Making Group Work ‘Work’: Conversations on a theme

This month at The Sipping Point  our teaching conversations focused on the theme of ‘Making Group Work ‘Work’’. This particular topic attracted the most people yet to the Sipping Point so for those who couldn’t be there,  I think it’s well worth reflecting on some of the points that emerged.

At St Patrick’s campus, the session opened up with the irrepressible Martin Molony (DCU School of Communications) asking us to consider common group work stereotypes. No doubt familiar to many of those in the audience, these ‘types’ ran the gamut from the uber enthusiasts to the seemingly work shy. We were presented with the common challenges of group work which included varying abilities, varying skillsets, varying motivations, and varying commitment levels. In a nice about-turn of transforming a negative into a positive, we were asked to encourage students to think about these challenges as potential opportunities and indeed enablers of successful group work.

Group Work Session St Pats
Some of the attendees at the DCU St Patrick’s Sipping Point

The inspiring Susan Pike (DCU School of STEM Education, Innovation & Global Studies)  walked us through several examples of different types of group work projects she has been running in geography teacher education. These ranged from projects that had small groups of students getting to socialise and know each other through completing a local field trip, to class-wide activities that got everyone engaged in a collective, high-energy buzz about the posters they created. The confidence-building effects of these activities proved a wonderful counterpoint to all the negative ‘stuff’ we tend to hear about group work in HE, reminding us of why it’s so important to include it in curricula in the first place. Luckily we had a number of geography specialism students at the session to help us see things from the student perspective. The big takeaways that stood out for me were that:

  • Students enormously valued time in class to do work on their group projects – this request seemed all the more pertinent these days when so many students are working and/or commuting
  • Students strongly preferred to self-select their own group members (well these 4th years did…but staff present agreed that there are times when ‘mixing it up’ is beneficial for students getting to know each other)
  • Students seem to meet up face to face generally – in the follow-on discussion, we wondered if perhaps they are missing an opportunity to meet online? Is there more us lecturers should be doing to encourage that, once students have met each other and are comfortable with the idea?

At the Glasnevin campus, the conversations continued, with the following highlights:

Sipping Point Glasnevin Group Work
The lively discussions continued at the Glasnevin Campus
  • A ‘cake’ metaphor offered a novel way to describe certain group work dynamics: in Martin’s experience, students tended to want to slice the cake via individual contributions, whereas most lecturers are interested in helping students work together to bake the cake.
  • The importance of discussing proposed group work with students and explaining the rationale behind it was strongly emphasised. This advice is very much reflected in the excellent resource developed by Dundalk IT which offers an assessed group work framework for programme teams and lecturers to plan and manage their group work in more effective ways. A paper by Davies (2009) was cited as another practical and research-informed resource to explore. There was another shout out too for the super work done by Dónal Mulligan on developing a Google Forms-based peer review system within group work. You can read more about that in his EdTech 2018 presentation.
  • Various approaches on group ‘selection’ were discussed, such as the pros and cons of empowering students to select their own members versus the perhaps unexpected benefits that randomisation might provide. One attendee talked about how her students gave positive feedback welcoming random selection of group members. Another suggestion shared was the idea of allowing students in a group to select one friend that they know and are comfortable with, while the lecturer identifies the other pair to work on the project.
  • To help promote group accountability, based on positive experience, it was also suggested that we encourage students to adopt typical professional behaviours such as agenda setting and minute taking.

We could have talked for hours and if nothing else, this session absolutely confirmed that those attending are passionate about trying to make group work a success within their disciplines. Somewhat off point, but interesting nonetheless, I think it worth mentioning that it was noted that this topic attracted an almost exclusively female attendance. Why is it that group work (and the management of group work) seemed to attract so many women but so few men? Was it purely coincidental on this occasion or just a topic that seemed to speak more to women for some reason? Let’s regroup to consider that one another time, perhaps.

References

Davies, W. M. (2009) ‘Groupwork as a form of assessment: common problems and recommended solutions’, Higher Education, 58(4), pp. 563–584.

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