Working in a group
Group work is an established part of most university courses, at both undergraduate and graduate level. Expectations and experience can vary from the fear and self consciousness to enthusiasm over learning from peers.
There are several reasons for group work's current popularity:
- It can develop interpersonal and teamwork skills, much valued in the workplace.
- It encourages active, collaborative learning, the benefits of which have been much researched.
- It offers the opportunity for peer learning, particularly but not uniquely in a practical subject such as management when the students are also practitioners.
The different uses of group work
There are many different kinds of group work, depending on the variables listed below:
Whether or not the group works to a specific task, or whether is it more open ended
The group may carry out a specific task, such as working on a marketing plan or a business proposal, or it may just meet for discussion.
Whether or not its performance is assessed
An assessed group will most likely carry out a particular task (as above) and there will be one mark for the whole group. Examples of non assessed groups include those meeting in a seminar, or as part of a study team to support coursework by reading texts, discussing assignments, etc.
Whether or not it is facilitated by a tutor
Seminars are examples of tutor-facilitated group sessions. The degree to which the tutor takes control may vary: he or she may set the agenda, direct questions etc. or the discussion may flow more freely and openly.
Examples of groups not directed by tutors include study teams, informal learning groups discussing a particular issue during a class session, or task-based group work.
Whether people meet virtually or in real time and place
Online discussions, often referred to as computer mediated communication (CMC), are becoming more common. These have the advantage of not being time and place dependent, but the drawback is that the visual clues of body language are lacking.
CMC requires proper structuring: for example a set number of participants and a definite purpose. The latter could be discussing a particular issue, or working on a task. There is also the problem of lurking as opposed to participation, which is why some suggest assessing or at least requiring participation (a person would need to make a certain number of postings as part of course attendance requirements). Most groups benefit from the involvement of a tutor, whether to structure the experience initially or to 'weave' through the various discussions.
Size is a major element in group success. The smaller the group, the easier for all members to participate. Smaller groups are also more manageable for project work. Larger groups will benefit from a chair, which can be either a student or a tutor.
The maturity of the group can make a great difference to how it functions. If people have just left school and are in their first year at university, they can (although not invariably) lack confidence initially. Mature students, on the other hand, are often more ready to speak. Indeed, group work is a major factor of most MBAs and adult learners with prior experience can gain a great deal from sharing their knowledge and being exposed to different perspectives; peers may be a better part of the learning experience than the more academic and theoretical lectures.
How groups can help learning
Talking with other people is one of the main ways in which we learn. At school, we talk things over in class or in small groups; in the workplace, we discuss ways of doing our jobs with colleagues.
Debate, the airing of different points of view and forming new ideas, is a major part of university life. Disciplined group discussion will help you:
- develop your own ideas and become more articulate
- listen to other points of view
- learn how to deal with criticism
- bring ideas down to your level as you discuss difficult concepts or consider examples
- develop practical skills, for example by working on a case study together
- talk in the language of your subject – together, you are for example a group of managers, marketers, psychologists etc.
You will also find that in the group, the whole becomes greater than the parts: the cut and thrust of debate generates more ideas as extra points are made and previous contributions clarified.
This all sounds very positive but, unfortunately, bad experience of groups is all too common. For example, some groups are dominated by a few people (or even one person) who can make it difficult for others to speak, whilst others remain too nervous to contribute. Working well in a group calls for skills on the part of the tutor, the student and the group itself.
Making the group work: the tutor
The tutor's role is that of a facilitator, creating a friendly, unthreatening atmosphere, moving the discussion on to other topics and levels, and occasionally calming things down!
It is particularly important with an assessed task to explain it as carefully as possible, including the grading structure, and whether some proportion of the mark will be awarded to individuals as opposed to the group.
Whilst group assessment can provide motivation to get on with the job, care should be taken that students are not victimized by poor performance of colleagues. There should be some sort of mechanism for students to complain if they are unhappy with members of their group. For example, they could be asked to provide individual diaries which 'tell it like it is', on which they are marked individually.
Making the group work: the student
Group work will help you develop communication skills, but you must make an effort.
