In this unit
This unit includes suggestions to help monitor student groups. It will focus on three key areas of group work that benefit from monitoring. These are the group's:
This unit will also touch on some strategies to help groups caught in conflict.
Why monitor groups?
To understand why groups need monitoring, it is important to understand how student groups tend to struggle. In general, groups often leave too much work to the last minute and struggle to complete their work on time. As a result, many groups are forced to rush the end product and thus fail to produce work that reflects their full potential. This last-minute rush also creates considerable tension within the group that often leads to conflict and leaves the group members with an overall negative experience. These negative experiences usually have an impact on students' attitudes towards future group work and their ability to reflect on the skills they have learned.
There are a large number of reasons why groups tend to run out of time. Three of the main reasons are: 1) students lack the confidence to manage each other, 2) students lack the confidence to make decisions collectively, and 3) students lack the confidence to deal with conflict.
Students lack the confidence to manage each other
In educational settings, group members have the same status (rather than in industry where there is often a clear hierarchy in place). Under such conditions, many students find it difficult to manage each other. Students often feel uncomfortable directing other students. More so, students do not like being directed by their peers. The way students deal with the issue of equal status is to hope that everything will just "work out". For example, students hope that:
- all members will be motivated
- all members will do their share
- this share will not overlap with another member
- this share will be produced on time and be of a high standard
Unfortunately, relying on hope alone seldom works. By the time groups realise this, valuable time has already been lost.
Students lack the confidence to make decisions collectively
When groups realise that issues need to be resolved, they often adopt an approach that suits the equal status conditions within the group. This is usually a democratic approach where they attempt to cater for each member in the group. Attempting to cater for everybody's needs within the group can be difficult. This approach takes considerable time as students try to accommodate each other.
As students struggle to cater for every member's needs and wants, they soon realise that compromise will be needed. For students, compromising can be difficult because it requires discussion and this has the potential to lead to conflict. Rather than make decisions, many groups prefer to stay "off task" for as long as possible. Groups will engage in small talk; they will be reluctant to share ideas (because they may cause debate); and they will be non-committal to suggestions made. To students, saying nothing is better than disagreeing.
Students lack the confidence to deal with conflict
As each week goes by, there will be mounting pressure to begin working on the task. However, by this stage, the group's time frame is becoming too short. This pressure often leads to a large number of decisions being made with little time to discuss the issues thoroughly. This invariably leads to the conflict students wanted to avoid in the first place.
When conflict arises in the group, students usually struggle to deal with it effectively. Most students deal with conflict by adopting either a fight or flight strategy. Unfortunately, both of these strategies only result in more loss of time. Students still need to make collective decisions and reach consensus and this takes even more time.
What should be monitored?
As discussed above, student groups tend to struggle to complete their work on time due to three main factors (lacking the confidence to manage each other, make decisions together, and deal with conflict). For groups to reach their full potential, it is crucial that these factors are monitored. The key is not to prevent these factors from emerging altogether but rather to ensure that the group does not get bogged down and lose too much time. With most group assignments lasting less than one semester, groups can not afford to lose time staying "off task" and avoiding issues. Groups need to address issues and progress forward. In equal status groups however, students need help to address issues and stay on target. This is where the monitoring becomes crucial.
To keep groups on track, three key aspects should be monitored. These are the group's: 1) meetings, 2) progress and 3) dynamics.
As discussed in Unit 4: Getting Groups Started, groups need to hold regular and productive meetings. To ensure this is happening, it is important that meetings are closely monitored. As also discussed in Unit 4, groups can benefit greatly by taking minutes of their meetings. If groups keep minutes, it is therefore possible to monitor their meetings by having groups lodge their minute sheets on a regular basis. This monitoring technique can be effective because it helps students stay on track. Groups know that they have to report on their meetings each week and can't afford to skip meetings or stay off task for too long.
Apart from monitoring meetings, the group's progress should also be closely monitored. For groups to complete their task on time, they must be continually performing at a high level. Groups need to set short term goals and ensure they achieve these goals on time. An effective way to monitor progress is to have verbal progress reports. These results should focus on the performance of the group (ie. what they have been achieving). The best way to run these sessions is for a member of each group to make a brief presentation in class (for a few minutes). This report should be conducted regularly (eg. every week or fortnight) and presented by a different member each time.
The verbal reporting system is extremely effective because:
- it holds members accountable - it's hard to shirk when you know you have to present on behalf of your group
- it allows each member to gain experience with making presentations
- it keeps communication channels open in the group (ie. between members)
- it helps groups compare their progress to other groups
According to group theory, all groups go through a phase of conflict. This is an inevitable part of a group's development over time. Groups need to deal with the issues creating the conflict before moving on to high performance.
