Archive by Author

More than “get into groups of four” – Understanding “cognitive whys” & “social hows” of group work

8 May

Part 1 of our May series of posts looking toward Summer Term

Most students think that working in a group is just about coming up with a solution to a rather difficult problem. In actuality, they need to know it’s about learning and practicing how to discuss and work through problems collectively to gain perspectives.  UMinn student

I’m looking over a five-page assignment for a team project in an introductory course required for students in a particular major. The assignment is impressively thorough. The first two pages provide an overview of the purpose and the scope of the project, which includes research, the creation of a 3-D model, and a 15-minute presentation. The grading criteria, timeline, and presentation guidelines for each component of the project are spelled out in exquisite detail.

What interests me most though is the full page dedicated to Team Responsibilities. The assignment decisively tackles some of the well-known group work frustrations by spelling out team responsibilities and rules.

  • This is your second team project. It is expected that you will continue to improve your team interactions and dynamics.
  • Each team must develop a set of operational rules that all members must agree to abide by.
  • The team will decide how to divide the labor, but every member is expected to participate fully – no shirking.
  • Each member of the group must complete an evaluation at the end of the project.
  • Should team dynamics become difficult, please work with your TA or professor to resolve the problems prior to the presentations.

I had the opportunity to observe this course earlier this semester. The team functioning appeared to be stellar – all but one in a class of thirty were listening and contributing in balanced doses. Problem-solving and idea-generating seemed to be on task and moving the groups toward their target. The graduate student teaching assistant with whom I had been consulting reported that in the three semesters she has taught sections of this course, groups have consistently worked very well together.

In fact, after the first team project in the course, students are so happy with their groups that they don’t want to start over with another.  Once their second project is underway, however, they quickly connect with their new group members and function well together. So, clearly, for this course and these assignments, group projects are working just fine.

And yet, I am intrigued by what students are left to navigate on their own.

  • How do new teams learn about and select operational rules?  Who leads this discussion? (How) Is everyone’s perspective represented in ensuing discussions?
  • What does improved team interaction look like? If we want out students to improve, what do they need to learn about group interaction skills, and how will they assess their own skill development as well as those of their classmates?

***                  ***                  ***                  ***

I am working in a group for three of my five classes, and find that I connect with all my group members differently depending on our levels of group work experience. Some students are not familiar with group work, and therefore, do not know how to react to the others and end up being uncomfortable.  UMinn student

Group learning is ubiquitous.  Talking about the how and why of group learning is not as pervasive.  As an instructor and consultant, I’m becoming increasingly aware of why it matters to attend to what we as instructors do say – and do not say – in providing directions to students about working with their peers.

When we start listening to students’ experiences with groups, it seems that many would benefit from more information on the cognitive why and the social how of group learning.

To summarize what I’ve been hearing from University of Minnesota students (in my own classes, via findings in a survey of local international undergraduates, a sampling of the literature on group dynamics, and learning from colleagues who work in student services and advising):

  • Some students across demographics experience isolation, and some international students and students of color experience exclusion during group learning.
  • Students in a Human Resources Development course describe in reflection papers the need for more overt teaching about group work, so that all students learn how to work more effectively in small groups.
  • Students who say that their peers play an important role socially and academically in their most significant learning experiences report not liking group work as part of their courses when group members do not pull their weight (Bowen, 2011).
  • Students with mostly negative prior group experiences report believing that group work won’t enhance their learning – even when their current experiences are positive. (This effect can be mitigated if the instructor is clear about the purpose for using groups, and if peers are perceived to academically well prepared; Hillyard et. al, 2010).
  • Students with lower self-efficacy, ethnic minority students, and women students may experience discomfort and feelings of social comparison in small group learning. (See Micare & Drane, 2011, for an example of one such study.)

In light of this, “get into groups of four and get started” won’t cut it. Instead, we need to attend to the ways in which climate matters for group learning.

We need to make explicit aspects of learning that we’ve never before been expected to explain: that group work is hard work, that it demands we put into practice the best of our interpersonal and intercultural communication skills. And that it is worth it.

***                  ***                  ***                  ***

Working effectively and efficiently in a group largely involves ethics, diversity, and the consideration of other perspectives. Something I have not yet gained through my liberal education requirements is a strong grasp on how to work with people who are different from me, especially culturally.  UMinn student

As I plan the new course I’ll be teaching this summer, I’m reflecting on past group work and team projects that I have assigned. Although I do tend to focus a lot on the practical how to carry out group activities, I realize that I can do much more to facilitate learner self-awareness, to develop skills for group interaction, and to promote a group environment that is equitable and comfortable while at the same achieving genuine academic and social learning. These are some of the questions that will guide my planning and decision-making about what to say to students about the cognitive why and social how of group learning.

  • What do I think students will get out of group learning that they cannot achieve by working individually?
  • Is there a genuine reason for each person to share – or not share – their ideas, perspectives, experiences, interpretations, or solutions that will result in a better outcome for all?
  • What kinds of group interaction skills and knowledge will be necessary for graduates when they enter the job market? Do they know this?
  • What do students need to reflect on regarding their own abilities and experiences with group learning? And how do we help them act on this reflection?
  • What do students need to know about others’ previous experiences and attitudes about working in groups? And how do we help them act on this information?
  • How can I structure early group interactions to set a tone that ensures balanced participation and establishes the importance of everyone having a voice once the actual work begins?
  • What guidance can I provide to the group that normalizes conflict and promotes resolutions that work?

And finally, as importantly, what will be the most effective way to communicate all of this complexity and nuance with learners?

***                  ***                  ***                  ***

Quotes in this post are taken from student reflection papers written for an undergraduate Human Resource Development course at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.


Anderson, M., Isensee, B., Martin, K., O’Brien, M. K., & Godfrey, L. (2012). Student voices: A survey of international undergraduate students’ first-year challenges at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Manuscript in preparation.

Bowen, G., Burton, C., Cooper, C., Cruz, L. McFadden, A., Reich, C., & Wargo, M. (2011). Listening to the voices of today’s undergraduates: Implications for teaching and learning. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(3) 21-33.

Hillyard, C., Gillespie, D., & Littig, P. (2010). University students’ attitudes about learning in small groups after frequent participation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11(1) 9-20.

Micari, M. & Drane, D. (2011). Intimidation in small learning groups: The roles of social-comparison concern, comfort, and individual characteristics in student academic outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(3) 175-187.

Finding common ground: Enhancing interaction between domestic and international students. Guide for academics.…/docs/FindingCommonGround_web.pdf

%d bloggers like this: