Collaborative Learning

The topic of group work came up several times recently in my discussions with faculty and I noted hearing the same things from faculty as I heard from students: Everyone hates group work; or we hate group work for some very specific reasons. This gets me to some thoughts on how we can get past that hurdle by defining expectations, group accountability, and by deriving value from failure.


In several face to face classes I taught recently I explored why students had negative reactions to group work. So I asked students to engage in the following exercise (this could also be done in an online Wiki):

  1. Write down everything you hate about group work for two minutes.
  2. Write down everything you enjoy or find valuable about group work for two minutes.
  3. Discuss your findings in groups of three or four
  4. Share responses (both positive and negative)

The fun thing about this exercise is that students had a rather concise list of things they hated about group work that included:

  • group members not showing up for meetings,
  • members not putting in the same effort,
  • members dropping out of the group,
  • one member dominating the group because they don’t trust the other members and,
  • members not following through on their promises.

Students also had a rather short and consistent list of things they valued in group work including seeing things from another perspective:

  • pooling members’ strengths and expertise
  • mutual support.

From there we could see that we shared similar assumptions about what we valued and did not like about group work and could focus on providing each other what we valued and avoid the pitfalls of group work.


Going along with surfacing expectations, accountability can also contribute to a successful group experience particularly if group members are accountable to one another. Periodic peer assessments can help members stay on track and give faculty a heads up if individuals are letting the group down. The assessment does not have to be punitive and can even be a tremendous help if faculty shift delivering the assessment of low performance to a student away from “you are letting others down!” to “how can we aid your performance?”  as it opens the door to providing a student who may be in trouble additional assistance.


Of course, raising expectations and providing peer assessments does not guarantee success of a group and that is where failure comes in.  We can all point to group experiences where we as faculty voiced expectations for groups, provided peer assessment intervals, and even periodic check-in sessions between groups and faculty and a group still underperformed and waited until the last minute for the mad scramble to a finished and sub-optimal result. I even recall several groups stating to me that they recall I had told them they should create a schedule, meet regularly, and create benchmarks yet didn’t believe it was all that important to do so. After their uncomfortable experience they now understood the importance of staying on task.

That got me thinking that those frazzling group experiences have tremendous value. Students get to experience the panic and discomfort of a poorly performing group in order to learn to do something different. After all, isn’t learning what doesn’t work and trying something different in the future part of the learning process?

So, don’t give up on group work. Setting expectations and arranging for accountability can help create positive group experiences. Even if a group fails, members and faculty can learn something from the process and apply those lessons to later efforts.