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Teaching Online With Errol: A Mini-Guide to Successfully Using Groups in the Online Classroom, Part II: Overcoming Group Problems

Group Work Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Teaching Online With Errol: A Mini-Guide to Successfully Using Groups in the Online Classroom, Part II: Overcoming Group Problems

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The dynamics involved in each online student group working toward its goal of an A-worthy project are complex. So many components must mesh smoothly, and because of this each group is ripe for any number of problems. If the instructor does not address these problems in a timely manner, the learning of the collaborative project will be at risk, students will be unhappy, and the overall success of the course will be diminished. There are easy fixes, however, to these potential trouble spots. Here's how:

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The dynamics involved in each online student group working toward its goal of an A-worthy project are complex. So many components must mesh smoothly, and because of this each group is ripe for any number of problems. If the instructor does not address these problems in a timely manner, the learning of the collaborative project will be at risk, students will be unhappy, and the overall success of the course will be diminished. There are easy fixes, however, to these potential trouble spots. Here's how:

Lack of participation by one or more group members

What to do:

  • Post a “Guide to Working in Small Groups” in any course where small group projects are part of the syllabus.
  • Once the group is under way, the instructor should be an occasional presence in the group, motivating all to get involved and contribute.
  • Send individual emails to students who do not participate. These can “wake up” a student, while offering the student a private opportunity to discuss any concerns. Follow up with a phone call if the email exchange does little or if the student does not respond.

Arriving at decisions without meaningful debate/exchange

What to do:

  • Use real-life examples (found on the Internet and in books about small group strategies) of what happens when decisions/assignments are based on this uncritical approach.
  • Remind students how the small group project contributes to each member's grade.
  • Relate a real-life story of this problem from your own experience or any other “real world” experience.

Uneven work distribution

What to do:

  • When an instructor sees this happening, remind group members of the importance of each member contributing evenly.
  • Perhaps make it mandatory for the group to assign one or more parts of the project to each group member.
  • When uneven work distribution is observed, use real-life examples that illustrate what happens when group members do not participate equally in decisions/assignments.
  • Send a private message to any students who do not contribute adequately and ask them to make a stronger effort. Call if necessary.

 Getting the group to gel/missing group member(s)

What to do:

  • At the beginning of the collaboration, have each group appoint a leader who seems able to motivate other students and monitor their work.
  • As instructor, you may need to start the group in the right direction.
  • Remind groups of deadlines and encourage students to contact you if there are any problems.

Lack of and/or poor communication

What to do:

  • Offer specific communication suggestions. Be positive, and include a bit of humor.
  • Use real-life examples of what happens when poor communication takes place in small group assignment situations.
  • If the problem persists send a private email to the guilty group member(s), explaining why his/her/their communication in the group is a problem, and ways to correct it. Call if necessary.
  • Ask the group leader for updates on the group's progress.

Inefficient time management

What to do:

  • Post information about the importance of time management, and offer time management tips.
  • Use real-life examples of how poor time management can affect group decisions/assignments.

Personality clashes/personal attacks/request to be switched to another group

What to do:

  • Post a reminder about the importance of working collaboratively in the course (and how it will affect students' grades) and in their careers.
  • When a student asks to be removed from a group, explore the reasons for this request by email or phone call. Usually, this type of conversation either begins with a phone call or ends with one—and usually the student stays in the group.
  • In addition to mollifying the student “making waves,” communicate with the other student(s) involved. This balance is crucial. Without it, there will be a student who thinks the situation will improve, while the dynamics of the rest of the group do not change.

Starting off on the wrong topic or going in the wrong direction/off on a tangent

What to do:

  • Require each group to post a brief description of its project thesis and outline within two days of the group assignment beginning.
  • Frequently drop into the group room to make sure that the group is going in the right direction, and post occasional motivational messages.
  • Send a private email to the group leader asking if there are any problems, and make suggestions (if necessary).

Members have various skill levels

What to do:

  • When feasible, start the group project after week two to have the opportunity to assess students' strengths and weaknesses, thus allowing for a better distribution of group members by skill levels.
  • Remind stronger group members to help others, and those with lesser skills to be open to learning and helping out in any way possible for an even work distribution.

Note: I refer to posting a “Guide to Working in Small Groups,” and its absence from this column is not an oversight. To create this, simply use the list of problem areas below, and turn each into positive suggestions for the class. As an example: “It is important for each member of the group to participate in the collaborative project. To ensure that this happens ask for an initial commitment to participate from each group member, exchange emails to maintain constant communication, and choose a group leader to help keep all on task.”

REMEMBER: Successfully walking a tightrope needs the skills to stay balanced and the knowledge to overcome unexpected problems.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for nearly 20 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at errolcraigsull@aol.com with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!