Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University | ONLINE DOCUMENT
WORKING IN GROUPS: A NOTE TO FACULTY
Some reasons to ask students to work in groups
Asking students to work in small groups is one of many approaches allowing students to learn interactively. Small groups are good for:
- generating a broad array of possible alternative points of view or solutions to a problem
- giving students a chance to work on a project that is too large or complex for an individual
- allowing students with different backgrounds to bring their special knowledge, experience, or skills to a project, and to explain their orientation to others
- giving students a chance to teach each other
- giving students a structured experience so they can practice skills applicable to professional situations
Some benefits of working in groups (even for short periods of time in class)
- students who have difficulty talking in class may speak in a small group
- more students, overall, have a chance to participate in class
- talking in groups can help overcome the anonymity and passivity of a large class or a class meeting in a poorly designed room
- students who expect to participate actively prepare better for class
Caveat: If you ask students to work in groups, be clear about your purpose, and communicate it to them. Students who fear that group work is a potential waste of valuable time may benefit from considering the reasons and benefits (above).
Large projects over a period of time
Faculty asking students to work in groups over a long period of time can do a few things to make it easy for the students to work:
- The biggest student complaint about group work is that it takes a lot of time and planning. Let students know about the project at the beginning of the term, so they can plan their time.
- At the outset, provide group guidelines and your expectations.
- Monitor the groups periodically to make sure they are functioning effectively.
- If the project is to be completed outside of class, it can be difficult to find common times to meet and to find a room. Some faculty members provide in-class time for groups to meet. Others help students find rooms to meet in.
Forming the group:
- Forming the group: Should students form their own groups or should they be assigned? Most people prefer to choose whom they work with. However, many students say they welcome both kinds of group experiences, appreciating the value of hearing the perspective of another discipline, or another background.
- Size: There's nothing hard and fast, but if the group is small and one drops out, can the remaining people do the work? If the group is large, will more time be spent on organizing themselves and trying to malce decisions than on productive work?
- Resources for students: Provide a complete class list, with current addresses and telephone numbers. (Students like having this anyway so they can work together even if group projects are not assigned.)
- Students that don't fit: You might anticipate your response to the one or two exceptions of a person who really has difficulty in the group. After trying various remedies, is there an out - can this person join another group? work on an independent project?
Organizing the work
Unless part of the goal is to give people experience in the process of goal-setting, assigning tasks, and so forth, the group will be able to work more efficiently if they are provided with some of the following:
- Clear goals: Why are they working together? What are they expected tO accomplish?
- Ways to break down the task into smaller units
- Ways to allocate responsibility for different aspects of the work
- Ways to allocate organizational responsibility
- A sample time line with suggested check points for stages of work to be completed
Caveat:Setting up effective small group assignments can take a lot of faculty time and organization.
Copyright © 1997 Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Permission is granted to educational institutions to reproduce this document for internal use provided the Bok Center's authorship and copyright are acknowledged.
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