I’ve been doing some work on resources related to group work and have been impressed yet again by the amount of scholarship being done on groups both in classrooms and online. Faculty use and study groups in virtually every field. And as a sidebar, I will yet again point out the largely discipline-based focus of the work. As someone who regularly looks at research across disciplines, I can say with certainty that we have more to learn about groups from each other than we can learn by looking exclusively at what’s being done in one field or closely related ones.
But there was something else about the resources I hadn’t noticed before, and that’s the amount of attention paid to dysfunctional group dynamics—all those interpersonal problems that arise when students try to work collaboratively. The research unquestionably establishes that dysfunction occurs in student groups. Social loafers exist. They don’t engage with others in the group, don’t do what they’re asked, and still get credit for what the group completes. But research on social loafing establishes that laziness isn’t always the issue. (See these columns on lone wolfs and laziness and apathy.) It’s not the only group dysfunction either, even though it is the one that most concerns students and faculty. Groups working on course-related materials and projects frequently experience leadership issues, counterproductive conflict resolution, poor time management, and ineffective task partitioning—all stemming from how the group interacts.
These problems are not unique to student groups, although students often think they are. Most of us who’ve served on faculty committees have experienced group dysfunction. No one is born knowing how to work effectively with others in groups.
Despite the reality of group dysfunction, the focus on it prevents teachers from using group work and reinforces the negative attitudes many students bring to peer collaboration. For those of us committed to the goals that group work can accomplish, an emphasis on the problems clouds our vision of what makes groups work well. For students, however, past dysfunctional experiences and a lack of knowledge may prevent them from seeing that groups can work well in the first place.
In my wanderings through the literature, I found a good description of what makes a group function like a team (Deeter-Schmelz et al., 2002). Here’s an adapted and condensed version that describes individual attitudes, behaviors, and actions that help make group work effective.
Students frequently don’t realize that what happens in a group is the result of what individuals do or don’t do. Everyone in a group has responsibilities to the other group members, and they have a right to expect certain things from each other. If someone one in the group isn’t participating, someone else should ask what they think. If the group has socialized for too long, someone in the group needs to redirect them to the task. And if someone suggests that it’s time to get back to work, another member should back them up. When a group’s representatives tell the teacher there’s a problem with someone not showing up for meetings, the teacher’s first response should be a question: “And what have group members done about that?”
Group dynamics play a key role in group success. Maybe the reason we’re so focused on problems in this area is that we haven’t adequately described how group members should function, how everyone is responsible for the group’s success or lack of it. Good teamwork behaviors are contagious. If someone starts encouraging others to speak, recognizing group accomplishments, or volunteering for tasks, those behaviors become expected of others.
Deeter-Schmelz, D. R., Kennedy, K. N., & Ramsey, R. P. (2002). Enriching our understanding of student team effectiveness. Journal of Marketing Education, 24(2), 114–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475302242004