Tag Archives: group work

Why Group Work Doesn’t Have to Suck

 

I feel really awkward using the work “suck” in the title of this post because I wasn’t allowed to use the word when I was growing up. My parent’s detested it. Although my kids don’t always agree with the decisions I make, like it’s time to tidy up or go to bed, they haven’t floated the “s” word yet. If they do, I’ll crack down just like my parents did. In the meantime, I hope my mom will forgive me.

Working in groups is an inevitable part of life. Because none of us work or live in a vacuum, group work is something that we will be required to partake in so we might as well figure out the best way to manage it.

Professors don’t assign group work just to torture you. We actually do it for very sound reasons including:

  • To provide an opportunity for students to develop employer sought transferrable skills including communication, time management, conflict resolution, coordination and project management;
  • To assign valuable projects that would not otherwise be possible to manage on an individual basis; and
  • To generate stronger insights and approaches to issues, topics or problems.

I guarantee that one of the questions you will be asked at your next job or volunteer placement interview will be, “tell me about a time you worked in a group and what you learned from that experience”. If you didn’t experience group work, you wouldn’t have anything valuable to share, thank you very much.

Even though (most) professors have good intentions in assigning group work, I understand that it isn’t always easy.

I personally work in multiple “groups”, which are called “committees” in the real world, and I can vouch that the experience isn’t always great. Just like in student groups, there are members who contribute ideas, ask great questions, perform background research, coordinate and track progress and are effective members overall. And there are the others. These members show up when they please (or not at all), complain, offer no constructive feedback, block progress and ultimately take up the good oxygen in the rooms in which we meet.

It’s true. Even experienced, educated “adults” can be ineffective group members!

So what can you do about it?

One of the most effective tools I have used to manage group work is a work plan. A work plan is a document that specifies the tasks to be performed for a particular project. The set up doesn’t have to be fancy. A work plan can be prepared the old fashioned way using a basic table pen and paper-style or can be prepared using sophisticated software.

In addition to the benefit of helping the group reach a consensus for how to tackle the project, a work plan also provides a method for ensuring accountability. Although I’m not in the business of calling people out for not contributing, a work plan allows you to do just that.

Below is a sample work plan template I have provided for my students.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Objective entries represent the overarching goals for the project. For a business plan project, one of the goals would be to understand the customer. Another would be to understand the competitive landscape.
  2. Action steps required outline the process to be followed to meet the objective. In the business plan project example, understanding the customer might involve preparing, testing and administering a survey. Each of these three phases could be broken down into individual action steps with more specific action steps outlined.  The more specific the better in a work plan.
  3. Specific output is a critical part of the plan. This is what you expect the individual to present to the rest of the group when she reports back. Are you expecting a complete summary of the survey results so that the rest of the group can analyze and discuss the findings together? Is an oral report ok?  Or are you expecting the individual responsible for this step to do that work herself? These are very different outputs and if the group is not clear on what is expected,misunderstandings will most definitely arise.
  4. Responsibility simply identifies which member(s) of the group is responsible for the task.
  5. Deadline is when the group decides the work should be completed.

A work plan is not a static document. It should evolve and be updated as new information is discovered and the project moves forward. Keeping the work plan updated is an important part of keeping the group connected and on track to produce a high quality project on time.

Preparing a work plan takes time but if the group is conscientious and thoughtful, the tool can prevent future group work tragedies.

I would love to know what other tools you have used to help manage and coordinate group work efforts. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/39361795@N00/5316094589/”>gordontarpley</a&gt; via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Group Work

To Get Support Show Support

Helping HandYesterday’s class brought tears to my eyes.  But in a good way.

Does this happen often? Not really.

In my decade or so of post-secondary teaching I have experienced the odd classroom situation that has made me want to run as fast as possible from the room, curl up in a corner of my office, grab my tea and a box of kleenex and let loose.

Why?  Because I care.  Even though I’ve learned to distance myself from student issues, disappointments and frustrations, they still get to me from time to time.

Fortunately yesterday’s class was nothing like that at all.  In fact, by the end of class I wanted to call for a group hug and tell my students how proud I was of them.  You know, a regular “Kumbaya” session.  I’m writing this post to share what happened and why what happened is so important to student learning.

The Story

Yesterday, groups of students from my management class presented details of the business ventures they have been working on for the past three months.  This is a huge project involving lots of coordination, research, writing, number crunching, organization and group drama.  The project ends with the presentation.  It’s generally a happy day for most students as they are truly relieved that the process is over.

After each group presents, the class is invited to ask questions.  It was during this time that I observed a major difference from past years in the classroom tone.

In the past this Q&A session has let’s say, been a little tense.  Students on the receiving end are often on the defensive because they are really completely invested in their ideas and research.  It’s their baby and they will do what it takes to protect it.

Students on the delivery side are often on the offensive.  I believe that some students feel that in order to make their project seem more impressive it’s a good idea to pose questions that are designed to make other groups feel inadequate and uncomfortable.

That did not happen yesterday.

Yesterday’s questions were posed with a genuine desire to better understand the business plan that the presenting group had developed.  Even though some of the questions were similar in content to those posed in the past (remember, the ones with the bad intent) there was something different about the delivery that made the difference.