General attitude – collaboration not competition
Groups work best in a collaborative rather than a competitive atmosphere: you are there to help develop the whole rather than excel individually. It's important to support your colleagues and respect their feelings at all times. Be co-operative – if you come across a useful resource, mention it, and don't keep good ideas to yourself. Acknowledge similarities with what others are saying, for example by referring back ('as Margaret was saying...').
Don't be too critical, either; if you need to offer criticism do so in a constructive manner by point out good points and making specific suggestions as to what can be improved. Admit mistakes graciously. Remember that there's seldom just one right view – if you disagree, explore, don't confront, using such phrases as 'why do you think that?', 'with all due respect'. Learn to differentiate between people and their opinions: respect the former if not the latter.
Commitment to the group
In the first place, make sure you attend regularly! Try and arrive a bit early, so that you can chat to the group and get to know them. Make sure that you are in a good position physically where you can see, hear and be heard by everyone. If you have to leave early, explain at the beginning of the group; if you are late, apologize but try not to interrupt the business of the group by a noisy arrival.
Participation will almost certainly be more than mere attendance: you may have to do some preparation, or may have been allocated a specific task. Make sure you do any necessary reading: don't expect just to learn from others. Carry out any allocated tasks to the best of your ability in a timely fashion. If you are unsure what is expected, then clarify with other group members.
Groupwork calls for active listening skills. As others speak, you should be thinking of how you can take the discussion on – of questions that arise, and of how what they say relates to your own knowledge and experience. If you don't understand what's been said, ask for clarification.
At some point you will need to make a contribution to the group.
Make sure that what you say is to the point, and watch the number of contributions you make. It may be all too easy for you to think that you need to talk more to compensate for some of your less outgoing friends: in fact, your energies would be better placed in encouraging them to contribute.
If you are shy, or in some ways lacking confidence, speaking in a group may be daunting. You can help yourself by making a decision beforehand to speak at least once. If you are nervous of what you will sound like, write down what you want to say, and make a simple contribution, perhaps giving an example – saying something rather than nothing will help the group process. When you talk, make eye contact with people, breathe slowly and speak clearly – don't whisper. If you feel that you made a mistake, don't berate yourself – congratulate yourself on having spoken, think what you have learnt and decide on a strategy for next time.
Above all, remember that everyone always thinks that everyone else is in the group is more intelligent or experienced!
Choosing your colleagues
Sometimes, you will be allocated to a group by your tutor, whose concern should be to select people with diverse strengths. (On MBA courses, groups are often chosen with the deliberate aim of putting people together from different backgrounds and therefore increasing the opportunities for cross-sector learning.)
It may sometimes be the case, however, that students have to form their own groups, choosing their colleagues for themselves. This can be difficult, but you should try and make sure that your colleagues have a similar understanding of the task as yourself – are they people who are likely to pull their weight or are they struggling to keep up?
Making the group work: general strategies for success
Ultimately, the success of the group will be down not just to individuals but to efforts made by the group as a whole.
Overcoming initial anxieties
Many students have initial anxieties about their group. Why not bring these out into the open by having an initial session brainstorming these concerns? Out of this session may arise some ground rules – see below.
Some of the initial anxieties may be caused by the fact that people don't know one another, so a social activity may be a good idea.
Laying down ground rules
An early task for the group is to lay down ground rules. These can relate to general discussion etiquette, for example:
- How do we encourage an even participation, with no body either dominating or sitting silently and not pulling their weight in the discussion. These rules could be about maximum length and number of contributions.
- Everybody has a right to be listened to, and their views respected.
- Nobody should interrupt.
- It's OK to ask for help.
- Information sharing is to be encouraged.
There also need to be ground rules about meeting – when, where, how often and for how long?
Allocating roles and tasks
First of all, the group needs a clear objective, for example, to discuss a course text, or a case study, to role play a particular business scenario, or to carry out a particular task.
Project-based groups will want to allocate jobs according to people's strengths (for example, someone with strong editing skills could proof read written work). Tasks should be clearly articulated, shared out fairly and with specific deadlines.
People will also be needed to chair meetings, to make sure that the group keeps to time, and that decisions are recorded, and perhaps to check that any tasks are being carried out. The chair will need to handle dominant group members sensitively, perhaps by thanking them and asking if others wish to speak.