is to survey the students about their backgrounds, prior knowledge or interests and use this information to organize students into teams. Regardless of whether groups are randomly or intentionally formed, heterogeneity in the cultural backgrounds and experiences of the members is likely. Reid and Garson have demonstrated that preparing students through explicit instruction in the area of cultural diversity enhances intercultural learning and improves the students experience of working in a multicultural group (Reid & Garson, 2016).
- Giving instruction on and time to learn how to be a team. It takes time for groups of people to get to know each other, identify each others’ strengths, and learn to navigate different expectations around communication, conflict resolution and time-management. It can be valuable to set aside class time for groups to begin the task and get to know each other. This in class time can also be used to prepare students for intercultural learning and to explicitly teach group work skills such as organization and planning. In class, we can also show our students online technologies that can enhance collaborative work.
- Monitoring group interactions: Challenges for students participating in group work include intercultural misunderstandings and social loafing. To overcome these challenges, some instructors ask their students to create and complete a group contract that encourages students to formally identify expectations for and goals of the group work. Other instructors choose to teach and model a culture of collaboration within the classroom. Although both of these options provide a the foundation for rules of interaction, it is essential to check in with groups periodically to provide guidance should any issues or conflicts arise. Consider using check-in meetings or even a checklist of tasks to help monitor students as they progress through their assignments.
- Allowing students time to self-reflect and peer review: Giving students the opportunity to evaluate themselves as well as each other can manage expectations and increase accountability. At the start of the project, encourage students to set collaboration and task oriented goals and create a plan to achieve those goals. At the end of the assignment, allow students to evaluate their own level of participation as well as that of each team member using a structured rubric. Self-reflection and peer review can be incorporated into the evaluation scheme as part of the assessment of process, especially if these skills are outlined in the learning outcomes.
Post-secondary education provides an opportunity for students to learn collaboration and intercultural skills. With increasing diversity on the college campus, instructors need to teach students how to work in diverse groups and how to manage challenges that arise. Thoughtfully designed group assignments, explicit instruction on academic and social expectations, as well as some intercultural preparation can not only help students understand the importance of working collaboratively, but also provide guidance towards a successful experience.