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:

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.

More Opening Week Questions


What will students find motivating about this course?

I am never sure how to answer a question like this. Since I think all motivation is internal, I don’t know what experiences will cause students to resonate. Frankly, some students won’t be motivated by the course. These are typically the kinds of students who want to know if what I am saying will be on a test, ask how many points something is worth etc.

On the other hand, I do a lot of discussion. I do a lot of activities. You will be working in groups; the way I do it, people have told me that they like it. They like the skills I am teaching. So my honest answer is that I am not sure what you might find motivating. Remember that you bring that to the table too.

What is unique about the course?

The reference number. The make-up of the students. I am not sure what you are asking here. You want to know if I teach it differently than other instructors, probably. I am not sure what others do. I can tell you that I don’t rely on lots of quizzes or tests. I do rely on assignments and the effort you put into them. I rely on you bringing your authentic self into the classroom to engage with what we are doing, whatever that is. I’ll try and make it worth your while.


Will there be a curve?

I will throw a few curves, yes. If you are talking to me about grading on a curve then, no. I know of NO ONE who grades on an actual curve. That would be 3% A, 24%-B, 39%-C. 24%-D and 3% F, with grades starting with the highest score. That seems like a silly and meaningless competition among classmates who need to collaborate more than compete.

Will there be extra credit?

Why should there be extra-credit? Why not do the things I asked in the first place?

Are groups assigned for projects and presentations?

Groups are assigned. Selected by you and your fellow students.

Do we have to use Sketchnotes?

Yes. You will all be trying Sketchnotes.

Re: Asking Questions, Attendance and Exemptions


1) Do we always have  to comment and questions even if we don’t have any?

I require students come to my Introduction to the College Experience class with questions.

Questions: Ever been around a 3 yr-old? They are question asking machines. You were 3 once. You could be that machine again and you would learn like you did when you were 3. Think about how many things you were taking in because your mind was set to question. I would say that if you cannot come up with any questions, you are on your way to dying. Questions are the things that keep us alive and make us strive. They send us to the moon. They solve crimes. They make art. They create cures for disease. No, questions are the most important thing you can have. They will keep you alive, never doubt it.

2) What will happen if we miss more than 3 classes because of being sick? What can we do if something came up at the last minutes and we cannot make it to class?

My class requires a 90% attendance rate in order to pass. We meet about 27 times so they can miss like 3 times. Students have some bad habits about class attendance they’ve acquired in high school, which this question seems to suppose.

Absence – You fail, automatically. Period. If you are too sick to show up for classes you need to ask yourself how you expect to pass classes.  If you have a major illness, by all means take care of yourself and we can see you next semester. What do you think would happen to the class environment if some people just decided not to show up.  Would that work in a workplace? What happens to people who don’t show up in the workplace?

If something comes up at the last minute, you need to do what adults do and decide what you are going to do about it.  Don’t expect the other adults to accommodate you. If you need to miss, you miss.  If you miss too many, you fail. That is the consequence. Adults get that. Kids expect to have an adult with authority fix the situation for them.

3) Can we be exempt from finals if we have a good grade?

Final Exemption:  No. My final is a actually a self-evaluation where you look at your own work and behavior and evaluate what you did well. Why would you skip that? If my class was a big Easter Egg Hunt for the right answers and you had a full basket of eggs, perhaps that would make sense. But it isn’t and so, no exemption.

The Trouble with Textbooks


Students hate buying textbooks. Let’s get that out on the table right now. Professors know this and most of us sympathize with our students. We were students too (that’s one of the usual requirements for us to become professors).  Students will do all kinds of things to avoid buying books or paying full price for them, so let’s have a frank conversation about textbooks. If it is an issue for you or it has been this semester and you want to do better next semester, let’s talk

“I don’t have the textbook”

I just want to say, if and this is and IF and I am not accusing you of anything. IF you didn’t buy the book and you are having trouble affording a textbook or you just thought you could get through the course without a book, you need to just be honest  about that. You would not be the first student a professor has encountered who has been in one of those situations. Just make sure you are honestly telling him/her about what is going on. Keep the communications clear, they might be able to help you. So let’s look at some of the things students say about NOT having their textbooks.

1) “I just lost the book and I have no record of the purchase.” As a professor who cares, I am going to want to know how you came to lose the book and what strategy you have for keeping stuff like that from happening again. As you know, books are expensive and if you are the one paying for them, you don’t want to make losing them a habit.

2) “Okay, I didn’t lose it. I never bought it because I thought I could get by without buying a book for this class. I just didn’t want to waste my money on a book I would not use.” To which I would tell you that I have been working on the affordability of textbooks because I know that is an issue for students. You might need to make friends with the idea of buying books for your classes. Think of it as a cost of doing business. Let’s say you were going to become a business person and everyone in your profession wore suits and and similar professional attire, but you said “Yeah, suits are too expensive and I am not going to do that, but I still want to be in that group.”  You might see where that is a problem.

