For a while in my online teaching career, I'd been reluctant to use group learning techniques with my students. My students are primarily undergraduate majors who have been out of school for a while and generally need more hand-holding (or so I thought). What I've learned after many years online is that even though my students work individually, they also work collectively as a group. In fact, my wonderful students often initiate working in teams when discussing issues in the forums, studying for the midterm, and giving each other advice for tackling the final project. I realized that group learning was already being used in my courses, so I concluded that I could expose my students to group-based learning activities and assignments that would benefit them in the long run.
When designing group-based activities, an instructor should consider these areas:
1) Group formation (how the groups are formed)
2) Group roles (assigning leaders and other roles)
3) Group conflicts (dealing with issues and conflicts)
How groups are formed
Depending on the learning activity, students can be assigned to groups based on their background and experiences, or they can be randomly assigned. While randomly assigning groups is easier and less time consuming, group assignments can be made if an instructor has more information on each student based on their profiles, interests, and skill levels. Assigning groups is certainly worth it in the long run. The main disadvantage to instructor-selected groups is that group members may not work well together and students may complain about the fact that they were not able to choose their own teams.
Student-selected work groups
Student-selected groups are a great option because they empower students to work with others they are interested in. On the downside, this option can be a bit time consuming if not managed properly. In my project-based business courses, I allow students the freedom to select their own work groups, but I provide clear ground rules about the overall time frame and finality of this process. These are some of my ground rules:
- Students are required to interview each other by looking at their profiles and asking each other questions about their skill levels. I provide an interview sheet of suggested questions.
- For semester-long projects, I give students a full two weeks to form groups. For shorter projects, I give students one week to form their groups.
- After teams are formed, students are not allowed to change them.
To facilitate self-selection into groups, I suggest giving your students methods for ensuring that this process goes smoothly. This helps students get started with the self-selection process, feel more confident about their selections, and resolve any problems that may arise. Three of my favorite methods for my online classes are polling, e-mailing, and cloud-based file sharing. In each method, the students manage themselves; I only facilitate the overall progress of the group selection process to ensure there are no problems.
—Encourage students to use online polling websites (e.g., polldaddy.com or polleverywhere.com) that host quick polls. These tools are easy to use and allow students to get a quick measure of who in their class might be interested in joining their group. I encourage students to describe their interest and proposed topics, and then ask questions in the poll like, “When are you available to meet?” or, “How far along in the program are you?” The aim is for students to audition their project ideas to their fellow classmates and form groups based on commonalities in scheduling, academic interests, and so on.
—Ask students to send out class e-mails within the learning management system (LMS) soliciting for team members. For the e-mail message, ask students to describe themselves along with their work experiences and interests. E-mailing is such a familiar form of communication that students feel more comfortable throughout the process. I find with this approach, my students can usually form groups in a much shorter period of time. Once groups are chosen, students send me an e-mail introducing the group.
Cloud-based profile lists
—Use Google Docs to share a profile list that includes the student's name, contact information, a link to the student's LMS profile, times available, and matches. Students enter their information online so other students can learn about them through their profiles. Students then connect with each other based on desired profiles. When students make matches, they indicate this on the list by entering their names next to each other.
Assigning roles in groups
In most assignments, students can determine who needs to do what, but roles in work groups often need to be defined beforehand in learning activities. In these cases, I will define the roles in the group in terms of the tasks that need to be done. Once the roles are chosen, students are asked to notify me of which students will handle which tasks. Depending on the nature of the project, these are the roles I use:
Tips for handling leadership responsibilities
- Client contact
For most of my group learning assignments, students decide among themselves how to divide responsibilities. Oftentimes, the hardest group role to decide upon is the leader of the group. Many students feel apprehensive about taking on a leadership role for a group assignment. Over the years, I have used the following strategies to help students overcome this challenge:
Tip #1: Clearly define what the group leader needs to do.
In some cases, the group leader will engage in the same activities as the other group members but will take on additional leadership tasks such as putting final submissions together or communicating with me on behalf of the group.
Tip #2: Allow students to form coleadership roles.
I offer students the option to form coleaderships. I allow students this option for all my group assignments. It ensures that students who take on leadership roles feel more supported and less stressed about completing the work by themselves and for the group.
Tip #3: Communicate directly with the group leader(s).
The group leader communicates with me throughout the life of the project about issues and problems with the project. I facilitate this by instituting interim progress e-mails with the group leaders. I ask the group leaders to answer the following questions:
How are you feeling about your success on this project?
Dealing with conflicts
- Are there any issues or problems that you are concerned with?
- Is there anything that I can help you with?
Many times, students who work in groups will experience conflict with members of the groups. Most of the conflicts stem from individual group members failing to carry their own weight. This could be due to attendance problems, lack of interest, or just irresponsibility. I usually let students resolve their own conflicts within the group while I take on the role of mediator. I also like to give students some communication and collaboration tools to help prevent conflicts:
Angela Heath teaches online computer courses at Baptist Health Systems in San Antonio, Texas.
- Meeting note templates—Groups are required to document meetings, attendance, and so on.
- Participation logs—Groups are required to report on each member's participation in the project at different stages.
- Mediation sessions—In cases of deep conflicts, I run mediation sessions in Skype where group members can hash out their difficulties and move forward in a more productive manner.