Preparing students for group work
In this unit
This unit includes suggestions for preparing students for group work. It will cover issues such as:
- providing students with a written rationale for group work
- reinforcing the rationale verbally
- helping students become familiar with others in their class prior to group formation
- helping students to help themselves learn about group work
How important is preparing students for group work?
For students to operate effectively in groups, preparation is essential. Students should not be expected to be "team ready" just because they have been working in groups before. Each group experience is new and students need to cover the basics. For example, students need to know:
- What sort of group work will be conducted in this subject?
- Why is group work needed in the subject?
- Who will be their fellow group members and why?
- What specific skills will be developed through their participation in group work?
You can not assume that students know this information. Most students are very sceptical about group work and have little idea of the reasons they are made to work in groups. If students are informed about the basics, they are more likely to understand the rationale for group work in their subject. As a result, they will also be more likely to enter their groups with the attitudes, expectations and motivation necessary to engage at a high performance level. Informed and motivated students will also be much more willing to learn from their group experiences.
How should I prepare my students for group work?
There are a number of steps involved in preparing students for group work. The first step is to provide students with a written rationale for group work. The second step is to reinforce the written rationale with a verbal presentation about group work. The third and final step is to encourage member familiarity before group formation.
Written rationale for group work
In most instances, students first become aware of group work in the subject by reading the subject/course outline. Students will read the word "group work" long before they hear it in the class room. It is therefore important that the rationale for group work is contained in the subject outline.
As a general rule, the more information you can provide to your students about group work, the better. For many students, a comprehensive and well structured section on group work in the subject outline tends to reflect the lecturer's overall commitment to the principles of group work. When there is little reference to group work in the outline (and there is an assessable group work component), students often perceive that the lecturer is only using group work as a workload reduction strategy. In these instances, students feel ill-prepared for group work and have little confidence that the lecturer will oversee the groups effectively. Self-fulfilling prophecies such as these can be dangerous because they can destroy groups before they even begin.
Despite slight variations, an outline with a comprehensive group work section contains all the information students need to prepare for group work. This section should include statements concerning:
- the "basic" rationale for group work in the subject (eg. why group work is required in this subject)
- what the group assignment will involve (eg. what the deliverables are)
- the learning outcomes of group work (eg. what knowledge, skills and abilities the student will be expected to learn through group work). This topic was discussed in the previous unit (see Unit 1: Designing Group Assignments)
- how members will be selected into groups and why
- how group work will be assessed and why
- how groups will be monitored to ensure equal participation by all members
- how often (and for how long) should group members be meeting to work on their assignment (eg. approximately three hours per week)
- what are the potential risks that students may face by working in a group (eg. loafing, dominating members, conflict) and what efforts will be made to manage these risks if they arise
- how any problems should be resolved (ie. come and see you early so you can intervene)
Verbal presentation about group work
Students should not only read the rationale for group work, but they should also hear it. Presenting the rationale is one of the most crucial aspects of student-based group work. It is when most students decide to "buy in" or not. The delivery of the rationale, however, must be genuine. Students will be looking just as much at your body language as they are listening to your voice. They will be looking for signs of your commitment to group-based learning. You can't expect your students to be committed to group work if you're not.
In most instances, your verbal presentation about group work should take place in the first lecture or tutorial. It is best if it follows and reinforces the material you have written in the subject outline. Following the presentation, some lecturers hold a "question and answer" session/class discussion where students have an opportunity to voice their concerns about group work. This session is particularly useful because it allows you to cover any additional issues not covered in the subject outline. It will also help students see your commitment to group work.
Encourage member familiarity before group formation
If time permits, it is often a good idea to help students in your class become familiar with each other. In most instances, the students in your class will not know each other very well (if at all). In a week or two, they will be expected to begin working together as a group. It is therefore important that students get to know others in their class as these people may be their fellow group members in a few weeks time.
An effective way to encourage familiarity is to run an "ice-breaking" group exercise. This will not only encourage familiarity, but also help students practice team work. UTS library has a large collection of team-building books which contain ice-breaking exercises. References to some of these books can be found at the end of this unit.
For the purposes of the exercise, it is best if you randomly assign students into groups. This will allow students to work with new people (which is the main aim of the exercise). It is important to note that these groups are only temporary (ie. only for the exercise) and are not applicable for the group assignment. Selection of members into these assignment groups will be covered in the next unit (Unit 3: Forming Effective Groups).
