Group work can be very challenging for faculty and students, but with proper planning, group work can increase quality student interaction and participation in your course. Meaningful group work assessments ask students to draw on their full range of skills, abilities, educational backgrounds and experiences. In addition, group work encourages students to practice the exchange of ideas through innovative thinking, decision-making, and identifying and solving problems as a team.
Unfortunately, group work can have a negative reputation, especially in online courses. Due to a lack of precise, concise, or thorough instructions, unclear grading criteria, confusing or missing participation guidelines, and a multitude of logistical problems (time zones, tech capabilities, material access, etc.), group work has a unique set of challenges that faculty must overcome. With intentional design and clear planning, group work can account for these challenges and offer students a high-quality, engaging learning experience.
Select an Assessment
When selecting an assessment for group work, ask yourself, “What does this activity ask learners to do?” The answer to this question will help you determine whether or not the assessment is a good choice for group work. For example, if your goal is for students to foster their critical thinking skills, select an activity that requires the cognitive application of concepts to unfamiliar situations, analysis, problem-solving, synthesis, evaluation, or questioning the premise of the problem itself. These assessment types are a better fit for group work than an activity that requires only recall or the comprehension of facts.
The best assessments for engaging groups are open-ended and have no single correct answer or are controversial and require a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. To promote higher-level thinking, the assessment should challenge students to engage in analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, and/or questioning a problem’s premise or assumptions.
- Assessments easily accomplished individually.
- Assessments easily subdivided to individuals without collaboration.
- Assessments with a singular product or no scaffolding.
- Lengthy written assessments.
- Debates or research on controversial issues.
- Analysis of current events.
- Cultural comparisons.
- Case studies that seek out solutions.
- Authentic, real-world experiences.
In order to avoid common group work mistakes, take these design considerations into account after selecting an assessment you want to use as a group work experience.
Scaffolding the larger assessment, or breaking up the assessment into a number of smaller tasks can help your students stay on track and avoid putting off the assessment until the last minute. Multiple checkpoints also allows you to more quickly and strategically intervene if a student or students are not pulling their weight.
When scaffolding, provide written instructions to your students that list:
- The task (i.e., brainstorming, drafting, presenting, researching)
- The expected product (i.e., presentation, wiki, research collection, calculation)
- The method of “debriefing” or “reporting out” (i.e., sharing results, identifying pros/cons, discussing group ideas, noting consensus and diversity of ideas).
Communicating scaffolded milestones allows all groups to monitor and reflect on their progress and performance. Milestones should occur at various points throughout the semester and should build on one another to larger end product or goal for the group.
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- Center for Teaching & Scholarly Excellence. (2015). Definitions and Examples of collaborative, cooperative, team-based and problem-based learning. Suffolk University of Boston.
- Bo Chang & Haijun Kang (2016) Challenges facing group work online, Distance Education, 37:1, 73-88, DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2016.1154781
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- National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) (2020). Career Readiness Definitions. NACE.
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