Supporting collaborative learning: Teaching tips for facilitating group work

Suzanne Webster ·
30 April 2019
Environmental Literacy | Science Communication | 

Over the last few weeks, I attended several workshops at the University of Maryland Teaching & Learning Transformation Center (TLTC). The TLTC provides training, consultation, and various other resources to students and faculty who wish to improve their teaching. The first workshop I attended was called “Equitable and Successful Group Work”. This workshop was held in the Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center on February 7, 2019, and was facilitated by Learning Experience Designer Louisa Nkrumah and Instructional Development Specialist Dr. Alexis Williams.

The workshop on Equitable and Successful Group Work is part of the TLTC’s Diversity and Inclusion Workshop Series.

The facilitators began by asking attendees to share some
of our past experiences with group work, specifically in the context of taking
or teaching courses. Several graduate students and faculty members described
memorable experiences, and perhaps as expected, most of the experiences that
were shared were negative. There was a lot of empathetic head nodding as
workshop attendees shared their frustrating tales of tedious teamwork. It
seemed that we all agreed that working in groups is often challenging—sometimes
group members are too dominating and there is enormous pressure for others to just
agree to proposed solutions in order to avoid conflict, while other times group
members might not contribute as much as expected, leaving others to do more
than their “fair share” of the work. Almost certainly, working as a group to
complete a project is much more time-consuming than doing the same project
alone. Yet, despite all of these perceived disadvantages of group work, we all
believed that working on teams is a worthy endeavor—after all, each of us took
the time to attend a workshop to learn how to implement successful group work
in our own classrooms.

There are a multitude of advantages to doing group work in classes. (Image used with permission of the TLTC)

For the remainder of the workshop, the facilitators led
us in a discussion of evidence-based strategies for using group work
effectively, and shared specific tips on how to arrange groups of students,
discuss expectations, evaluate group assignments, and use various tools to
augment group experiences for students and instructors. I left the workshop
with three key takeaways that I believe will change my approach to using group
work in the future:

1.  Ensure that learning outcomes and group work
activities are aligned

When designing a course (or structuring a workshop agenda), it can sometimes be tempting to include group work for the sake of diversifying the types of assignments or activities. However, group work is not effective or appropriate in all cases. Instructors must make sure that a group project aligns with the learning outcomes of the course overall. For example, certain topics lend themselves to collaborative group work more than others, and in many cases, an individual final presentation can be a more effective format for achieving particular goals. When developing syllabi in the future, I will carefully consider whether a group project would enhance or hinder students’ progress towards achieving the course learning outcomes.

The workshop facilitators shared many strategies for how instructors can design and implement effective group work in a classroom environment.

2.  Take deliberate steps to develop a learning

The people and relationships within a group can make or break a group project. Instructors can increase the likelihood that group work will be a productive and positive experience by putting extra effort into the arrangement of the groups. Group size is one factor to consider. In small groups of 3 to 5 people, every member of the team has a chance to participate and form relationships with each of their partners, whereas individuals might struggle to participate equally and collaborate effectively in larger groups. Groups can also be randomly-assigned, instructor-assigned, or student-assigned, and each of these strategies has its own pros and cons. When arranging groups, instructors should think about which approaches are best-suited for their particular situation.

Beyond group arrangement, instructors should consider
what else they can do to help build a community that sets their students up for
successful collaboration and learning. To achieve this goal in the future, I
will take more time to help facilitate student groups’ initial project
meetings. The TLTC facilitators showed us an example of a team contract that
student groups can fill out together at their first meeting in order to get to
know each other and set expectations for each person’s role in the project.
While I think the formal contract might be a bit overkill for my situation, I
do think it would be valuable to provide a few questions that encourage students
to openly discuss their individual goals, strengths, and vulnerabilities, as
well as establish internal deadlines, responsibilities, and behavioral
expectations for the group.

Defined roles can help provide structure for large groups doing collaborative work. (Image used with permission of the TLTC)

3.  Promote equity throughout the duration of the
group project

It is important that instructors and facilitators think about when and how they can intervene in order to support equity in the group work they assign. Using a team contract or a guided discussion to establish group norms at the start of a project could help accomplish this goal because it is a way to structure social interactions so that all members of the group feel comfortable. Structuring class time and assignments to accommodate group work is also a way to empower all group members to contribute to the team effort, regardless of circumstances outside of classwork. In the future, I would like to use tools like zoom breakout rooms and ELMS discussion pages to create collaborative spaces for groups to use inside and outside of class time.

Instructors must take action to make sure that the right conditions are in place to encourage group work that yields positive results.

This workshop was really interesting, and I was happy to
have gained some new insights on how I can more effectively use group work in
the future, both in my role as a teaching assistant in a classroom environment,
and as a facilitator or leader of a group project or workshop at IAN or
elsewhere. In my next blog, I will reflect on another TLTC workshop on how to
plan and facilitate group discussions.

About the author

Suzanne Webster

Suzi Webster is a PhD Candidate at UMCES. Suzi's dissertation research investigates stakeholder perspectives on how citizen science can contribute to scientific research that informs collaborative and innovative environmental management decisions. Her work provides evidence-based recommendations for expanded public engagement in environmental science and management in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Suzi is currently a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, and she works in NOAA’s Technology Partnerships Office as their first Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Specialist.
Previously, Suzi worked as a Graduate Assistant at IAN for six years. During her time at IAN, she contributed to various communications products, led an effort to create a citizen science monitoring program, and assisted in developing and teaching a variety of graduate- and professional-level courses relating to environmental management, science communication, and interdisciplinary environmental research. Before joining IAN, Suzi worked as a research assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA and received a B.S. in Biology and Anthropology from the University of Notre Dame.

Next Post > Monitoring conferences in 2019

Post a comment