Recently, I read an article on Faculty Focus by Brigitte Vittrup on how to improve group work. In the article, she argues that typically college students resist group work primarily because of uneven contributions by group members (or, “social loafing”). Despite this resistance, research suggests a number of benefits for this kind of work. She concludes by encouraging faculty to explain the benefits for students to buy in to the process. While certainly important, I would add that there are certain elements we can consider in our planning that can maximize the benefits and help to minimize some legitimate student concerns.
How can we gauge and increase the level of collaboration in our courses?
As I’ve written previously, the 21st Century Learning Design framework from ITL Research offers great insight into effectively integrating 21st century skills in the classroom. The 21CLD framework not only offers six skills to consider (including collaboration), they also offer insight into different levels of their integration into learning activity design in the form of rubrics. When we look at the four levels of collaboration in the 21CLD rubric, we can gain some insight into how to increase the quality of collaboration in our courses.
To make sure that each member contributes to the group effort, faculty can ensure that group members have shared responsibility in their work together. This can often take the form of clearly defined roles in the group. These individual roles distribute the tasks and provide each member with a unique contribution with the larger group effort. For example, one student might have the task of summarizing multiple data sources, while another’s job might be to identify themes across sources. The group can then only be successful when each member contributes. These individual roles also enable the instructor to assess the work collectively and individually.
Make substantive decisions together
If we were to stop at ensuring that students have shared responsibility, we may have achieved cooperative learning. In this model students essentially divide the workload. To me at least, this is different than students working closely together in a collaborative way. To move to a more collaborative experience, we can amplify the group dynamic when we require group members to make substantive decisions together. Rather than providing all the parameters of a task or project for the students, we can leave some choices up to the group. These decisions can take the form of deciding on their own process, developing a group contract, or determining how they might present their work. Not only does this increase personalization and student engagement, it also requires the group to come together to create and execute a shared vision of the work.
Student work is interdependent
Even with encouraging individual responsibility and making substantive decisions together, some students may still be less engaged than their peers. To minimize this “social loafing,” faculty can make sure that group members’ contributions are interdependent. This can be accomplished by ensuring that member roles each contribute a unique perspective or point of view on the project. For example, if a portion of the project would encourage them to explore multiple perspectives on an issue or to consider multiple possible solutions to a problem, the instructor could build in an experience where students review and comment on each other’s work to create a group consensus. Drawing on a design thinking experience I recently wrote about, group members could engage in a process of ranking and developing themes in their work. When students must thoughtfully bring their own ideas to the table and simultaneously draw on the work of their peers, their contributions become interdependent.
Not every group project or task would need to include all of these elements. Particularly with a short-term experience, it may not be practical to do so. What we can say, though, is that the more of these elements are present, the greater the level of collaboration is involved. If substantive collaboration is one of our key learning goals for an experience, it can be helpful to consider these different elements in the design.
In assessing collaborative work, I think it’s important to include some mix of group and individual metrics. I think it is important to have some portion of the grade be based on each individual’s contribution to the group. This increases personal responsibility and accountability that may also promote group cohesion. A wiki is a great tool for the instructor to track individual contributions to a group document (I describe this here). This can also be augmented by a brief questionnaire in which each group member anonymously rates the contributions of each member.
I’m also a believer, however, in assigning a portion of the grade to the cumulative efforts of the group. After all, the end product should provide at least some measure of how well the group worked together. This provides a reward structure for those groups that make the effort and put the time in to generate work that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Collaborative work in the classroom is not easy. However, when we mindfully design the experience to require students to share responsibility, make substantive decisions together, and work interdependently, we can take comfort in the fact that we are engaging them in the kinds of work that allow them to contribute to their careers, community and world beyond the classroom.
How do you encourage and structure collaboration in your courses?
Please post your comments below.