In either case, for group work to be meaningful, we have to design these experiences intentionally. In this era of high stakes testing, many college students have had limited experience in engaging regularly in collaborative learning experiences. These are skills that need to be taught and practiced for students to develop proficiency.
Insight into effective group work
Fortunately, research, strategies and insights on group work abound in the scholarship of teaching and learning. For example, a quick search of the Faculty Focus blog reveals 2,280 articles that reference group work on their blog alone. One can quickly find resources on specific models (e.g., POGIL), minimizing “coat-tailing,” assessing both individual and group contributions to a project, and options for forming student groups. Maryellen Weimer offers an excellent synthesis of some of the most widely used models available. Many, if not all, of these models were developed in the higher education context. What can we learn from the corporate sector to improve the efficacy of group work in college classrooms?
Recently, Business Insider published an article outlining the 5 traits that the most successful teams have in common. These traits were derived from a two-year study of 200 Google employees representing 180 of the most successful teams from the massive global company. While these traits are similar to some of the common recommendations from higher education faculty and faculty developers, I think they also provide a fresh example of how we nurture group work in our courses.
5 traits of effective teams
- They establish “psychological safety”
This trait was identified as the most critical of all five traits. This is a term that Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." Essentially, students need to feel comfortable to express their ideas, raise questions, “think aloud” as they grapple with an idea – all without fear of being criticized or ridiculed by their teammates. In the college classroom, this begins by developing, nurturing, and holding students accountable for a culture that values others' input and encourages constructive conversation. In group work, these values can be reinforced through the collaborative development of “group charters” that govern expectations for group members.
- They require dependability
In truly collaborative projects, students’ work is interdependent. This means that group members have to be able to count on their teammates to do what they say they will do when they say they will do it. This can be achieved through group charters or a “bill of rights”; roles, responsibilities, and deadlines should be developed together and mutually agreed upon from the outset of the work. The degree to which individual team members are dependable and accountable to their teammates can (and should) be reflected in their grade.
- They have structure and clarity
The same processes that encourage dependability can also support structure and clarity for group work. Students must clearly understand specifically what they need to do and how it relates to and connects with others’ work. It can be very helpful for a group to appoint a leader or facilitator to help to ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear and accounted for and who can help to establish a timeline of tasks and processes.
- They give each of their members meaning
The Google study suggests that “these roles, plans, and goals need to personally resonate with each of the employees.” This can be challenging in a course assignment or project, since the purpose, focus, and deliverables are often dictated from the outset by the instructor. When we step back and think about that, it’s no wonder that some students aren’t fully engaged in the work, as they had little (if any) input on creating the vision. Might there be ways that we can provide our students and groups with some choice as they engage in a project?
- They have a purpose
According to Google, “Every team needs to ask itself, ‘Do we fundamentally believe that what we're doing matters?’” This goes back to the previous point about the students “buying in” to the work. I’d argue, though, that we also need to consider this as instructors. When we assign a group project, do we always have a clear vision and purpose? Does this vision and purpose require a collaborative effort, or is it more a case of efficiency on our part? The clearer our purpose is for a group project, the more likely students will feel that the work is valuable.
How do you approach these traits in your courses? What traits might you add to the list?
Please post your comments below.