Group Work that Works (Even in Large Classes!)

Group Work[This is a guest post by Michael Sweet, Ph.D., the director of Instructional Development for the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas, Austin.]

Ah, November. Crisp air, leaves turning colors and the looming dread of mediocre group papers and tedious group presentations through which we will soon suffer.  With finals on the horizon, we see rising levels of tension and resentment in our student groups, as good students assume more responsibility for their group’s final product, grinding their teeth as they feel forced to “carry” the slackers among them.

Next term, it doesn’t have to be this way.

There is a better design for group work that can stimulate the kind of engaged give-and-take discussion we want our students to have as they learn to use the intellectual tools of our disciplines.

We all want students to learn how to do our disciplines, but with exceptions like labs and field trips, the college classroom mostly prohibits us from involving students in real, raw disciplinary practice. What we can do in the classroom is give students practice making the kinds of decisions that we make in our disciplines—giving them what John Dewey calls “dramatic rehearsal” for real-world problem solving.  Our disciplines are, after all, defined by the kinds of questions they ask and how they go about answering those questions.

Bottom line:  effective group assignments do not require students to collectively author a paper or make a presentation. Writing and presenting are often individual tasks, and charging a group with these tasks, without special guidance on how to perform them, is to set up yourself (and your students) up for frustration and mediocrity.  On the contrary, effective group assignments simply give groups a set of data and require them to make a difficult decision, much like a courtroom jury is given a great deal of complex information and asked to render a “guilty or not guilty” decision.  In this format, student energy is focused on analyzing different pieces of evidence, weighing their merits against one another, and using the concepts from your discipline to argue toward a “best” conclusion together.

Instead of “group projects” think of these as “application activities” taking the form: “Given X, students must decide Y.” Of course, X and Y will vary based upon your discipline, topic and learning goal, but experience has provided a few basic principles for how these activities can best be carried out. Each of these principles starts with the letter S, so we have come to call these “Four S Activities.”

1. Significant Problem

Students should work on a problem, case, or question demonstrating a concept’s usefulness so they understand its impact. Instead of asking students to discuss some abstract set of conceptual distinctions, embed those distinctions within a set of concrete circumstances that would be likely to occur within your discipline. The idea here is to create a case study that grounds the experience in sets of details that would matter in your discipline.

2. Specific choice

Within the case, students should be required to use course concepts to make a decision (With which of the following three statements would Foucault most likely agree? Should the company buy, lease, or rent a fleet of trucks? Were Carnegie and Rockefeller “Robber Barons” or “Captains of Industry”? Which part of this bridge design is the most dangerous?). Groups can be required to generate short, written rationales for their choice, but groups must first be required to take a position.

3. Same problem

Students should all work on the same problem, case, or question so they will care about what other groups think about it and energetically engage each other around the course content.  If my group had one question and your group had another, I’ll have invested no energy in the details of your question and will probably tune out while you talk about it. However, if our groups addressed the same question but came to different conclusions, then I will want to hear what thinking led your group down a different path than the one mine took.

4. Simultaneous reporting

If possible, students should report choices at the same time so differences in group conclusions are not smoothed out by “answer drift” and can be explored. It can be a powerful instructional experience when a minority of students in the room actually come to a better answer than the rest, and when answers are reported sequentially, students in the minority can be strongly tempted to change their answers as their minority status becomes clearer.

Simultaneous reporting can take many forms:  from simple methods like pointing to one wall, the ceiling, or the other wall—to more sophisticated methods like having groups hold up cards indicating their choice (A,B,C,D), or even posting their answers and brief rationales on the classroom wall so they can “gallery walk” the thinking of other teams.  ”Clickers” are used by many teachers to achieve the simultaneous reporting effect.

Simultaneous Report

The best application activities not only stimulate intra-team discussion, they also stimulate inter-team discussion once the groups have reported their decisions. When all groups report their decisions, the teacher’s job is then to facilitate conversation among the groups to compare how and why they thought differently and came to different decisions. This is why simultaneous report is so important: when groups report simultaneously, differences between decisions are candidly revealed and can be explored by encouraging teams to explain the rationales for their choices to one another.

Some teachers use cases that clearly have a right answer and grade teams accordingly, some teachers do not grade choices but instead grade rationales given, and some teachers use ungraded application assignments when they feel the discussion itself is valuable enough to have in its own right.

These application activities are part of Team-Based Learning (TBL), an increasingly-popular  form of collaborative learning in higher education.  Team-Based Learning  interlocks and amplifies students’ social and intellectual experience of the classroom unlike any other form of group work.  To see it for yourself, you can watch a video with real footage of TBL in action here:

Gallery WalkYou can plug in to the growing community of TBL practitioners around the world at  The site hosts a very practical and collegial listserv, as well as a place for TBL users to exchange materials with one another.  The TBL Collaborative is currently collecting application activities from many disciplines to turn this into a real “case bank” and will make a robust library available to members in April, 2011.

Have you tried team-based learning, or an equivalent? How do groups work in your classes? Let us know in comments!

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