Students often avoid discussing how they’re working together in a group, especially if the subject is the group’s effectiveness. I think we sometimes forget how uncomfortable group work makes students feel. They do all sorts of things with each other socially, but those activities don’t usually involve work. Completing tasks collectively requires divvying up the work, figuring out who’s doing what, setting deadlines, and dealing with members who don’t deliver. Peers in groups don’t have power to make things happen like teachers do. It’s often a new experience for students who worry (some excessively) about being liked by their peers. Mix grades into the scenario, and the stakes move skyward.
I had just written something to that effect when I received a note from a colleague who reported on her experiences using the Bare CARE group health measure described in our most recent Study with Practical Implications. “I used the survey in a junior level course that includes a project that counts for 30 percent of students’ grades. I distributed a copy of the results to each group during class time and gave them 20 minutes to discuss them and decide how they’d follow up. I gotta tell you, silence reigned and within five minutes most groups were discussing project details.”
Before I received that note, I had written that group-level assessments are easier and safer to discuss than the feedback peers provide on individual performance. Even so, my colleagues’ students still found the discussion of group processes difficult. So, how do we encourage students to talk about what is and isn’t happening in their groups?
Explain the value of talking about group processes. Think pep talk: “Yes, it can feel awkward, but group process problems don’t vanish. Ignored, they usually get worse.” “Even if the group work is going well, improvement is my expectation for every group.” “Most problems that students have had with the group projects I assign are fixable and fixable by the group.” “Working to improve group processes gives students the opportunity to understand even more about how groups function. It also offers the chance to see whether particular solutions work.” “I am here, standing by, ready to help.”
Get students to prepare for the discussion. Release the results to individuals in the group before they convene to discuss them. Have students write their reactions in a short paragraph—one they’d be willing to read to the group. The group discussion then starts with students sharing what they’ve written.
Provide discussion prompts. Distribute a set of questions the group can use to structure their conversation about the results. “What surprised you about the results?” “What do the results show that the group is doing well?” “Is there any way the group can build on what’s working?” “What could the group be doing better?” “What changes should the group consider?” “Which of the changes are the easiest to implement?” “Does it make sense to start with those?”
Propose a set of discussion guidelines. (1) No one reveals how they assessed the group on a particular item. (2) No asks another member about their assessment of the group. (3) The behavior of individual members is not discussed. For example, no one is called for missing meetings. (4) The discussion focuses on solutions, not problems—where the group needs to go, not where it’s been.
Have the groups report back. Someone in the group takes notes of the discussion, and the group uses it to prepare a summary, list of solutions, and implementation plan.
One last thought: Many years ago, Billson constructively compared courses to groups. I’m not sure the comparison works with super-sized classes, but for smaller ones, significant similarities exist. At the course level we usually think of classroom climate, but it’s been years since Frasier’s (1986) good work in the area. Should we be considering the health of our courses? Some questions on the CARE assessment tool offer a place to begin exploring what course-level assessment might reveal. Those results could be equally challenging but useful to discuss with students. Interesting, isn’t it, that we use metaphors—health and climate in this case—to describe the how groups and courses work? What’s the reality those metaphors reference?
Billson, J. M. (1986). The college classroom as a small group: Some implications for teaching and learning. Teaching Sociology, 14(3), 143–151. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318467
Fraser, B. J. (1986). Classroom environment. Croom Helm.