Why Work in Groups? Three Tips for Success


“Students fail silently and alone.”

My students hear this phrase from me every semester. My course has built in group assignments and students ALWAYS want to know how they can get out of doing group assignments. I ask them: “Do you want to increase your chances for success in college? Why would you ignore this simple thing that person can do to be successful?” I am perplexed.

Would you go to the doctor and listen to the doctor’s opinion. Pay for that opinion and then IGNORE what the doctor told you to do? As a college professor, I am here to tell you that you should learn to work and study in groups.  If you want a really cool job one day, you should learn to create in groups.  If you intend to be employed at some point in your life or you are employed now, you are working with others in a group.

The Problem with Groups:

Students report that they don’t like working in groups for projects at school. Most of them claim that they “had to do ALL of the work.” First of all on that: some of y’all lyin’, quit playin’. It cannot be that the majority of you do MOST of the work. It simply cannot be. But I do think it is the FEAR that we all have; we will be stuck doing the work and other people won’t do their parts. That is a legitimate fear, but it is not the problem of the people in your group or the work. It is a problem of TRUST.  That means you need to be able to trust each other.

Working for a Company is a Group Project:

Most of the college students I teach have some kind of job. Most of them say that it is important to work well with others on the job. Working for a company is a group project. They understand this, but they cannot translate that to academic work. The reason is not that they are bad or stupid people. My students have come up through an educational system that rewards individuals with correct answers.  The more correct answers the individual has, the smarter they are, apparently. But in most employment situations most people have to work well with others. They understand that a big part of their job performance relies on the work of others and the ability to manage the relationships and communications with those others. In short success is not about “correct answers” as it is finding solutions and creating value.

So What’s The REAL Problem?

Most students in groups have not been managed well. Teachers and professors, frankly, do a poor job of preparing students to work successfully in groups. Students don’t know what is expected of them and many lack the skills needed to resolve problems arising from doing group work. So while that lets students off the hook a little, it won’t change the problem that confronts students trying to work in groups. Furthermore, as I have said many times, humans get better at what they practice. If you keep doing the same kind of bad group work, you will get exceedingly good at it.

So what makes a good group experience?

ONE Know why you are there. Often, I start our the semester by giving small groups of students decks of playing cards. I give them no other instructions than to use the materials I gave them and do an activity that everyone can participate in. They all look at me strangely, but wind up playing GoFish or Blackjack or Spades. They instinctively figure out: “We are here to play cards.”

TWO Know the rules. One of the first things they do in groups is to make sure everyone knows how to play the game they have selected. That mean they know when to take turns and how to keep score. That keeps them on track and they refer to it when they get off track. If you need to select a leader who can keep things moving, do that. Just make sure everyone knows who that is, why that person was selected and what the process was for selection. Good groups make that an open process and change leaders or leadership styles if the first one they picked isn’t working.

THREE Understand the objective. When playing a game or working in a group, one should keep firmly in mind what they are trying to accomplish. In groups, students should establish what they are trying to accomplish. All members should be able to say what they are doing and have an idea of what the end result you are looking for.

“Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small
groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same
content is presented in other instructional formats.”
                                         –Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching, Stanford University
Further reading:

My Passion for Learning & Google Drive

Carl Sagan Quote Learn

Forgive me for prying if I am, but what fuels your obvious passion for learning?

You are not prying. It is an interesting question and one that I am happy to take a stab at. Besides, I asked you to come up with questions that you had. It wouldn’t really be fair of me to NOT answer a question like this. And thank you for saying that my passion for learning is obvious; that is a real compliment.

I think that I have always liked learning but I was always sort of ambivalent about school. When I was younger, I was interested in classical knowledge: science, Shakespeare, classical music, because I wanted to understand why everyone thought those things were important. But I was afraid that if anyone knew that I was interested in those things I’d be FORCED to take a bunch of classes that were difficult and boring. So I snuck into the library in my hometown and read books and listened to recordings in the library study room. I wouldn’t even check these materials out.

