Concerns over group dysfunction continue to worry faculty who use groups and prevent others from using them. We have some research-based evidence as to the problems students experience in groups. A 2008 study by Regina Pauli and colleagues used student responses to an empirically developed instrument to categorize the problems. What the students identified will not come as a surprise. Are they problems that can be solved, or at least diminished? Yes! Here’s a brief description of problem areas students in the study identified and a rundown of potential solutions, gleaned from a range of sources. If you’ve come up with solutions to these problems, please share them in a comment. Thank you.
Lack of group commitment
This set of problems relates to students not showing up for meetings, delivering more excuses than work, and being unreachable and unresponsive to group requests.
- Use activities (e.g., icebreakers,
team-building exercises) that get students acquainted and building
relationships with each other. Individuals are less likely to ignore their
group responsibilities if they know and are known by others in the group.
- Empower groups to use peer pressure. Students,
especially 18–22-year-olds, care what their peers think about them. Some
students don’t respond to peer pressure, but most do. If group members
collectively confront the members who don’t show up or deliver work, that
disengaged behavior will likely change.
- Use authentic tasks. Give student tasks that
let them do work like that done in the discipline (e.g., collecting data,
interpreting results, diagnosing problems, preparing graphics) or use
interesting, innovative tasks. If the group is doing interesting work, students
will connect with the group despite their previous experiences and any poor
Problems here relate to dividing up the work, spending too
much time off task, and trying to pull a project together at the last minute.
- Create resources or facilitate a discussion
that explores how tasks can be divided and managed collectively.
- If students are new to group work, start with
tasks that are easy to organize collectively.
- If students don’t have experience dealing with
complicated tasks, provide some structure with a timeline (or require them to
submit one); use intermediate deadlines that require them to submit first
drafts or project parts; and schedule meetings during which you check their
progress against the timeline.
- Grade the group in part on the processes it
uses to organize and complete the task.
When storming (think brainstorming) goes awry, the group
deals with conflict counterproductively—arguments become personal and positions
polarize. Group members take sides, refuse to compromise, and vote for or
against solutions rather than negotiate decisions.
- Model constructive conflict resolution throughout
the course when responding to views students express; when disagreeing with
positions taken in the text; and when discussing course, departmental, or institutional
policies and practices.
- Carefully explain the value of conflict. Follow
with activities that showcase how debated decisions are usually better
- Share resources that describe strategies for
dealing with constructively with conflict—for instance, taking a time out, using
roles such as mediator that help group members deal with conflict, or focusing
disagreement on the ideas rather than the person.
These problems result from the exclusion of group members, usually
because of perceived differences in ability, background, and knowledge. Problems
here also arise from unresolved conflicts over roles—usually leadership. Group
members end up refusing to talk to each other or withdraw from the group.
- Design a task that requires a range of
experiences, knowledge, and skills, thereby encouraging the group to make use
of its resources.
- Assign roles, describing the behaviors
associated with each.
- Design a simple survey that asks students to
identify their experiences, knowledge, and skills that are relevant to the task,
and then form the groups with members who bring those different areas of
expertise to the group. You might even identify for the group who brings which
potentially helpful experiences, knowledge, and skills.
Such group problems as these are more likely to occur if
they’re ignored by the teacher or in the group. When these problems emerge,
they usually don’t go away but get worse. When they are addressed, students in
those groups learn content and experience the value of collaboration.
Pauli, R., Mohiyeddini, C., Bray, D., Michie, F., & Street, B. (2008). Individual differences in negative group work experiences in collaborative student learning. Educational Psychology, 28(1), 47–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410701413746
Tuckman’s forming, storming, norming, and performing stages of group