Helping students to help themselves learn about group work
The emergence of high performing groups should not be the sole responsibility of the lecturer. Students also need to take responsibility for their own preparation and development. Students often work best when they identify and solve problems for themselves. This also applies to the learning of group related skills. As with most other areas of group work, students may need help in order to help themselves. The best way to do this is to lead them to the appropriate resources.
Options to consider
- Some lecturers find it useful to have a recent graduate attend their class and talk about team work in their job and the skills they learned through their participation in group assignments.
- Many part-time and postgraduate students are already employed and are members of a team in their workplace. These students often view group work as irrelevant to them because they are already in a team. It is important to point out that group work at UTS is used for skill development and that the skills learned can be applied to their current employment and future career development. It is also important to point out the networking opportunities available through group work at the graduate level. Developing industry contacts is very important to postgraduates.
- There will always be someone in the class who doesn't want to work in a group. UTS has clear guidelines for students not wanting to participate to group work. These guidelines are contained in the UTS Coursework Assessment Policy and Procedures documents.
- Students are often motivated by seeing some relevant job advertisements and industry based articles where the importance of team work is highlighted. Material such as this should be used in your verbal presentation on the benefits of group work.
- Students should be encouraged to think about contingency plans in the event of a member becoming sick or withdrawing from the subject.
- Students should also be encouraged to consider the ethical issues associated with group work. For example, how one member's cheating or plagiarism may impact on the whole group (and their marks).
UTS library has a large collection of team-building books which contain ice-breaking exercises. These include:
- Parker, G. M., & Kropp, R. P. (1992). 50 Activities for Teambuilding. HRD Press: Amherst, MA (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/PARK/).
- Michalak, B., Fischer, S., & Voehl, F. (1994). Experiential Activities for High Performance Teamwork. HRD Press: Amherst, MA (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/MICH).
- Mears, P., & Voehl, F. (1994). Teambuilding: A Structured Learning Approach. St. Lucie Press: Delray Beach, FL. (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/MEAR).
- Francis, D., & Young, D. (1992). Improving Work Groups: A Practical Manual for Team Building. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA. (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/FRAN).
- Harshman, C., & Phillips, S. (1996). Team Training: From Startup to High Performance. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY (UTS Call No.: City 658.3124/HARS).
UTS also holds the serial called the Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators (UTS Call No.: City 158.2/20) which is an excellent source for ice-breaking exercises.
The benefits of group work
The benefits of group work are covered in a number of excellent references held at UTS. These include:
- Federman Stein, R., & Hurd, S. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide. Anker: Boston, MA. Chapter 1: Teamwork Theory and Discussion. (UTS Call No.: City 371.395 FEDE). Download the PDF version of this document from the UTS Library [1.02Mb]
- Gibb, G. (1995). Learning in Teams: A Tutors Guide. The Oxford Centre for Staff Development: Oxford Brookes University, Oxford. Chapter 1: Introduction: Why use teams? (UTS Call No.: City 378.176 GIBB ).
- Jaques, D. (1984). Learning in Groups. Gulf Publishing: Houston, TX. Chapter 5: Aims and Objectives of Learning Groups. (UTS Call No.: City 378.1795 JACQ [ED.2]).
- Lawnham, P. (2002). Smells like team spirit, The Australian, Higher Education section, Wednesday April 24, p 29.
For students to read
Students often find it useful when they are provided with a few readings to help with their development of group work skills. Some of the more useful references in the UTS library are:
- Gibb, G. (1995). Learning in Teams: A Student Manual. The Oxford Centre for Staff Development: Oxford Brookes University, Oxford. Chapter 6: Making Meetings Work. (UTS Call No.: City 378.176 GIBB ).
- Gibb, G. (1995). Learning in Teams: A Student Guide. The Oxford Centre for Staff Development: Oxford Brookes University, Oxford. (UTS Call No.: City 378.176 GIBB ).
- Federman Stein, R. F., & Hurd, S. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide. Anker: Boston, MA. Chapter 4: Guidelines for Student Teams. (UTS Call No.: City 371.395 FEDE).
- Parker, G. M. (1990). Team Players and Teamwork: The New Competitive Business Strategy. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA. Chapter 2: What Make a Team Effective or Ineffective. (UTS Call No.: City 568.4036/22).