Deanna Myers, Department of Chemistry

Group work. Just hearing the phrase brings up feelings of dread in many students. I remember feeling this way when I entered an upper-division chemistry course at my undergraduate institution. When the professors told us we would be assigned lab groups, with whom we would be doing projects and turning in group reports, I was filled with trepidation. But over the course of the quarter, my hatred of group work dissipated. I appreciated having others to analyze data with, particularly when our results seemed ambiguous and coming to any conclusions was difficult. Seeing how my peers approached the data expanded my analytical toolbox and made me a better scientist.

My professors designed our group lab assignments well, making the experience so positive. In the first week of class we completed a survey about when we like to work on homework and what role we tend to take in group projects. From these criteria, we were assigned our groups. The lab reports we submitted together required we work together on them – we could not simply divide up the work and do it individually. The professor also scheduled time in lab for us to simply work on our reports together, meaning we had to take less of our personal time to work on assignments together.

Because group work tends to lead to increases in student grades, it is important to design the experience consciously to provide students with a positive experience, as my professors did (Weir, et al. 2019). The methods they used can be applied to group work situations for a variety of education levels across a wide range of subjects. By following these principles, group work can reach its potential by encouraging collaborative learning amongst students and positive interactions.

Have Instructor-Assigned Groups

While students may be apprehensive about instructor-assigned groups, research shows that group work is best when the instructor assigns the groups (Brickell et al, 1994). By assigning groups, the social pressures that may be present by having students choose to work with their friends are minimized. Because the expectation of a deep personal relationship with their groupmates is eliminated, students will feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and needs, making the group work experience more educational and meaningful.

Design Assignments to be Collaborative

Many students will be used to the “divide and conquer” mentality for group projects but doing this dilutes the effectiveness of group work. Collaborative assignments, in which students must work together to complete a task by sharing ideas and learning from each other, are more effective than “divide and conquer” because of the degree of interdependence. Assignments where students must rely on their groupmates to succeed tend to result in higher grades (Thompson and Lamanna, 2019). They also better prepare students for life beyond school (Johnson and Johnson, 1999).

Provide Class Time to Work on Assignments

By doing this, we reduce the pressure put on groups to find time to meet outside of class. It also gives them the opportunity to ask the instructor questions and get real-time answers. Providing students with class time for working on lab reports led to an improvement of the quality in the reports (Aurora 2010). For group lab reports, reducing any uncertainty in the assignment for students allows them to focus on the data analysis and deeper understanding of the experiment.

By following these tenets, we can reduce the stress and frustration many students associate with group work. Providing students with meaningful and positive group work experiences will help them as they progress through school and into their careers.

References

L.K. Weir, et al. Small changes, big gains: A curriculum-wide study of teaching practivies and student learning in undergraduate biology. Plos One, 2019. 

J.L. Brickell, et al. Assigning Students to Groups for Engineering Design Projects: A Comparison of Five Methods. J. Engin. Ed. 1994, 259-262. 

M.M. Thompson, A.C. Lamanna. Catalyzing group work in introductory chemistry: evaluation of five strategies. J. Chem. Ed. 2019, 97, 351-357. 

D.W. Johnson, R.T. Johnson. Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning, 5th ed.; Allyn and Bacon: Boston, MA, USA, 1999; ISBN 9780205287710.

T.S. Aurora. Enhancing learning by writing laboratory reports in class. J. Faculty Develop. 2010, 24:1, 35-36. 

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.

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