For the first time I had a presenter respond to a question with “That’s a really good idea.  Thanks for bringing that up.”.  I also had comments from students that simply recognized the hard work, something unique about the idea or presentation and the excellent job put forward.

The supportive and encouraging atmosphere created by the students was what brought the tears to my eyes.  I was so proud of them.

So What?

A supportive environment must be present in order for most students to take risks.  And taking risks is necessary to foster student learning.

What do I mean by risks?

I mean asking questions of faculty and fellow students.  I mean sharing information and opinions.  I mean asking support services on campus for help or guidance.  I mean reaching out to fellow students and simply making an introduction.

Let’s face it, some students don’t necessarily need a supportive environment to take risks.  They would do so regardless.  That’s their personality.  But many students are in no way ready to take such risks, especially in the first couple of years of university.  They NEED this environment in order to grow.

What About You?

What do you need to do in order to be in a position to take risks?  How can you help create a supportive environment?

Here are some ideas:

  • When you are “shopping” for institutions or classes, pay particular attention to the “community feel” you get from the place or from what past students have experienced.
  • Get to know your fellow classmates.  Just say hi.  Start the conversation and you’ll be surprised how easy it takes off.
  • Do the work so that you can be an active contributor in class or in discussions with your professor or fellow classmates outside of the classroom.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to work in small groups (seminar/tutorial sessions or simply smaller class sizes).
  • Work well in groups.  Know the tools that exist to help manage plans and progress and use them.

Don’t wait for someone else to create a supportive environment for you.  Take initiative and do it yourself.

Support is a funny thing.  You get more when you give more.  So, are you doing everything in your power to be supportive?  If not, what can you do to be more supportive in your classrooms, in your family, in your life?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandajuice/562954687/”>Mandajuice</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

2 Comments

Filed under The Good Stuff

Advice on Group Work

Group workSooner or later it is going to happen. You are going to have to work in a group! Some of you love the idea and others cringe at the thought.

Group work can provide many benefits to students including the ability to divide and conquer a large quantity of work; the opportunity to benefit from other people’s ideas, perspectives and experiences; and the chance to get to know other students in your course or program (heck, I started dating my husband after working with him on a university group project).

Let’s face it. Group work can also be a real drag. Some students take complete advantage. They miss meetings, have excuses for not doing their part and avoid responding to email, text and facebook messages. Like you’ve cut yourself off from all forms of electronic communication. I don’t buy it.

Personally, I don’t understand how these individuals can sleep at night but it happens again and again and again.

So what are you to do, a simple member of a dysfunctional group?

Much of the success (or failure) related to the group experience boils down to what takes place during the initial meeting. Early in my teaching career I assumed that students understood how to manage a group work project. I spent very little time in the classroom discussing planning and communication strategies. I know that I’m not alone on this.  Many professors assume the same or they just don’t feel like they have enough time in the course to cover the details.  You’re all adults, right?

My approach has changed.  I do spend time on the mechanics of group work in my courses because I find that most students have never been “taught” strategies for managing groups.  I want you to benefit from these tips in order to make your next group work experience more effective.

Planning Advice:

1.  Use a Workplan

This simple tool is by far the best thing since sliced bread.  Many different versions of workplans exist.  Below is a sample which details all of the elements you will want to include (along with an example of how you would fill it out).  Each objective (i.e. what do you need to figure out or do?) would deserve it’s own row in the plan.  The key here is that the workplan provides accountability for all members of the group.  By documenting the “action steps”, “specific output” expected, individual(s) responsible and the timing, there are no misunderstandings.  And if Barry doesn’t do his job, everyone will know.  This document just might create enough social pressure to deter slacking.

Workplan

2.  Develop and Sign a Team Contract

The purpose of the team contract is to establish a set of ground rules.  I provide a team contract template to all of the groups that form in my courses (which they are free to alter to their liking).    A team contract might include a bulleted list of individual responsibilities (i.e. I will show up on time to group meetings, I will let the other members of my team know if I can’t make it to a meeting, I will complete all of my work on time, etc.) and group responsibilities (i.e. As a team, we agree to discuss problems openly, share the “leadership” position, etc.).  You don’t need to get too crazy or fancy here.  Just sit down with your group and decide what behaviours you will accept and which you won’t.  Next time I am going to add a bulleted point to the individual list stating “I will not make excuses” or maybe “I won’t whine”.  That should be interesting.

3.  Get Organized

There are absolutely no excuses here.  I can sob about the “when I was a student” days when we did not have cloud technology or even the widespread use of email (that’s right, I’m ancient).  Decide how you plan to store the documents and files your group discovers and creates.  Many blackboard technologies used by the universities themselves have this capability and there’s always Dropbox, Google Docs, Facebook and more you’ve probably already been exposed to.  Centralizing the document and source storage system will save your group a lot of time and headaches later in the process when you’re wondering where that government report document ended up.

Do you have other ideas?  If so I’d love to hear about them.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/paolomargari/3511791090/”>Paolo Margari</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

1 Comment

Filed under Group Work