Weighing the Pros and Cons of Group Work Assignments in Online Courses

While working with a Psychology instructor recently, we engaged in a very common debate on whether or not to include a group project assignment as part of the learner assessment breakdown in a newly revised online course. She acknowledged that she had some very bad experiences in the past with group work assignments in other courses, and noted that students generally moan and groan when they see these in the course outline. Students complain that it is difficult coordinating work with their peers, and that the workload inevitably falls to one or two persons, with the rest along for the ride. In the end, however, the instructor decided to include a group work assignment, no matter what the difficulties. She reasoned “when they get out of school and into a job, they will have to work collaboratively in groups with others, so they may as well start getting some practice at this.” So she recognized that there are other valuable competencies that her learners could develop that were above and beyond those related to the subject of Psychology.

What are some of the benefits of group work assignments? Done correctly, group work assignments can help learners develop competencies in:

  • Collaboration / teamwork
  • Communication / listening
  • Conflict management
  • Leadership / project management
  • Articulating and defending a position
  • Negotiating ability
  • Problem-solving

Of course that is not to say that group work assignments do not come with their fair share of problems and challenges, particularly in an online course. Chief among these are:

  • Logistical challenges: coordinating a time when geographically-dispersed learners with varying schedules can collaborate on projects
  • Lack of time to form strong group bonds
  • Personality conflicts among group members
  • “Hitchhikers” in the group who are along for the ride and are happy to leave the work to others
  • “Hijackers” in the group who want to take over the project themselves

So what we can we do to maximize the benefits of group work and minimize its drawbacks? Here are some tips.

Provide Clear Directions
You need to clearly lay out the goals of the assignment, directions on how it is to be completed, and your expectations for the final product. While this should be the case for any assignment in your course, it is especially important for group work assignments. Confusion and frustration will grow exponentially times the number of group members if directions and expectations are not crystal clear (Nigol’s Law).

Groups Must be an Appropriate Size
If groups are too big, it will be difficult to build group cohesion, and easy for group members to hide and not do their fair share of work. If groups are too small, they miss out on benefitting from a range of opinions, inputs and diverse experiences and abilities. Four or five is a good number for most group activities.

Diversify Your Groups
Strive for heterogeneity in your groups. Try to get a good mix of majors, years and genders if possible. Again, the idea is to encourage a diversity of viewpoints and talents to come together as a whole that it is better than the sum of its individual parts. 

Allow Enough Time for Groups to Gel
A common mistake is to expect groups to produce their collective work in too tight a time frame. Remember, groups need time to coalesce and work through their processes (i.e. forming, storming, norming, performing, and all that).

Provide Some Guidance at the Outset
You can help groups get started by suggesting different roles that may be assigned within groups, by setting out clear rules of netiquette, and by pointing to resources available on group work (perhaps from your own institution’s teaching and learning department or academic counseling centre).

Emphasize Individual Accountability
Although it is a group project, and a group mark may be assessed, you should let students know that they will be held individually accountable for their contribution to the project. This is why it is often a good idea to include an individual mark as part of the assessment, perhaps using peer evaluations via transparent assessment rubrics. Again, the idea is to let learners know that there is no hiding or slacking tolerated just because it is a group assignment.

Debrief on the Experience
Having a debrief with your students after the group assignment can serve two purposes. It provides learners with a chance to reflect on their learnings with respect to group processes, communication, conflicts, and the key attributes required in working with others toward common goals. And it provides you with valuable insights to use in tweaking how you approach group work assignments in the future.

Although I am a proponent of group work, I will not soft soap it. Group work can get nasty because of personality clashes among your students. However, try to resist the urge to jump in and fix things (unless things get really ugly). Remember, urging your students to settle their own disputes is a good way for them to develop important competencies that will serve them well in other situations. Group work is often messy business, but then so is life. Protecting students from this is doing them no favours.

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