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Student Perspectives: Working Together While Working Apart

This year, I took a seminar class where all of the students quickly became friends. Class discussions were lively, group projects were painless and impressive—we even brought in home-cooked meals on a rotating schedule. A friendly and smooth group dynamic can be hard to foster, and luck can often play into how students get along, but I have found that often a class community or culture is pivotal in the way that in-class groups function. This provides an incentive, more compelling than grades or even a finished product, to be accountable and contributive in group discussions, projects, and presentations.  

In this new world where discussions seem to be relegated to the Zoom breakout room and collaborative projects are completed exclusively through the cloud, group work is still an important part of online classes. In my four years of experience in higher learning, I have seen that group work can be a strange animal, one that can contribute much to a class but brings with it unique frustrations. There has been plenty of pedagogical theory written on group work, so obviously there isn’t much new that I could contribute in that field. Instead, what I can contribute is a student’s perspective on the group work that I, and a select few other students, have participated in. With student experiences in mind, here are some ways that group work benefits the learning experience, and how it can sometimes go awry:

One of the most important aspects of group work that can make or break the experience is the way that a professor facilitates work and guides how students work and learn in their groups. This requires a balance of guidance and distance, not being too hands-on, yet not leaving students to recreate Lord of the Flies. I have certainly been in group projects or discussions where there is virtually no participation from the instructor, causing the endeavor to peter out into an unfortunate conclusion of unbalanced work or uncertain silence. I have also been in plenty of group work scenarios in which professor participation was heavy, and these situations have ended up being small-scale lectures. That being said, there are plenty of ways to strike this balance, which is vital to the very purpose of group work.

Melissa Pendleton, a business student at William & Mary, has found that members of groups usually enforce deadlines and assignments within their ranks. 

“The first meeting of every group is probably setting deadlines and setting who works on what part of the project,” she said about the semester-spanning group projects that are sometimes assigned at the Mason School of Business. Along with setting deadlines and delegating portions of assignments, she has found enforcing these self-imposed rules has come up in group projects occasionally. Pendleton said she hasn’t had to do that much, but “there was one example where people weren’t getting their deliverables in on time, and we as a group had to be, like, ‘Okay… It’s basically time for us to sit here and watch you do it until you turn it over to us.’”

This dynamic of self-enforcement, while frustrating, also makes group work a learning experience for some students. In the example of business classes (as with many other fields), the experience of working in a team where one has to understand the strengths and weaknesses of others, picking up the slack where others might fall short, is necessary for understanding how to conduct collective work. Bella Ginzbursky-Blum, Senior Lecturer of Russian Studies at William & Mary, has found that a hands-off approach helps her students learn from each other:

“I moved from every-once-in-a-while group presentations or group projects … to really refocusing the attention in the classroom on students learning from each other and students collaborating with each other on a regular basis.”

Professor Ginzbursky-Blum’s beginner’s Russian classes are almost entirely in dialogue format with occasional instructor intervention. Students work through conversations with each other, self-correcting when issues arise. 

“When one person is explaining something to another,” she said, “they are reviewing things, and they are reinforcing what they learned and are confident about.”

Grace Kier, a student in Professor Ginzbursky-Blum’s class, agrees that group work helps when everyone brings something new to the table: “Even this year in Advanced Conversation it’s like, ‘Oh, I remember these weird, specific phrases, but my groupmates remember these other very specific phrases.’”

While it is important to let students find their own way in group work, sometimes a conversation needs just a little push. I have been in plenty of classes where the allotted time for small-group discussion has been filled by uncomfortable silence or off-topic chat. In these scenarios, I’ve found that it is helpful for the instructor to orbit around these conversations and participate where they see fit without taking too much of a lecturer role. Even if the conversation is going well, dropping a new or conflicting idea into the mix stimulates the discussion and helps students learn more from each others’ perspectives.

An instructor can even facilitate small group discussions in Zoom breakout rooms; by utilizing a function that allows the room host to drop in on the different breakout rooms, instructors are able to listen in on the conversation or work that small groups are doing and, at their discretion, participate in the discussion or give some guidance. One of the hardest things to do in remote classes is building a culture within the class; thankfully, this past semester, instructors had a chance to instill this in person, but with the national uncertainty around the possibility of in-person classes in the fall, it is important to think about how to develop this community in online classes. Using Zoom or Blackboard functionality that allows the instructor to create small group discussions is one way to do this, allowing students to directly interact with each other. I have found that the classes that maximize the group work potential that online services provide make them somewhat informal; a discussion that feels like a chat about class material makes me feel much closer to other students and the professor than a discussion that feels like, well, group work.

Difficulty with creating an in-class culture isn’t particular to online classes, though. There are a few pitfalls that are easy for any class to suffer from, making group work more difficult and less enjoyable. One of the purposes of group work is to help students learn how to navigate a group dynamic; in classes where there is not much of a community between the students, though, group work can often feel like several students doing individual work and combining it. However, if there is enough incentive to work together—a compelling assignment, an interesting prompt, or, most importantly, an in-class culture—then collaboration comes much more easily. 

Something that Melissa Pendleton found gratifying about her group work at the Business School is the group dynamics in her semester-spanning projects.

“It can be a really positive thing,” Pendleton says about her first “block” semester, during which she had the same team for all of her classes, “because you know people’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Kendall Branham, a Neuroscience student, has found that the way that groups are assigned is important in her labs and group projects.

“I kind of like, when it’s a big project at the end of the semester, when [professors] match you up more meaningfully … You have people who represent strengths from each sector, you don’t just have four random people.”

Understanding your students’ strengths and pairing them up accordingly is a huge boon to cultivating and utilizing in-class culture. Like in Pendleton’s business classes and Branham’s labs, group work is much more effective if students are able to capitalize on their own strengths, make up for each other’s weaknesses, and work as a team rather than individuals who happen to be working on the same assignment. Often this means allowing students to choose their own partners, especially in more advanced classes or late in the semester when people know each other, perhaps better than an instructor might.

Something that surprised me was that all three students interviewed for this piece, when asked about group work pet peeves, gave almost identical answers: scheduling. College students lead busy lives, and so coordinating multiple work sessions that every group member can attend can be a pain. 

“I want to be done with [a project] and comfortable with my responses before the deadline,” says Branham, “and so I feel like when people are hard to schedule with, or are a last-minute type of person, very busy, that’s definitely tough.”

Kier agrees: “Sometimes it would be like, your homework is for tomorrow, and it was on the syllabus and you know that it’s coming, but a lot of the time it was like, ‘Oh my god, when can you meet tonight,’ and, ‘Oh, you have whatever practice or rehearsal until 10 p.m., so I guess we’ll just meet at 10:30.’”

Something that instructors can do to relieve this is encouraging longer periods for group work and asking students to sign up for presentation slots or work deadlines well in advance. Some students will still wait until the last minute to finish projects, but giving a wider window ensures that those who work ahead are able to do so comfortably.

Group work does not have to be a pain, even remotely. The “group” element necessitates some sense of community amongst group members, but if an instructor is able to foster that culture and make sure students are willing and able to work together, group work can be a rewarding addition to a course. Making sure that all group members put in enough work, however, is another story—just please don’t ask some former members of my group projects.