As I got older and began to have a wider sets of experiences I discovered that I never tired of learning new things, meeting new people, eating new foods, traveling to new parts of the world, listening to new music etc. Some people want to fill their lives with money or things that money can buy and that is common in our society, but I find that I don’t really care about these things as much as I care about learning and being open to the knowledge that unfolds. Things that money can buy can be replaced, but things that feed our souls and our minds are unique to us.

I would encourage you to keep your curiosity alive by pursuing new interests and learning things. Doing this and being thankful for what you have and what you have learned will bring more happiness than all the wealth or power or status one might accumulate in a lifetime.

Would it be possible to use i cloud storage as oppose to google drive since i only have apple devices?

Of course you can use whatever storage you’d like, but I am going to ask you to create a Google Account for this class. Just so you know, the Google apps work on Apple products as well. I have mine linked with my iPhone so it talks to my calendar and I can view and edit documents on any computer or on my phone. It’s pretty cool.

Important Things to Learn & Handwritten Notes

What is the most important thing you want students to take away from this course ?

The most important thing for students to take away from this course is that they are the ones who are responsible for their learning. They need to follow what is interesting to them and they need to challenge those who would stand in their way. I also want you to be able to monitor and gauge the effectiveness of your behavior. We will do that in a systematic way.

As I have said from day one, this class is about your behavior. If you are aware of your behaviors and you can direct your will to control your behaviors, there will be a good chance for you to accomplish your goals.

Syllabus questions : 1. Will you be grading our notes?

I typically don’t grade notes, but I will want to see them because I want to know how you are organizing your thoughts.

  1. Will we be working in groups often?

If you haven’t noticed the other people in the classroom already, let me be the first to let you know that there are other people besides you and me in there. Okay, I an being sarcastic and I will stop, but I want you to recognize that you are already in groups. I want you to formally work with those people and I will help facilitate that process. You affect the others in the room and they affect you already. We are going to “ride the lightning” on that.

  1. Do you prefer printed or handwritten work ?

That is going to depend. Research shows that it is better to take handwritten notes than it is to make them on a computer, but with tablets and electronic drawing/writing pads, that’s a tougher call. I would say for assignment, think about getting those done on an electronic device unless otherwise instructed.




Why take “Introduction to the College Experience?”

Online Learning

My question is why everything have to be done online?

The short answer is “behavior.” You don’t NEED to do things online, but if you don’t have that behavior and it is an expectation in the rest of your academic career, then I would have failed by not giving you the opportunity to practice while you are in this class.

Content, as we talked about on the first day, is delivered online. We will be practicing using Connect, LearnSmart and SmartBook in addition to BlackBoard. Many of the classes you will take will have these components and you will be expected to have a level of comfort using them. Your other classes will be diving into the content. We will actually make sure that you know how to use the tools.

And why cannot we bring back traditional way of learning back in school?

I am not sure there is a reason why we couldn’t bring back the “traditional” way of learning back in school. But I am not sure whose tradition we would be talking about. What might seem traditional way of learning to you my be vanguard to me.

I think we shouldn’t abandon tradition for the sake of thing that are new. But I think the measure we should use is that of effectiveness. Teaching/learning in school should be about about becoming more effective in how we learn and teach.

We could make the same demands of other professions. We could go back to a more traditional form or medicine and amputate limbs or apply leaches to let the bad blood out. But our understanding of the human body and the human mind was changed and developed over time so we probably won’t do that.

How is this class important to me?

You will need to decide that for yourself. The good thing about this class is that I will give you the chance to decide for yourself about what you think you need to get from this class, so you grow your ability to direct your own learning.

In terms of your comments about whether or not you need this class. I can honestly say that I don’t know what you need. I don’t know you that well and I am teaching skills you might already have and you could teach me something about them. But the college has decided that this is a good course and one that students need to take in order to prepare them for greater success as they pass through the college. Most student tell me that they learned more in my class that they thought. You have decided to attend PBSC and you are in my class. You are going to have to trust that we know what we are doing. Ask questions along the way and I am sure there will be things you can learn, people you will meet and skills you will acquire or refine. I know that I learn new things about this course every semester.