3) “Okay yeah, I didn’t buy the book, because it was buy the book or buy groceries.” To which I might say that I totally get that. Books are expensive and I really have worked to get the price down, but sometimes even the little extra expenses are too much.  I get that and I want you to know that the book for my class is one of the cheapest. SO if affording textbooks is going to continue to be a problem for you, you will need to know how to address that problem. Professors have some latitude in what they do, they might even have ways to help you get some of your books or access to web content at a greatly reduced cost, but you need to talk to people about that rather than not buying textbooks and hoping for the best. There are options to rent or buy used, but this might be a problem since a book, like ours, might come with online content.

Main thing: Talk with your professors early in the semester about what is going on and see if there are strategies to get access to the books you need at prices you can afford.

Oh and by the way, if you are going to buy electronic copies of your textbook and put them on a tablet, consider getting insurance for your tablet or computer that will protect you in the case of loss or theft. Just like they have insurance for your car in case you are in an accident, your technology is something that needs protecting too.

How to Leave VoiceMail for Your Professor that Gets Results

Dear Student,

I think I got a voicemail from you. I think you need assistance with the class. I would like to tell you what I got:

  • Only your first name, so I had to figure out who was calling. I have three classes online and you aren’t the only person with that name in my classes.
  • Your phone number was garbled so I could not call you back without guessing who had called.
  • A vague idea about what was wrong.
  • No time that would be best to call you back or any other way to reach you.

This is actually one of the things I have been teaching: How to leave an effective voice mail for a professor,

  • State your first and last name clearly.
  • Indicate the course name and section number.
  • Give the professor an indication of what you need.
  • Leave the professor an some options for reaching you with a response like best time to reach you by phone or an email address. Saying your phone number or email twice slowly helps.
  • Follow up the call with a quick email with your contact information and the question you have.

This is how you practice professional phone behavior AND get results from professors or other professionals (like employers) with whom you wish to communicate. Many students get poorer results than they should because they don’t use the best communication strategies. Follow these steps for better results. Professional people value their time. If you leave good messages, you are likely to get your situation dealt with.

Why don’t you call me back and follow these steps and we can take it from there.

Student Q/A About Online Learning


Do you feel it is possible for those of us taking our courses online to receive the same benefits from this class as those in a traditional setting? Do you have any specific suggestions for those of us who are taking the classes online to optimize our learning experience?

Those are two really great questions.  I struggle all of the time with how I make the online experience as rich as I feel the face-to-face classes are.  That is one of the reasons I have more longish assignment, but those take longer to grade.  It’s easier for and instructor to do low- value, low-quality assignments (like multiple choice stuff) because it is easier to do.

In terms of suggestions, I would take every opportunity to interact with others.  Talk with the professors. You can join me during online office hours. Those types of things will make the course feel less impersonal or mechanized.

– On the PowerPoint presentation, it shows attendance/daily quizzes/assignments as accounting for 40% of our grade. Can you advise how this works for those of us taking our classes online.

These are the smaller, shorter assignments. Attendance is how I can see if you have logged in and really if you are working on pace.  Many students think they can blow all of this off until the last minute.

– (Another online specific question; sorry) It’s ok Will we have the opportunity to work with partners or smaller groups in this class (communicating via email, etc.) or will this class all be individually based?

I am working to put together activities which will have you working with each other in meaningful ways.  You will have to let me know if you thought they were effective after.

– In the video you stated that we would need to develop a career plan. For those of us that have already chosen their career field and are returning to school, how will this work.

This will help you do research, specifically career research if you find yourself looking for a new job within a career or you are looking to change careers. There are lots of things packed into the project that even some of my more seasoned students have found valuable.

Why are we taught the way we are in high school if it is not the best way to teach us?

Why do you think that high school doesn’t do the best job? What is the purpose of high school? People lived on this planet for thousands of years and have rich and fulfilling lives and never went to high school. Somebody thought up the idea of high school. Who do you think that was and what was it’s purpose? Is it possible that the real goal is different than the stated goal?

When my son was about 3, he ran around all the time, especially right before bed. He would run and run so that he wouldn’t fall asleep. I would tell him, “Come her and sit next to me.”

“No,” he would protest. “I don’t want to go to sleep.”

“You don’t have to, just lay here for five minutes. Then you can keep running around.”

He would stop and lay next to me on the couch because I wasn’t telling him to go to sleep. Once he stopped moving, I knew that sleep would catch him and I could carry him off to bed.  Is it possible that high school is doing something similar to that?

My only question for the introduction video is why I have to even take this class in the first place. I really don’t have any questions about the syllabus. I don’t know how you can even form any about it.

I am sorry that you feel that you are forced to take this class.  I am trying to get you to harness the power your brain has by switching it on. Questions do that.

You seem to be saying that you simply are not curious about anything in this class. If you have no questions as you pass through this or any other class, you will see earning your degree as a series of obstacles to be avoided, not opportunities to grow and learn.

The short answer, frankly, is that you don’t need to take this class. You don’t need to be in college. You signed yourself up for this course and you are the one that can sign yourself out if that is what you think needs to happen. YOU ARE GROWN. No one in “making you” live your life. Decide what you want to do.

On a final note, I feel bad that that wonderful and creative person you are and the passion with which I am sure you entered this world with got kicked out of you during an educational process that turns learning to a chore.  Let me know what I can do to assist you

Great questions, thanks!