Today we examine the factors that need to be considered in the process of group formation. If you decide to include group work as part of your teaching, you have a responsibility to guide students into forming successful groups.
Preparing students for group work
We need to prime students with positive and realistic expectations that can help them make sense of their group experience, so it is useful to consider how teams and groups develop and grow.
Bruce Tuckman identified 5 stages in team development which are expanded on in this video:
Likewise, there is some popularity with the idea that the right mix of personality types or role-preferences boosts team effectiveness but the evidence is inconsistent. In practice, students can expect to adapt to the balance within their team – check out Great teams are about personalities for more on this.
On the other hand, psychological safety (a belief that it is okay to speak up with concerns) is a crucial condition for group learning processes and high performance. Team members may focus on impression management versus making others feel safe to take interpersonal risks (Newman et al, 2017). Psychological safety can also be profoundly affected by teaching decisions.
Amy Edmonson identifies 3 key strategies to foster workplace psychological safety:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
- Acknowledge your own fallibility
- Model curiosity
Group duration needs to be considered when setting up groups as short term and long term groups have characteristics.
For instance, Ad hoc groups, may form and dissolve in a single tutorial, students quickly join and contribute to the group product with low mutual familiarity. Students rehearse skills through many iterations, and randomisation exposes students to a variety of partners. Team performance is supported by conventions such as defined roles, agendas and contracts, and a technology platform can enable instructors to monitor the process. Teams may use peer-evaluation aids such as SPARKplus or CATME, and in longer work, task management aids such as Trello or Asana.
These groups are prone to social-loafing (where one student relies on others to do their work), communication failures, and individualistic internal competition. The lessons learned may not be transferable to other workgroups. Students usually expect, and instructors usually prefer, to assess individual performance.
Conversely, Team-based learning aims for high-performing teams over a period of months and supports risky learning by individuals. The need for psychological safety is supported through long-lived teams with low turnover. Disparities in team mix are mitigated either by intentionally balanced team allocation or self-selected teams. Team performance is supported by monitoring qualities of the relationships. Teams may use communication aids such as Zoom, Teams, or Facebook, and co-editing or versioning tools such as GoogleDocs or Github.
These groups are vulnerable to group-think, attrition, and marginalisation of under-performers. Team cohesion can be damaged by pairing. High performance is the output of the team, not an individual. Allocation of credit to individuals is often problematic.
How can short and long term groups work in practice? Check out this video.
What is the ideal size for student groups? Well it depends on many factors. There are arguments for groups of 3, 4, 6 or less than 12! The optimal group size needs to based on considerations such as:
Scope of task/project
- Level of interdependence of students in task
- Student attrition during course
Also, there’s pros and cons with small and large groups to keep in mind such as:
Smaller group size
- Less logistics, coordination, technology, and motivation risks;
- More personal accountability, transparency and intimacy.
Larger group size
- Less resources continuity;
- More group-think risks, anonymity, diversity, and role differentiation.
The group size that works best for you depends on the type of activity and what you would like the students to achieve as a result, as well as how much time you have for logistics and coordination of groups.
Australian universities accept increasingly diverse student intakes (e.g. international and mature aged students), and must allocate groups and design tasks with this in mind. For instance, in Western organisations, teams can expect a level of constructive conflict before they develop strong cohesion and reach their peak performance (Tuckman, 1965), however this may be problematic for students from cultures or ethnic backgrounds with different norms around conflict.
Students and instructors may also assume that team members will all be equally “good” students with similar goals, and in a fit condition for study. However, we can expect that an average student group has at least one member with anxiety, experienced sexual harassment, eating disorder or harmful drinking (Said, et al, 2013).
Thus, safety and peer support needs to be a consideration in group allocation. Teams that include women tend to outperform all-male teams, possibly due to inequitable gendered expectations around emotional labour (Curseu et al, 2017). Likewise, evenly distributing people who are a minority across all teams may isolate each member from possible lines of support, but equally ethnic clusters are often viewed with suspicion or hostility.
It may be necessary to explicitly encourage teams to positively value diversity. Some student tasks that may help include:
- Icebreaker: e.g. discover something each group member has done that you have never experienced.
- Delegation: e.g. designate a project team member for each stakeholder, to discover and represent their interests, and to design communication to that stakeholder.
- Self-reflection: e.g. Preparing for Teamwork (PDF)
- What methods have you used to form groups?
- How do you create support and inclusion for diverse students in collaborative group work?
- What strategies have you used and how would you rate their success?
- On selection strategies for group allocation (PDF): https://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/ergo/article/download/924/646
- On forming effective groups:https://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/learning-and-teaching/enhancing/enhancing-experiences-group-work/forming
- How to prepare students for group work: this resource is a great example.
Curşeu, P.L., Chappin, M.M.H. & Jansen, R.J.G. (2017) Gender diversity and motivation in collaborative learning groups: the mediating role of group discussion quality. Soc Psychol Educ . https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-017-9419-5
Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521. 10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001
Said, D., Kypri, K. & Bowman, (2013) Risk factors for mental disorder among university students in Australia: findings from a web-based cross-sectional survey. J. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol (2013) 48: 935. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-012-0574-x
Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h00221100