To ensure that groups have progressed past the conflict phase, it is crucial that the group's dynamics are monitored. This is best achieved by a formal review around the group's mid-way point (eg. around week seven if the group has a full semester). While there are many team review surveys/exercises available, most are designed for industry teams and are once again not entirely applicable. IML has adapted Harshman and Phillips's (1996) team review to make it suitable for student groups at UTS. This exercise (called the "Team Review Exercise") can be downloaded.
If things go wrong
If student groups are closely monitored, the chances of conflict arising (and escalating) are significantly reduced. Occasionally, however, groups can still strike difficulties and can become trapped in a cycle of conflict that will require your intervention. This unfortunately arises when groups don't take your monitoring efforts seriously (ie. can't see the point and don't do it properly) or are in conflict and don't want to bring it up (in the fear of making things worse).
Why do groups sometimes strike difficulties?
In most instances, groups slip into conflict for a number of reasons. The most common sources of conflict relate to group members:
- dominating the group
- showing little interest or commitment to the group assignment
- not pulling their weight or meeting deadlines
- disagreeing on task allocation
- disagreeing on the quality of work produced
How can I intervene?
As mentioned earlier, groups tend to avoid conflict in the hope that it will resolve itself. As such, when groups finally seek help, many weeks have past. It is not uncommon for groups to eventually seek help in the week before the assignment is due. Usually, one member or a few students of the same group will come and see you to discuss their difficulties (and ask for an extension!). At this stage, there is no point in saying things like:
- "Conflict is good and you need to work through it."
- "This is a good learning experience."
- "You need to all get together and talk it through."
- "If you had come to me earlier, I would have been able to help."
- "You will need to put your differences aside and get the work done."
Whilst, you may be thinking many of these, it is important that you intervene promptly. Students have come to you as their last resort (because they are worried about their mark). Sometimes, lecturers will first talk with the group members individually to get the "full story". Usually, the root of the conflict is based around personality clashes or something blown out of all proportion. In such instances, it can often be useful to arrange and facilitate a meeting attended by all members. This meeting should not be approached as a "T-group" therapy session (there is not enough time); rather it should be task focused (eg. what has been agreed upon to date? What have students done thus far?). Most groups already will have made decisions earlier on (before the conflict) and this should be the starting point. Setting strict deadlines (for each member's work to be completed) are usually beneficial for the group so as to keep them task focused. Most group members will work better because they tend to put their differences aside or are too busy to let the little things worry them as much. It will probably be necessary to convene another meeting with the group to ensure that deadlines are being met and the group is functioning.
Occasionally, groups may have gone past the point of facilitation and require more drastic action. When group members have become overly aggressive or vindictive to each other, it may be necessary to split the group up and have students work individually or in dyads. This option, however, should only be used under exceptional circumstances because it is often viewed as unfair by the other students. This is because these students have worked through their difficulties and see that the group being split up has been rewarded (by being allowed to work by themselves). This problem can often be addressed by ensuring that the mark awarded for the group assignment has a "team work/ team process" component which is deducted from these groups who have chosen to be separated. If this strategy is to be adopted, it is important that it is clearly discussed in your subject outline.
Encouraging self-help and self-discovery
Dealing with difficult issues should not be your responsibility alone. It should also be up to students to address these issues for themselves (this is part of the reason for group work in the first place). Unfortunately, students often need to be steered toward the information needed to help themselves and this topic was covered in Unit 2: Preparing Students for Group Work. It is crucial that students are made aware of the many services available to help them manage group work. It is also crucial that students see the link between the information available and how it can apply to their current situation. For example, it may be appropriate to encourage students to look at the resources availablebefore you begin any facilitation. By doing so, it is more likely that students will come up with their own solutions to resolve their conflict and be far more committed to their chosen course of action. Furthermore, it is important that after each facilitation session, students are made aware of their improvements in group functioning (ie. reward positive behaviour) and what they have learned about themselves (ie. how one has reacted to conflict; how could the same situation be avoided next time; what skills/insights have they developed throughout the situation and how can this be applied elsewhere).
Options to consider
- Groups often keep their problems to themselves. Students worry that they may lose marks if the lecturer discovers there are problems in their group. It is therefore important that monitoring is not perceived by students as a way to "catch people out", but rather to help groups work more effectively.
- One of the biggest problems faced by student groups is finding time to meet. Setting some time aside in class for group meetings is an effective strategy. However, students often find it too noisy to have their meeting in the classroom and prefer to go elsewhere. Unfortunately, many leave the classroom together and then decide not to have a meeting (usually because they have another assignment due). It is often a good idea to have minute sheets returned at the end of each class to ensure that groups have had a meeting.
- Groups often work more effectively when their assignment has a number of assessment tasks staggered throughout the semester (rather than the assignment due only at the end of the semester). For example, have groups submit a proposal or a number of drafts throughout the semester. This will help groups keep on track and avoid the "last minute rush".
Harshman, C., & Phillips, S. (1996). Team Training: From Startup to High Performance.McGraw-Hill: New York, NY
Federman Stein, R. F., & Hurd, S. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide. Anker: Boston, MA.