Participating in group work plays a large part in the university experience and often well beyond – group tasks fulfil many purposes and are often built into assessments. Student feedback has often identified an adversity to working in groups, due to issues with conflict between group members, a lack of defined roles, students absenting themselves, ill-equipped leadership and poor organisation. However, it’s important that students are given the opportunity to enjoy rich group-based experiences and that they can identify and experience the value in. They can also help in managing feelings of isolation and may contribute to fostering good working and socially inclusive relationships.
Group work may include one-off activities, scaffolded class exercises and practice oriented tasks. It can take on a variety of purposes focussing on; teamwork, a product or outputs, or professional endeavours such as networking.
Engaging students with group work tasks and enable a satisfying experience for them will require academics to create an inviting environment for learning and to design meaningful and discipline-relevant activities. Additionally, it requires students to take initiative and feel a sense of accountability, in order to contribute meaningfully.
Keep it real
Students convey that group work topics that are relevant to their future world of work beyond the classroom and that they can relate to, are far more engaging, and worthy of investing their time into.
In her Master of Genetic Counselling program, Associate Professor, Dr Alison McEwen creates randomised groups in the virtual classroom from day one. This she cites as being authentic to the workplace as colleagues do not necessarily select the teams they work in.
Alison’s group tasks involve students utilising and practising the skills they will require in the profession. She creates authentic work environments, such as ethics committees, industry interviews and role-played counselling sessions, all as a part of her group assessment tasks. She also sets up formal and informal appraisal opportunities and student-moderated discussions to foster collaborative practices in students. To learn more about Alison’s practices, watch this webinar on experiences of doing group work in the remote learning environment.
Keep it social
One of the challenges students have when studying remotely is a sense of connection to other students. Students can be thrown into groups with people they don’t know, from different cultural and physical environments, leaders are not always identified or apparent, and students struggle to coordinate meetups. Students also experience other students absenting themselves, going away without leave (AWOL) and may rely on the tutor to manage this.
In order for groups to gain some gravitas, academics should be integral in assisting with group set-ups, managing them throughout the process and then following up for feedback towards the end. Groups should also be encouraged to meet informally too for online coffee catch-ups, social media chats or exercising together. As a part of their negotiated tasks and timelines students could also set up some group goals.
Keep it simple
Students rely on clear explanations in order to manage their group tasks. Feedback points are invaluable as students can have milestones to work towards and they can articulate and address issues early. Be clear about expectations and use good exemplars early, encourage students to create workable agendas for their groups, clearly explain the task and develop a sound rubric. Its also a good idea to put students into break-out groups to work on group tasks and make yourself available to pop in to each one to review or answer questions.
In group tasks, it is important that students have the opportunity to provide feedback about the input of their peers and reflect upon and evaluate their own experience. Tasks should provide opportunities for learners to make choices and be given time and instruction around reflection.
To find out more about designing and facilitating effective group tasks, read our Principles of Effective Group Work Applied Online.