This resource will explain why group work is often used for classroom activities and assessments, and how it is important, not only for your studies, but also for your professional life.
What is group work?
Group work, or ‘collaborative learning’, broadly refers to students working together to answer questions, work on course material or solve problems (Colbeck, Campbell & Bjorklund 2000). It is frequently used in education because it is recognised that social interaction is a critical factor in an individual’s intellectual development (Lin 2015). Also, having the ability to work effectively as a group member is an important skill that you will need throughout your professional life. When your group is working well, you will be engaged in an ongoing process of communicating, generating ideas and planning, working individually and together on aspects of the plan, and drawing all the components together to reach a goal.
Why can’t I be assessed individually?
While sometimes you may feel as though you could achieve better marks by working on your own, developing collaborative skills through classroom and assessment activities prepares you with the skills you require for your professional life. Look at it as an opportunity for growth. In group work, you will learn from others, but you will also be required to think carefully about your own ideas in order to explain them to others. These are benefits you cannot gain from working individually.
When will I be asked to collaborate?
Collaborating with other people at university may occur in a number of different settings. Some group work may be organised by academic staff, but you may also participate in group activities by your own choice. These could include:
- group assignments
- laboratory groups
- group presentations
- work placements
- mentor situations
- self-directed study groups
- online or face-to-face discussion groups
- support groups
- Peer Assisted Learning (PAL)
A group assignment is one where:
- the work is shared
- the assignment is assessed
- the whole team is responsible for the outcome.
Why is group work useful?
When you enter the workforce, you will almost certainly have to work in groups, usually with people not of your own choosing. You therefore need to be able to work effectively with a range of people and manage group tasks through various stages to reach a successful outcome.
Collaboration will offer you the opportunity to learn, develop skills and build your resume. You will be able to develop or enhance a range of transferable skills which will allow you to:
- establish positive peer and working relationships (networking)
- express your opinion and respect the opinion of others
- plan and comply with meeting schedules and deadlines
- manage time
- prepare yourself for professional situations
- identify group goals and divide work
- develop stronger, professional communication skills (e.g. in meetings)
- learn how to negotiate (e.g. agree on tasks and resolve conflicts)
- accommodate people with different cultural orientations and work habits
- refine understanding through discussion and explanation
- give and receive feedback on performance
- challenge assumptions
- develop leadership skills
- tackle more complex problems than you could on your own.
What makes an effective group?
Successful collaboration occurs when members:
- set ground rules
- have clear objectives and goals
- define roles
- ensure there is enough time and space
- communicate effectively
- monitor progress and stick to deadlines
- are supportive and responsible.
However, working in groups can be challenging and sometimes groups will fail. The most common reasons groups fail are conflict, ‘social loafing’ (not putting in the work) and lack of leadership and direction. Groups also said to follow a lifecycle, and by familiarising yourself with that lifecycle, you may be able to better identify and manage issues as they arise (Tuckman 1965).
The four stages within the group lifecycle are:
- Forming: Group members get to know one another, the expectations and the task.
- Storming: Conflict, disagreement or criticism arise.
- Norming: Group members have worked together to overcome issues in the storming stage. Communication between group members becomes more positive and productive as a result.
- Performing: The group achieves goals; however, if problems arise, you may have to revisit the storming stage.
- Colbeck LC, Campbell SE & Bjorklund SA 2000, ‘Grouping in the dark: What college students learn from group projects’, The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 71, no. 1, pp. 60-82.
- Lin, L 2015, ‘Exploring Collaborative Learning: Theoretical and Conceptual Perspectives’, Foundations of Collaborative Learning: Theoretical Supports’, Investigating Chinese HE EFL Classrooms: Using Collaborative Learning to Enhance Learning, Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg.
- Tuckman B 1965, ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological Bulletin, vol.63, no.6, pp.384–399.