When Students Write in Groups
Virginia Kidd, Professor of Communication Studies
One common process
for dealing with the ever-burgeoning number of students in our classes is
assignments that require students to collaborate, often by writing in
groups (or teams). This both limits the number of papers to grade and
encourages students to learn from one another. However, faculty should be
aware that working in groups can impose its own problems. Obviously, the
instructor often does not know who has done the actual writing or if weak
writers have learned to write better. This article discusses four
recurring classroom problems with collaborative learning: the ways initial
social interactions can hamper the task, students getting off task,
non-workers in the group, and group conflict.
members seem uncomfortable with each other and don't freely participate in
Start new groups with short
ice-breaking activities. Give them quick, silly topics to talk about that
help them to bond and break the silence. Give them ways to know a little
about each other.
Whenever possible, try to
arrange for groups to be small, ideally no larger than five to seven. A
large group is much more difficult to work in.
Expect some casual
chit-chat, discussion of campus events, and sharing of experiences as
normal and even helpful.
If you have time, let the
groups meet on their own outside the classroom, with something due by the
end of the time period. Groups interact differently in the Union
or out on the lawn than in the classroom, and often strengthen their ties.
spend too much time off task.
Set deadlines so that a
task must be completed and turned in by the end of the time period. This
holds students accountable and gives leverage to nudge the socializers
into work mode.
are plagued by social loafers, slugs, and hitchhikers.
Allow the group members to
give points to one another.
Have the students keep a
log of who attended what meeting, what each contributed, and perhaps fill
out a rating sheet on each group member.
Keep groups small. The
larger the group, the less dedication students have to it and the easier
it is to avoid work.
Allow groups to officially
"fire" group members who do not show up for meetings and do not do their
share of the work.
Understand that groups go
through phases, and conflict is a normal phase of decision-making.
Stress the importance of
differences of opinion in group work, even over wording of documents and
arrangement of material.
Point out the dangers of
groupthink, when individuals do not voice opinions contrary to the group.
Disagreements over issues leads to stronger decisions and well-thought-out