Why Work in Groups? Three Tips for Success

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“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:
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