When we look at the value of collaborative group work, the research is clear: group work is beneficial to learning. It improves retention, critical thinking, persistence, motivation, satisfaction, engagement, time on-task, and the list goes on and on.
Now, these benefits are not unique to the online classroom. Collaborative group work is valuable whether you’re sitting in a face-to-face classroom or in an online classroom. But it’s important to remember that some of these benefits are uniquely suited for the online classroom.
Think for a minute about students in an online course. Most of them are sitting at home, maybe at work. They’re alone at a computer. It’s just them and the monitor. It’s not the most engaging atmosphere.
Group work gives students the opportunity to enjoy the psychosocial benefits of an online course. It helps them to establish relationships not just with the content and the instructor, but with their peers. It helps them build the skills they need to be successful not only in the online classroom, but in the modern workforce.
So the fact that collaborative group work helps students to be engaged, to spend more time on task, to be more satisfied, and to show more persistence is uniquely valuable in this online classroom. Other, more interesting things than studying are simply a click away; we need to engage students to keep them focused on learning. Online group work provides an opportunity for you to pull students in and engage them in a meaningful way in a social environment that doesn’t naturally happen in that online classroom.
The advantages are clear. Students can learn more. They can enjoy more. They’re going to build teamwork skills and communication skills. But the reality is there are a lot of practical barriers in the online classroom that make it more challenging to engage in this kind of work.
Barriers to online group work
Students are working asynchronously. They’re often adult learners. In many cases, students report to us that they take online classes because they don’t have a lot of time. And so when you start to combine these factors—that they’re working in a geographically remote area, they are working in an isolated environment—telling students you want them to interact with others can be a challenge.
To address these barriers, there are four important things an instructor needs to do. First, give students a task worth doing. We need to make a truly collaborative activity that requires group interdependence and fosters team-building.
Second, instructors need to get students to want
to do the work. The research clearly shows that students hate group projects. Now, as I often tell my children, you take medicine because it’s good for you. And as I tell my students, you often engage in instructional activities because they’re good for you. Not because you enjoy it, but because it’s going to teach you important skills that you need to succeed in the workforce. So convincing students that group work is worthwhile for them and that it’s worth their time and investment in that group activity becomes important.
Third, teach students how to collaborate in an asynchronous environment. It’s natural to do group work when you’re all sitting together. It’s not as natural when you’re each working on your own time, at your own pace, and in your own location. Students need guidance on how that group should interact in a meaningful way.
Last, the instructor needs to have a plan. Group work is not only challenging for students, but it can be challenging for instructors as well. To be effective, instructors need to have a way to manage, grade, and monitor group projects in a meaningful fashion for students (without stressing themselves out in the process).
Collaborative assignments for online students
So what is a collaborative assignment in this context? The best collaborative assignments are authentic. They’re real. They give students something meaningful to work toward. A collaborative assignment should reflect what students are hoping to do in their professional careers. Most of us rarely complete activities without any input, guidance, insight, or perspective from the people around us. So think about that—what could a professional do?
Good collaborative assignments can’t have a right answer. If there is a single right answer, one student is going to go find that right answer, and they’ll complete the project by themselves. And that’s not a group project. So think about things in which there are multiple perspectives, in which there’s a debate, a controversy, in which different viewpoints could provide different insights to inform that issue or that answer. A research critique would work well.
In this type of assignment, students need clear roles. For instance, an instructor might assign one student as the methodological expert who will think about different ways to investigate the question. His or her job is to think of all the possible methodological concerns and apply them to analyze whether this study did a good job or not. Another student should be in charge of statistics. And someone else can be assigned to going back to the literature. Did the author miss anything? Is there other interesting information that could have informed this research that the author didn’t include? What else is relevant that perhaps they failed to mention? Another student is the discussion person. Now you can assign the student groups issues to discuss and debate.
In this way, the assignment becomes a group project. Because it’s not feasible for one student to effectively do all those different aspects, instead, all the students come together and apply their own expertise to that critique.
Another good assignment would be to investigate a case study from certain viewpoints. Perhaps one student can look at it from a cognitive perspective, another from a psychological perspective. But each person has a different perspective. Some questions to ask students: What do we know about this? What does the media tell us? What do journal articles tell us? Have any books been written on this? Now, from your perspective, how can we understand this case in a more comprehensive fashion?
Likewise, current event analyses are another project that gets students looking at things from many different angles. Taking on different cultural views in response to a current event could become a good project—students might research a current event in the news in the United States and have one person go out and research it from the German media, while someone else can look at it from the perspective of a South American country or an Asian country, bringing information together in that way. To what extent did the cultural viewpoints and the media twists impact the way we understand this issue?
Notice the key dimension that’s shared among all of these projects is that there’s no single right answer. And no matter how much students work, there will never be a right answer. There are only informed perspectives and informed opinions that can help students more critically understand the information.
When beginning to plan a group assignment, then, it’s important to go beyond just the question of whether or not is it collaborative, although that is essential. You must also begin to question what students need to know in order to do the assignment effectively. Students will need more direction in the online environment than they would in a face-to-face class. When a group of students gets together in the classroom, social cues naturally take over. Students talk and figure out who’s a leader and who’s a follower, and the natural social environment will give them some guidance and feedback. Online, that natural social environment is lacking, so it is up to the instructor to provide guidance.
In addition, time is a major factor to consider, as things tend to take longer in the online environment. What could be completed in five minutes in a face-to-face classroom might take three or four days by the time one student emails and another student responds, and then another. It’s going to draw out the timeline and, thus, the instructor needs to be very clear about deadlines. It’s also helpful to inform students of the kinds of roles that will be useful for the project. Giving that kind of overview and guidance on the expectations of the assignment is essential in the online group learning space.
Once the project is set up, it’s time to get students to invest. This is not always easy, as, like the research tells us, students generally care more about the grade than about learning. Whether we like it or not, they repeatedly tell us, what I care about is that end product, because that’s what I’m graded on. And when push comes to shove, I’m more concerned about my grade than I am about learning.
So as instructors, giving equal emphasis to the process as well as the product is essential—not only in grading, but also in our approach to students. If they think the final product is the only important part, they have missed out.
Lastly, how does the instructor manage this process? As I mentioned, clarity is key regarding expectations, dates, and the grading process. It is often helpful to establish several check-ins with students throughout the project timeline.
In the end, when it’s time to grade, a holistic view on the instructor’s part is paramount. Peer review, self-review, and instructor feedback can be combined into a holistic evaluation, not only of what
was produced, but also the teamwork that went into reaching that final product.
We know group work is valuable. The challenge for online instructors, then, is to structure it in a manner that allows our online students to succeed—and, moreover, to gain the skills and the benefits available from this sort of collaborative social learning that aren’t always natural in an online classroom.
Adapted from the Magna 20-Minute Mentor presentation, How Can I Make Online Group Projects More Effective?