Group work is a staple of the modern classroom that promotes efficient collaboration and encourages effective interaction and communication. But what about when it is neither efficient nor effective? When does group work not work? And how can we avoid this situation? David Dodgson ponders these questions based on his own recent experiences.
4.45pm. With only 15 minutes of the meeting time left, we were still going over the initial points which would only provide a generic background to our project. Much of the preceding three-quarters of an hour had been spent going in circles: what exactly are we supposed to do? How will we divide responsibilities? Shouldn’t we decide what we are doing before allocating roles? How will we present our work? Can’t we focus on what we are going to do before discussing the presentation? What are your thoughts on the course so far? I wonder what the other groups are doing? Can we PLEASE just focus on what we are going to do?
4.45pm. The three of us have spent a productive session evaluating an authentic learning resource and discussing how we would use it in class. Referring back to the guidance notes, we quickly settled on an area of focus and discussed what we would do, how we would do it, and the timescale before meeting again. With 15 minutes left, our discussion turned to what we thought of the course so far and finding out more about each other’s teaching roles.
Two polar opposite experiences with one clearly more desirable than the other, but also two actual experiences I have had recently taking Professional Development (PD) courses online.
The first experience tested my faith in group work. I have always built this into my teaching, whether it be a quick collaboration in a single lesson or an extended project with a specific outcome. I have always thought this was a great way to promote collaboration and interaction while also producing something of value. In this case, however, the reality was frustrating. Just getting to a point where we could come to a common understanding of the task was a slog preventing us from actually getting on with the collaborative part.
The second experience (several weeks later on a different course) restored my faith somewhat. This time, we all seemed to be on the same page quite quickly and were able to make decisions efficiently. This is turn made the rest of the process much easier.
The contrast in experiences did get me thinking why the group dynamics were so wildly different, especially when the tasks assigned were very similar (both projects involved evaluating material for use in class and designing a lesson plan or activity based on it).
In both cases, we were assigned groups by the course leader, there was a choice of material and a level of flexibility on exactly how we would approach it, and the expectations/criteria were explained through a project rubric and a live session beforehand.
On reflection, I have identified the following reasons for why one group was a struggle while the other one was so productive:
1. Setting up the groups
On the first course, the tutor chose the groups based on our backgrounds and experience. She deliberately placed us with coursemates who worked in different settings whether that be the specific field of ELT each person worked in, the type of school, the country, or some combination of the above. That meant me with my experience of working in international secondary schools working together with a lady with extensive experience in business English as well as someone who had a background in youth programmes but specific training or experience in ELT.
While there is a lot to learn from people in other areas of education, in this example it seemed we were too diverse. Everyone had a completely different approach to teaching and a different view of what a classroom should be like. Starting so far apart, it was more of a challenge to bring everybody together. As we would all be continuing in our individual context after the course, there was little incentive to adapt to an unfamiliar context.
By contrast, it the other course, everyone in my group had much more similar backgrounds (though I am not sure if this was by chance or design). We all worked in secondary education and taught students on similar learning programmes (IGCSE, IB or both). We all seemed to share similar values and expectations for the classroom as well (possibly due to the IB philosophy but that’s an idea to explore in a future post). There were differences of course in the exact age groups we taught, nationalities of our students, class sizes, and so on but the starting point was much closer together and it was therefore much easier to get on the same page.
Reflection point: Consider the dynamics of who goes into each group carefully. At times, getting students to work with new partners or people from a different background is useful (e.g. for establishing class rapport) but for a wide-ranging project, putting similar people together helps improve efficiency.
2. Defining parameters
Although both courses provided an outline of what the project was and how we should go about it, there were differences. In the first course, we were assigned a series of articles and asked to design lesson activities around them. We were free to use the articles as they were or adapt them, and we also had the option to choose which skills, subskills, and language points we focused on. Considering our divergent backgrounds, it was almost too much choice. Due to our divergent backgrounds, we had to invent a class profile to help us frame needs and create a focal point for our activities. This was no easy task and much of our first meeting was spent on discussing the make up of this hypothetical class.
On the other course, we had a specific skill to focus on and a choice of material to work with. The specific skill (my group was working on listening using authentic news interviews) and the more closely defined group of secondary intermediate level students made establishing a focal point much easier. The criteria of it being a 90-minute lesson with an exam skills focus also helped guide us, unlike the other course in which we needed to decide on the type and level of students, and prepare a wider-ranging unit.
Reflection point: Flexibility is important to allow groups to take ownership of a project. However, setting parameters about the criteria they work under, the assumptions made, and the intended outcomes helps facilitate action. Without it, time can be lost to making suggestions and coming to agreements.
3. The stakes
The more I think about it, the more I see that the stakes attached to the project affected the dynamics of the group. In the first group, this was an end of course project that would play a major role in deciding if we received our certificates or not. That created added pressure, which in turn meant our group ended up going into far too much detail for what was expected of us. It also caused frustration as everyone wanted to produce something useful, but we had been deliberately grouped with others from different contexts. This only led to further friction and frustration.
In the second group, this was an activity done on the middle of the course with no bearing on the final outcome. Without the pressure of ‘passing’ or ‘failing’ the atmosphere was more relaxed. We had different ideas, but everyone seemed more open to taking a different route and trying other suggestions out. This may have been a different story if our success in completing the course depended on it.
Reflection point: Is a group project the best option for an end-of-course assessment? Perhaps this is a time for individual work to come to the fore instead. Group projects in the middle of the course with less pressure and lower stakes can lead to a more co-operative atmosphere, and the lessons learned from the process can inform and guide our other projects later on.
4. Other affective factors
The first group project was also blighted by technical issues. One member of our group struggled throughout the course to get a decent internet connection which caused issues with discussing ideas in real time meetings, for which we were instructed to use specific ‘meeting rooms’. The other was not comfortable with using shared documents and real-time editing, meaning simply setting up and using shared files took up a chunk of our time. Documents ended up being shared through Google Drive, via email, on the course’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), only adding to the sense of frustration.
In the other course, we never seemed to have any technical issues. The course leader created a space for us within the VLE to share documents, which was a system we had become familiar with in the opening two weeks of the programme. We arranged our live meetings using a popular video calling service, which we rarely had any issues with. It all made for a much more seamless experience.
Reflection point: Consider the tools and resources groups will be expected to use. With remote learning scenarios, it is even more important to make sure participants are well-versed with the software and apps required!
Of course, a lot of the technical issues can be attributed to random chance. Perhaps on another day, the first group would have met without any connection problems and the second group would have been plagued by them. It is also quite possible that on the same course but in another group, I might have had a very different experience. Working with another set of people on the first course (both in terms of their professional background and traits such as organisation skills, decision making, confidence with technology, etc) may have led to a smoother and more productive experience. Likewise, I could have easily been placed with people on the other course who I didn’t get along that well with, or who were not organised or flexible, and we might have struggled more.
Reflection point: We can plan, prepare, and carefully consider who we group together; we can scaffold tasks and make helpful resources available; we can ensure that students know where to find resources or ask for help; but still, we can end up with some groups that don’t gel in the same way as others. It is then our job to reflect on the cause and think about how best to get the group going.
Overall, the experiences have made me reflect on my expectations for group work. Should I put similar students together or make them mix up? What level of support and scaffolding is needed? What kind of stakes do I want to apply to the group work? When is it best to give plenty of option and flexibility? What can I do as the teacher to make sure each group has the best chance to succeed? And after considering such questions, I hope my groups work better together remotely (or otherwise) as a result.
Are there any questions you think I should add to the list? What are your thoughts?