Group work, and cooperative learning more generally, has many benefits. It gives students the chance to participate in learning activities and can:
- Build students’ communication skills.
- Prepare them for a professional working environment.
- Deepen knowledge through having to inform, persuade and defend their point of view.
- Open them to new perspectives.
In addition, cooperative learning “promotes greater psychological health and well-being (including self-esteem and social competencies)” (Johnson, et al., 2014)
Cooperative learning can be informal, short-term activities such as think-pair-share or peer instruction, or groups that work together for a single session. But long-term groups have the advantage of providing a stable learning community where trust can be established and members’ strengths can be understood and utilised. This lends itself to authentic projects where complex problems need to be discussed.
Roles in group work
Roles can help with engagement and accountability (see this article from Washington University Center for Teaching and Learning for more benefits of roles in group work). They can also provide useful reflection for personal growth. Roles do not have to be fixed, and particularly in a learning situation it can be helpful for students to try different roles and see which they find more comfortable or more challenging.
There are many systems for identifying and allocating roles, such as Belbin, Honey etc. This list from Benne and Sheats includes some dysfunctional roles to look out for. A more workplace-oriented list is given on Indeed. However, others such as Britton have been critical of the use of roles and prefer ‘natural learning’ (Johnson, et al., 2014).
Structured group work
Group work can be arranged in many different ways, and some educators choose to use highly specific or structured practices. Here are some examples:
- Teams-based Learning (TBL) involves long-term groups selected by the instructor. There is a very particular structure to each session, where students answer theory-based questions first individually and then in groups, and are then set a problem to solve.
- The SCALE-UP approach makes the most of peer learning and problem-based methods by arranging students into groups of three that can then form into larger groups of 6 or 9 (watch a short video on SCALE-UP). In class, students work together to solve problems based on content they have studied in their own time, plus further online resources and help from the instructor where necessary.
- The Jigsaw Method involves students working in two different groups – a home group, where they are each assigned a subtopic to research, and an expert group where a particular subtopic is examined. Experts go back to their home groups and present their research, so everyone in the group becomes familiar with all the subtopics.
How well a group works together will likely determine the success of their project. Particularly for long-term groups, it is good to be aware of the stages that groups tend to go through (you may have come across Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing model) and, as a tutor, be there to support resolution of difficulties and encourage communication and inclusivity.
In some situations you may wish to construct groups deliberately, not just to optimise the spread of abilities but to reduce the likelihood of anyone taking over or feeling left out. In other cases it may be fine to allocate groups at random. Self-selected groups have the danger of isolating some individuals or allowing friendship pairs to take over.
A compassionate pedagogy approach can improve not just well-being in groups but also achievement. This is because, where people feel safe, they are more able to think creatively. Students can learn simple techniques and habits to help make their group feel safe and inclusive. See a series of short films on Compassion in Education for more information.
Brame, C.J. & Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved 3/12/21 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/.
Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 25, 85-118.