You have likely heard or experienced many horror stories when implementing group work in university subjects ….

My story is different…

I have vivid recollections of group work in my early undergraduate days – a group of 5 of us working on a capstone project. Two of us doing all of the work, one student academically not really up to the task, and the other two not even trying to contribute.  Frustrated, two of us went and spoke to our lecturer trying to resolve the issue, hoping for a fair outcome.  I don’t recall the exact outcome as it was years ago now, however, I don’t recall being supported or guided in any way by our lecturer.

I had similarly frustrating experiences in my second undergraduate qualification and more recently while undertaking my Masters degree.  I found them to be incredibly frustrating and unfair experiences – the academics involved left stronger and more conscientious students to battle through, do all of the work and not achieve grades that truly rewarded their efforts, while the rest of the team essentially getting a free ride.

As a lecturer responsible for three subjects that require group work I was determined that my students would not face the same experience and struggles.  That as their lecturer I would guide them through a fair and just experience, rewarding each student for their own effort.

Team work vs Group work

The first strategy I used was to design assessments using a team work approach, not group work which are subtly different in their set up, yet significantly different in their outcome.

A work team has members who work interdependently on a specific, common goal to produce an end result for their business. A work group is two or more individuals who are interdependent in their accomplishments and may or may not work in the same department. The differences are subtle, but the key is that a team works together and shares in the outcome, while a group is more independent of each other.  Members of a work team work interdependently on a common goal, while members of a work group are interdependent in their accomplishments.

In a class setting the way this plays out – is that using a group work approach, students often go into isolation and work on their own on a specific part of an assessment, without input from other group members. Close to the assessment due date, group members then try and combine all of their individual parts into a single submission.  This approach provides little opportunity for peer to peer learning or collaboration – which is an invaluable yet missed opportunity.

If a team work approach is used instead, students are required to interact with and learn from each other and come to a consensus while working toward a common goal.  Each team member must be aware of what each of the other team members are working on, so that the final result meets the goal of the assessment and is a cohesive submission.

Framing the team approach to students

Group work in an educational setting has a bad reputation.  Students regularly report hating group work for the same reasons I outlined in my personal experience.

As discussed above, team work is subtly different to group work, and these differences need to be articulated to students in order to gain their trust and buy in.

There are a number of matters that I discuss with students at the start of each subject in order to allay their concerns.

1.The purpose for team work in the subject

Due to bad experiences in previous subjects and educational settings, students are often very wary of ‘group work’ included in a subject. Explaining the purpose and need for collaborative work in a subject is important in gaining student trust and a building a common understanding.  The subjects I teach require collaborative work to meet Australian Computer Society (ACS) accreditation.  Explaining this to students adds weight to the justification for the use of team work and enables me to show the link to future employability.

2. Explaining the difference between team work and group work

Students are likely to have only experienced group work in an educational setting, not team work.  It is important to repeatedly explain, reiterate and reassure students of these differences.  The differences are subtle, and students are understandably wary and hesitant. Often students cannot fully appreciate these subtle differences until their first or even second assessment has been submitted.

3. Mismatched expectations = conflict

A difference in expectations is the greatest cause of conflict between students undertaking collaborative work.  In the first weeks of a subject, I raise this with students – and provide the example of two team members wanting different outcomes from the subject.  Some students aim for HDs while others are happy to pass. Some student like to have assessments completed a few days before a due date while others are happy to submit in the final minutes.  These differences in expectation cause significant stress for students on both sides of these examples.  The student who is happy with a pass or submitting last minute can feel pressured and nagged by the student who wants an HD or to submit early. Conversely the student who wants an HD or to submit early can feel resentful of the student who is happy with a pass or submitting last minute, believing that perhaps that they are lazy or incompetent – when in fact they merely have different expectations and goals for the subject.

4. Control of self vs others

It is important to explain to students that the only person they can control is themselves. That if they find themselves in a situation, such as those outlined above, the only person they can control is themselves. They cannot make a student want an HD (or PS), for example, they can only decide how they will respond to the situation. Communicating personal expectations and working style with other team members can go a long way to avoiding conflict.  Doing so allows students to develop their own strategies to deal with any differences and be proactive rather than reactive should any conflict arise.

5.Leadership

Students are strongly encouraged to develop team communication strategies and have a nominated leader at all stages of the subject.  The leadership role can rotate among the team members, however in order for the team to be successful there should be a leader assigned at all times.

If a team experiences conflict or lack of engagement that they report to me (or if I pick up on this during group discussions), I encourage them to step up and take on a leadership role within their team in order to resolve conflict. I will step in if needed, however usually only a nudge from me is required and some suggestions as to how to communicate within their team to get them back on track.

Mentoring

The key to success of team work in a university subject, is not to ‘set and forget’. It is not enough for lecturers to create teams of students, leave them to their own devices and expect a good outcome.  To become a competent and valuable team member, team work is best experienced, not taught. To achieve this, students must be guided, and mentored throughout the team work experience to overcome many of the issues traditionally encountered.

In subjects ITC306/ITC308, I meet with teams fortnightly as a form of accountability, as well as strengthen student engagement and commitment. Students are asked to provide a status update i.e. highlights & wins since our last meeting, completed tasks since our last meeting, what tasks they plan to achieve before our next meeting, any issues they wish to discuss.  Students are encouraged to take the lead in these meetings and present their report to me.

During these meetings, I don’t problem solve for them. I ask questions that require team members to reflect on the situation and their own behaviour, and to suggest their own plan to solve the problem.  If I suspect an uncommunicated problem, I will ask questions and suggest action-taking without singling out individuals.

If an individual student approaches me with a concern regarding their team, I don’t automatically step in and solve it for them, but facilitate a resolution.  I suggest strategies, such as stepping up and taking a stronger leadership role or communicating more clearly with their team, for example.

Rather than hope a problem resolves itself, I will check in with the student (or team) for an update.  If they have been unsuccessful in their attempts to resolve the issue, I will tactfully contact the team, and nudge them in the right direction without singling out or identifying students. This approach almost always improves team performance and collaboration.

Assessment structure

Assessment structure is critical for a successful team work experience.  Designing assessments using a team work approach ensures that it is very clear which tasks each student is responsible for completing. This allows staff to award students appropriately for their individual efforts, and significantly reduces the opportunities for students to ‘free load’.

Using a team work approach when designing assessments naturally facilitates peer to peer learning, due to the interdependent nature of the individual tasks.

Reflection (vs tattletale)

Assessments in both ITC308 and ITC218 require students to reflect on their team work experiences.  The reflection is framed so that students are to compare their team work experience with the theory or working in a project team, vs ‘tattletaling’ on other team members.

In ITC308 students are also asked to reflect on their behaviour as a team member during ITC306, how they may have impacted the level of the group’s success so far, and what action they might take to improve any issues they identify within the team.

Students regularly report:

  • More communication would improve their team’s success, and that their communication should be more structured.
  • Having a nominated leader is critical to team success.
  • Their own ‘leave things to the last minute’ approach to assessments, places stress on their team members.
  • That they learn a lot from their team members – due to the difference in experience levels and perspectives.
  • That they enjoy sharing their expertise and experience with their team.
  • Students in ITC218 often report a more stressful experience. This is very likely due to the short duration of the team work assessment and that teams are still very likely in the ‘forming – storming’ phase of group work.