My motivations, Connect, LearnSmart and SmartBook


What motivates you to continue to teach this type of class?

That is an excellent question. Sometimes it is difficult for me to stay motivated when teaching this kind of class. But this class presents a lot of challenges in the form of problems that need to be solved. I like solving problems and that is what motivates me.

How do you come up with the material to grade?

Another great question.  I am fortunate that I have been doing this job for awhile and I have a number of activities and lessons that have worked with students in the past. I also have access to technology like Connect, LearnSmart and SmartBook. Those free me up to do more teaching in class and less of the review for the reading that students should have done.

What if someone in the group don’t turn my assignments in?

Well, first of all, you should be responsible to turn in your work and using BlackBoard and Connect, combined with the fact that you know when things are due, that you should be able to hand your work in on time.  If there is ever a reason when you need to rely on a fellow student, choose wisely

How to ask better question, divergent thinking and personality inventories

How can one be more inquisitive?

Hang around with some 3-5 year old. Seriously. They want to understand the world around them and they question or mess with everything. Not because they are trying to create trouble, but they want to know, They don’t know NOT to ask questions and they will poke and prod until they get what they want. Once kids get into school, they learn that asking questions makes them a problem for the teachers. They learn that the things they think are important are not the subjects they deal with in school

How can you ask effective questions?

Human beings get better at what they practice. Make lists of questions that you might find interesting. If you can’t think of things that interest you, first check your pulse, then Google lists of questions. Short list from NPR’s Story Corps:

  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
  • Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?
  • What are you proudest of?
  • When in life have you felt most alone?
  • If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • What does your future hold?
  • What are your hopes for what the future holds for me? For my children?
  • If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you’d want to say to me
  • For your great great grandchildren listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
  • Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
  • Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

Is convergent or divergent thinking better?

It depends on the situation. When do you think it would be more appropriate to use convergent and when would you think it might be better to use divergent? (See how I slipped some questions in there?)

Why take a personality inventory?

A personality inventory is one tool we will use to get you thinking about yourself:  your likes, your interests, your values, your personality, your interests.  Sometimes it is hard to see ourselves in meaningful ways. As the Chinese proverb states: The fish is the last to discover water.

What if Asking Questions is Difficult?

I appreciate your honesty about having a hard time getting your brain to ask questions, Traditional school doesn’t value question-asking as a skill. Think about some subject that you find interesting or fascinating. Think about an activity that you do that makes you lose track time. Could be reading or cooking or talking with that special someone or whatever.

Think about something in your life like that. Do you want to know more about that person or thing? What is it that you still want to know? How do you want to improve your experience or skills or knowledge or relationship? This is how you want to behave when you ask questions about subjects.  What is it that you can know about art or poetry or history or science that you don’t know? Some people spend their whole lives specializing in a particular area. We call those people “experts.” How do you become an expert? Ask more questions than other people about something, read about it and experience it because you are interested in it.


You can look at some of these people if you are interested in some of the educational theorists who have influenced me:

Kohn, Alfie, –Gatto, John Taylor, -Gardner, Howard, –Ravitch, Dianne, -Feldman, Robert, -Lev Vgotsky, -Dewey, John, -Piaget, Jean

Organizing Principles for a Diverse Group:

We will practice behaviors and reflect on the things that brought us here.  We will learn more about our own strengths and weaknesses. This usually results in students learning that they share more in common that they have in differences with on another.  It also gives us the space to discuss and understand our differences.  We will be able to learn from each other in a way they is more productive than from everyone just trying to learn from me.  I hope that makes sense and answers your question.

Connect or BlackBoard?

Assignments are posted on BlackBoard (Bb) and Connect. I an import assignments from Connect into Bb so when you have work to do in Connect, you won’t need to do anything extra to turn it in. Cool?