“Lessons From the Best and Worst Team Experiences: How a Teacher Can Make the Difference”—that’s the title of a 1999 article by Donald R. Bacon, Kim A. Steward, and William S. Silver that was published in the Journal of Management Education. It’s a fine piece of research with a title that makes you want to read it. Since publication it has become one of the most widely cited articles on group work in the now voluminous literature on the topic. After 20 years, new articles still reference it. Last year the Journal of Management Education appropriately selected it for the 2019 Lasting Impact Award.
The journal republished the article and preceded it with an update that offers the authors’ reflections and recommendations (Bacon & Stewart, 2019).They begin by noting that understanding how groups function in courses has advanced in part because of better measurement techniques and more rigorous experimental designs. They make a number of recommendations that they believe will continue to enlarge our knowledge of student learning in groups. Some of these are relevant to teachers interested in analyzing and understanding the impact of group experiences in their courses.
Bacon and Stewart correctly note that reports of perceived learning continue to be common in the research on group work. Researchers and individual faculty often ask students to report how much and how well they learned as a consequence group activity. But perceived learning is not the same as actual learning or those “direct measures” of learning, such an exam, an individual project, or an oral presentation. For example, in research on study groups (Rybczynski & Schussler, 2011), although students reported that the groups helped them learn the content, their participation in a study group did not improve their exam scores. It’s good, then, for teachers to consider students’ actual performance, not just their assessments of learning in group activities.
Another area that should concern teachers who use group work is whether the skills students develop as part of their group experience transfer to their work in other groups. Bacon and Stewart note that not only are direct measures of team skills scarce in the business literature (they both teach business), but there are “even fewer studies demonstrating that skills learned in one context are applied in a subsequent context” (p. 544). If a group project includes some team-building activities and group cohesion is measured before and after those activities, scores may well improve. That’s fine, but what about the next time students work in a group with a different set of members? The transfer of skills should be examined in curricular programs where group experiences occur in multiple courses. And most important of all is the transfer of those skills to professional contexts.
It’s also useful for teachers to differentiate between what’s happening to individuals in a group and what’s happening in the group as a whole. “Team functioning is a group-level construct as a characteristic of the group, whereas a students’ team skills are a characteristic of the individual student” (p. 545). Both play key roles in determining group functioning and individual performance, but they shouldn’t be commingled. How a group resolves conflict, whether it’s cohesive, and how it decides to partition the task—those are group-level issues. Listening, leading, managing group logistics, and providing feedback—those are contributions individuals make to the group.
With group work, as with so many other instructional issues, we shouldn’t confuse correlation with causation. The simultaneous presence of two factors denotes an association that may or may not be the result of a causal link. So, if students form their own groups, and those groups are more cohesive than teacher-formed groups, that doesn’t automatically mean that cohesion always or usually results when students form their own groups.
Small group dynamics are complex, which is why there’s a need to keep reminding teachers that if they aren’t willing to help students understand how groups function, then they probably shouldn’t be using group work. When groups aren’t functioning with at least some degree of effectiveness, little or no learning occurs. That includes learning the content and learning how to work effectively with others.
Bacon, D. R., & Stewart, K. A. (2019). “Lessons from the best and worst team experiences: How a teacher can make a difference”: Reflections and recommendations for student teams and researchers. Journal of Management Education, 43(5), 543–549. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562919849670
Bacon, D. R., Stewart, K. A., & Silver, W. S. (2019). Republication of “Lessons from the best and worst team experiences: How a teacher can make a difference.” Journal of Management Education, 43(5), 550–572. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562919838523
Rybczynski, S. M., & Schussler, E. E. (2011). Student use of out-of-class study groups in an introductory undergraduate biology course. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(1), 74–82. https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe-10-04-0060 [open access]
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