When Students Write in Groups

By 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.

PROBLEM: Group members seem uncomfortable with each other and don't freely participate in discussion.

Suggestions:

  • 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.
  • PROBLEM: Students spend too much time off task.

    Suggestion:

  • 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.

    PROBLEM: Groups are plagued by social loafers, slugs, and hitchhikers.

    Suggestions:

  • 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.
  • PROBLEM: Groups have conflicts.

    Suggestions:

  • 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 conclusions.
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