The Role of Group Work in Education
When the teacher announces that an assignment is going to be done as group work, there is usually a collective groan. Group collaboration is frustrating, unequal, and often lacks direction—all negatives for achieving students, and indifference for the others.
So, then why assign collaborative work? Because group work has true merit:
- Group work allows the members to develop better listening and speaking skills, in addition to learning to be diplomatic in conversation. These interpersonal skills are necessary for success in college and in a career.
- Groups can truly achieve more than an individual can on his/her own. Discussing and sharing bring a depth of knowledge that most members would not likely achieve individually.
- Collaboration helps you see your strengths and weaknesses. Enhanced self-awareness benefits everyone.
How group work should work:
- Shared responsibility but assignments based on abilities—While the group does share the responsibilities of accomplishing the work, assigning members duties based on strengths helps the project to run more smoothly.
- Encouraging open-mindedness—Everyone comes into the group with differing attitudes and beliefs. The diversity of opinions should produce a deeper understanding of the subject than if it is accomplished alone. Learning to appreciate other viewpoints is a healthy goal.
- Differing academic goals—Each member enters the group with different academic goals. Some always strive for high grades, while others are content to pass. Learning to work through this conflict is positive for future roles.
- Navigating through decisions—Since the decisions must be made as a group, it requires discussion and compromise.
The disadvantages can overpower the positive aspects: the workload is unequal, every decision requires more time, participation is sporadic, creativity is difficult, and it is easy for members to avoid doing any of the work.
Since group work has benefits that carry over to future careers and relationships, teachers are wise to continue using them for the proper assignments. Following are specific considerations for when to use collaborative work.
- Students see through group work that is really just busy work, so communicate clearly the academic and social objectives to be accomplished. Make sure that they tie into class content well.
- The assignment should be challenging enough to arouse interest among the students.
- Keep the number of students to 4-5 as that is where the diverse perspectives seem to work best. Randomly assigning students to groups keeps friend groups from working together.
- Vary the composition of the groups by sometimes using pairs, four students, etc.
- Clearly state the task in detail, with no confusion on what the final product should look like.
- Set interaction expectations for the group members.
- Be sure at the end of the collaboration to remind them of the connection to the coursework.
The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University notes that group work develops a host of skills that are increasingly essential to the work world. Additionally, teachers can assign more complex, real-life problems to groups than to individuals. Well planned and thoughtful collaborative work yields a better learning outcome for students than completing all assignments on their own.