Group process in the classroom: True collaboration, or Survivor?

Being “voted off the island” is a cultural phenomenon that has sprung up in the last decade, especially in television shows like The Apprentice, Survivor, and American Idol (I don’t watch any of these shows, by the way, I just here that contestants are voted off!).  TV shows that demonstrate collaborative group process?  Non-existent.  They would not make for good television, or so the ad-men tell us!  So when it comes to teaching group process, we don’t have many cultural examples to relate to, and we might be dealing with students who possess a distorted view of “real world” workplaces, where employees who don’t contribute their fair share are simply “voted off the island.”

I want to share my most recent experience with group process as an instructor in a motor development course.  Ultimately, my faith in group process has not been shaken, but through reflection and discussion, I have devised a few best practices that I will be employing in future group assignments.  What follows is an account of student successes and some areas where students struggled.

It should be noted here that I use “group” and “team” interchangeably throughout this post.

This spring, I assigned students in my motor development class to write a “team” policy paper, in place of the dreaded individual research paper.  The policy paper asks students to assemble a two page paper that would be used to advise a state legislator how to vote on a fictional bill.  I created a fictional bill that required the Michigan House of Representatives to vote for or against reassigning $25 million from the parks and recreation budget to pay for physical education teachers in schools that had cut physical education from their budgets.  I wanted students to take a position that either structured physical activity (in the form of PE) or unstructured physical activity (in the form of safe parks) would be best for children’s motor development.  Students had to write these papers in teams of four (we used the same teams throughout the semester).  The paper followed a structured format and was limited to two single-spaced pages.  The theme I stressed was that every sentence should have a purpose, no words should be wasted… “espresso, not watered-down Dunkin’ decaf.”

I chose this assignment for a few reasons:

  1. Research papers don’t serve much function for students who are moving into careers that are primarily service-oriented, such as physical therapy or nursing
  2. Students don’t seem to assimilate all of the research that they cite, and struggle to tie it all together and understand its implications
  3. I do not have enough time to give 43 research papers due diligence.

Am I signaling the death of the research paper?  No, but perhaps we are just starting to realize that the research paper might not be the best way to have undergraduate students deliver a “research product” for a grade. I believe that the research paper serves an important role for students who are planning to move on to graduate level education, where writing research papers is an essential skill.  I don’t mean for this post to advocate for eradicating the undergraduate research paper entirely.  My philosophy is that writing is a formative process that requires a lot of feedback from the instructor.  I would suggest that research papers should be reserved for courses where instructors can provide a high level of scaffolding and support, and not used in classes where instructors will only make a summative judgment of the paper, and assign a grade at the end of the semester.

But I didn’t really intend for this to be a screed about research papers… I wanted to focus on the group process.  I gave students at least 40-minutes in three separate classes to work on this paper, where I could be present and answer student questions.  Students wrote their entire draft using a Google Document (the final work was converted to Word and submitted by electronic drop-box, as Google Documents can be edited beyond a “deadline”).  I was able to collaborate more easily using the comments feature of Google Documents, and all authors could see my comments.  At the end of the assignment, students evaluated their teammates and explained how they accomplished the task of writing the paper.

I want to examine more successful and less successful groups, and the features of these groups that led to success.

  1. More successful groups divided labor effectively.  For instance, one student researched the benefits and drawbacks of parks and rec, while another student did similar research on physical education.  Another student might examine the best ways for children to develop motor skills, or examine the importance of motor skill development in promoting lifelong physical activity.
  2. More successful groups had an editor who tied pros and cons for each side into a coherent and comprehensive case that acknowledged the strengths and weaknesses of voting for or voting against the bill.  Most papers showed a good analysis of pros and cons for each side, but only a couple of papers synthesized these arguments into a strong position.
  3. Less successful groups did not communicate effectively.  A strategy for communicating was not agreed upon at the first meeting.  For instance, “will we use text messaging or a Facebook group as our primary communication method?”
  4. More successful groups showed a near-equal contribution from all group members, while less successful groups showed unequal contributions.  In those situations where contributions were unequal, it seemed that a few driven students took it upon themselves to write the majority of the paper, because other team members did not meet deadlines.  This refers back to the communication issue that a few groups faced.

My reflection… what should an instructor to do?

Most of us believe that group work is an important responsibility for collegiate undergraduates to experience.  How to appropriately scaffold the group experience is another matter!  Here are some best practices that I will be following in future group assignments.

  1. Mandate that each group decide on the primary method of communication and submit that choice to me after the first group meeting.
  2. Discuss the practices of more effective versus less effective groups.  But how much hand-holding is needed?  Many groups communicated effectively without any attention from me.  How much time should I devote to group process in general… shouldn’t I devote my time on group process only to the groups which need my help with communication skills?  In the end, I have to let students have the opportunity to get their hands dirty, and then reflect on what worked, and what could have been improved.
  3. Dispel some myths about group work in the “real world.”  One critique of group work that students make of free-riders who don’t contribute to the group is that in the “real world,” free-riders don’t get to keep their jobs.  This point was brought to me by two students after one class, but I had to counter their beliefs.  In reality, organizational psychologists make hundreds of millions each year consulting for Fortune 500 companies because they struggle with problems of productivity… even in the United States, where workers are considered to be amongst the most productive in the world.  Firing an employee who isn’t pulling their own weight — despite what Donald Trump might make you think — is a rather difficult and arduous process, and typically seen as a last resort for most managers.  Perhaps for a generation brought up with the “voted of the island” mentality of Survivor and The Apprentice, the view of the cut-throat world of work has been distorted.

One remaining issue… how to handle individual accountability

Peer evaluation was 20 percent of the grade for this assignment.  In most cases, students received full points.  Only in cases where group members unanimously indicated that a student had not pulled his/her weight was this score reduced.  Some research has indicated that group tasks with a “hybrid reward system” will lead to better outcomes (more time on task, more equal contribution from all members, etc.).  A hybrid reward system includes an evaluation of the team’s work (the grade for the project) and an evaluation for each individual’s contribution.  In my case, it is tough to say that the hybrid reward system insured the high quality of group work.  In some instances, I would speculate that a few highly motivated students grew tired of working with free-riders, and decided that they would cut this student out of the loop, do the work this student was supposed to contribute, and then give this student a poor individual evaluation.

I will continue to advocate that the best way to get strong group participation is to design a meaningful and clear group project from the ground-up.  Meaningful work that can be delegated helps students to organize.  One thing I will implement will be forced checkpoints where I can check not only the product (the paper, as it evolves) but also the group process (what issues, such as communication, need to be addressed?).  While my experience with this assignment hit a few significant road-bumps, ultimately, it reinforced my belief that students can effectively work in groups when they delegate and communicate, and that having the opportunity for such assignments is an essential feature of undergraduate education.

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