Group Work By Design – graduating my group work grump

By Kelly Gordon, Assistant to the Directors, CTSI

This past fall I became a student again. After 7 years of “real life”, I slid back into the murky world of choosing courses, writing papers, getting grades, and the one thing I was dreading above all others, doing group work.

Some context – during my undergraduate career I did not raise my hand once to participate in a class discussion. I maxed out the number of correspondence classes I could take while living on-campus (a means to avoid having to do work with anyone else). I avoided taking courses with mandatory tutorials. My reticence stemmed from real life experiences of awkwardly trying to assemble a group, uneven instances of work division and a general feeling of nervousness, anxiety and discomfort.

Even though I could recite the pedagogical benefits of group work, or “cooperative learning” (working at CTSI will do that), I planned to continue my NO group work policy in grad school. The real life positive points to group work remained the Polkaroo of instructional strategies – something I heard people talk about, but never saw manifest in real life.

Three weeks into my first course – I knew something was different. I found myself in a group, and I was excited about our work. My inner design nerd wanted to know why this time felt different and so I uncovered my “group work game changers”:

  1. Having time in class to work with the group! Not only did this give us, a group of busy adults, a chance to work together, but it also gave us time to get to know each other face-to-face.
  2. Learning from other groups through class status reports and check-ins.
  3. Dividing up an assignment already organized into parts. Built in assessment checkpoints, allowed our group to easily balance the division of work and stay on track!
  4. New tools– use of online collaboration tools to reshape how we work together.

It turns out there is design behind group work! Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation breaks down the design of successful group projects using the work of Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991 to offer practical strategies to architect a group-project built on a foundation of best practices. They offer three main practices: creating interdependence, devoting time to team work skills and building in individual accountability to guide the design of a positive group assignment.

The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence takes the design of group assignments one step further and details roles and responsibilities beyond the initial design phase. They deconstruct a group assignment into five stages (preparing, designing, introducing, monitoring and closing the assignment). This framework is helpful as it allows the instructor (designer) to walk through their assignment (design) as the student (user) would experience it. I’m sure we can all recollect a start to a group project that began with an awkward moment of trying to form a group out of a class of strangers. Designing a group selection process is just one of the strategies offered in the Waterloo’s Centre’s phased approach to design.

Finally, while the work of the instructor/designer is essential in creating a positive group project experience, true excellence requires some responsibility and ownership on the student side as well. Charles, our wise beyond years student blogger wrote his own post about group work and spells out 6 practical tips to help you as an individual work better “ensemble”.

As I gear up for another year of course selection, I no longer have the urge to comb through the layers of a course syllabus, scouring the assessments for avoidable group projects. Now, I look for elements of design.  If you think about a course as a road trip, assessments are the planned pit stops on the way. And while a perfect group is never guaranteed, like a well curated playlist, the effort you put in at the start, allows for smooth cruising along the way.