8 Group Work Mechanics

This section is coming from a practicioner’s point of view. Over the post 40 years or so, I’ve facilitated and participated in all sorts of educational group work. What follows are lessons learned.

Group size.

If you let group size get larger than five team members, some members are going to start to check out. Four to five members is about the sweet spot. Expect some group attrition during the term. So if groups start with five and someone drops, the remaining four can still be a viable group. Starting with four and failing down to three can also be viable. If the group drops below three, it stops being a real group.

Group structure.

The one role that must exist is leadership. Shared leadership can work too, but generally, one student will emerge as the effective team leader. You can guide the selection of group leader or you can just let the group work out their own details. In either case, someone will need to step into a leadership role. As many clubs and volunteer organizations can attest, being leader usually means being stuck with all the jobs nobody else wants to do. But it looks good on a resume and it gives many talking points for future job interviews. So let your leaders know they are helping themselves professionally, in spite of any current frustrations! A crafty leader will quickly learn how to delegate. Effective leadership means getting everyone else on the team participating and contributing. At a meta level, as instructor, you are leader of the whole class. So you are delegating some of your initiative to the group leaders, who in turn are delegating some of that same initiative to each team member. With excellent process orchestration by the instructor, the students will take off and do amazing things without the instructor appearing involved at all. But as any classical music fan will attest, the person with the baton at the front of the pit really is the key factor in the resulting sound. Like any good manager, as instructor, you have to figure out how to get the best performance out of your people.

Group communication.

In debriefing numerous student groups over the years, one theme comes through clearly. They all wish they had established better lines of communication. In today’s social media-saturated environment, that often involves Slack, Discord, text, chat, email, or whatever the latest thing is. Whatever the communications media are – face-to-face included – a central issue is communications expectations. How often do group members check in with each other? Is there a schedule? Are there consequences for not checking in? If this sounds like real-world issues for work-at-home in an IT context, it is. It’s the same problem really. Current IT work is distributed globally to teams who are largely strangers to one another. As stated previously, sometimes bad experience is good experience. If your students struggle to figure out group communications, it will not be last time that issue occurs for them. The more they learn how to deal with these things in your class, the farther ahead they will be.

Group accountability.

Group project grading presents a dilemma. If everyone gets the same grade, only the most success-driven students will work hard and others will slack off and try to get the same credit for nothing. On the other hand, if grading is completely individualized, then it’s not really a group assignment. Like the old sports cliché puts it, “we win or lose as a team”.  My preference is to diversify the grading metric to include both group and individual dimensions. Let each group member file personal reports on his or her contribution and on his or her perceptions of what other team members are contributing,  Those reports, coupled with your own direct observations, can form the basis for individualized, differentiated grading in a group context. Beyond that, though, it’s perfectly reasonable to assign a uniform group grade to each group member based on jointly produced output. That’s real world too. Not everyone contributes the same in every company, but often there is some bonus or other compensation that gets shared by everyone.  Just remember, high stakes summative assessments are a danger area! If you allow your motivated students to risk failure (or even a lower than desired grade) because they got grouped with one or more lesser motivated students, you are setting up both you and your strongest students for conflict! Always give your strong performers some pathway to a 4.0. They might have to perform unpleasant leadership duties like nagging other group members to accomplish assigned tasks, but students who want to be elite in their outcomes will at some point get tagged as leaders. Your class is as good a place as any for these future leaders to start honing their skills.


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Making Connections: Instructors Guide for Information Technology Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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