Group-scaping: cultivating good team dynamics for group assignments

by | 24 Jun, 2019 | 0 comments

What if there was a way to help students cultivate good team dynamics for group assignments? Enter IML’s Adam Morgan and Dr Jurgen Shulte.

Group assignments can be a great way to encourage collaborative learning and build teamwork skills. But sometimes group assignments can get a bad rap with students – which can be a direct result of bad dynamics within teams. But what if there was a way to help students cultivate good team dynamics? Enter IML’s Adam Morgan and Dr Jurgen Shulte.

I attended a group-maintenance session in Jurgen’s physics class run by Adam. It was the second in a series of sessions run to give students the tutorial-time and tools to provide some well-needed maintenance on their groups to ensure they got the best results possible in their group assignments. With all the students aiming for a HD or D – these sessions actually got them talking about what’s working, what’s not and what they needed to do for those grades!

In this post Adam and Jurgen will tell us some things about these sessions and how they can help students.

Can you please give me a run-down on what happens in these group-maintenance sessions?

Adam & Jurgen: Students do three short activities in their groups. The first is a strengths and weaknesses audit. It begins with each group member sharing a perceived strength and weakness of their group. Groups then use this information to complete a short survey together and to devise some strategies to address any identified weaknesses. In the second activity, groups are given a sheet of paper with a timeline printed on it. On the timeline, groups need to plot what needs to be done to complete the project and by when. The third activity gets students to allocate tasks to each individual group member so they can complete their agreed-upon goals. Each activity goes for about 7 minutes. They are intended to be short, sharp and focused.

Why did you start running these sessions and how did they begin?

Adam: When I wrote the resource kit Enhancing Experiences of Group Work, I included a unit called Monitoring Groups. The strengths and weaknesses audit was part of this unit, but in a longer form. When I returned to UTS in 2012, I made a much shorter versions of this activity. This is the one I now run. I developed the timeline and role allocation activities to extend the strength and weaknesses audit activity. I started running these activities to help students manage their group dynamics. It can be difficult for students to sit down and discuss their group dynamics, particularly any problems they might be having. These activities help them to have these discussions. I frame the session around the notion of maintenance. Planes, trains, cars, gardens, the human body; they all require maintenance if they are to run well. Groups are no different to me. They too can benefit from a targeted maintenance session.

A few years back, I offered to run a session with Jurgen’s students. I still remember the look on his face during the session. He had this warm smile on his face. I could see he was very pleased that the students were having meaningful process-related conversations. He then said something like “they really need this”. Maybe Jurgen can elaborate on why he decided to take me up on my offer.

Jurgen: I attended a presentation at one of the T&L conferences where Adam discussed the importance of group work and group work maintenance and presented some examples how the student group work experience could be improved. The group work that students do in my second-year science subject is very demanding and high stake. Students in small groups take on the role of a professional research team. They are expected to conduct original research, write a research paper to professional standard and have it professionally published, all within a period of ten weeks. A well-functioning team and well organised team contributes tremendously to students’ learning experience and learning outcomes.

What has been the outcome for students? Has it improved their ability to work in groups for assignments?

Adam: Jurgen is probably the best one to answer this, as he assesses their work and hears directly from the students. It is my understanding that there are far fewer issues in the groups.

Jurgen: This is the third year now where I am fortunate to have Adam helping me with two, very brief group work maintenance sessions, usually around 20 minutes each. The first time when I invited Adam to help students to prepare them to get the most out of their group work, the effect it had was visible almost instantly, on the student part as well as myself. Students realised very early on the advantage that working in a small team is bringing to the task at hand. A formal training of working in groups, how best to organise a small group and how to maintain a positive group dynamic is usually not part of a subject syllabus. For me, knowing that the inherently team driven task in this subject is difficult to achieve if groups are not working efficiently as a team, having the opportunity to set aside a few minutes to provide hands-on guidance to students to navigate through the group work in front of them was just was a big relief. Over time, we finetuned the timing where we would run these group maintenance sessions. The quality of work that students are producing now has stepped up considerably along with their overall learning experience.

What are your tips for other academics trying to get their students to work effectively in groups?

Adam: My number one tip is to give students time in class to have a maintenance session. As I said before, it’s hard for students to have maintenance-related discussions. They need a bit of help. If possible, I also suggest running this session in the lecture time slot. I’ve run my session in lots of lecture theatres over the years. It’s never been a problem for me or the students. The new large collaborative classrooms and lecture theatres are perfect for these sessions. I also suggest that groups record the members who are present at the maintenance session (e.g. on a worksheet). It should be treated like a scheduled team meeting. This is how Jurgen frames the session. It works well, as attendance is very high. This means that groups have the discussions they need to have. You can always see the groups that are ‘having issues’. It’s sometimes hard to watch. But through the session you can see the body language change and they start working well together. I love seeing that. I could go on, but I won’t. Maybe we can pick this up in another post.

Jurgen: Being part of a team that is working for common goal, it is important to be present at team meetings and to report back to the team on a regular basis. This requires a recognition that such behaviour is the standard or what is expected from each team member. These things contribute to the success of the team task and show an ability of conducting systematic academic work, which in the end deserves some recognition. I recommend to allow some percentage of the overall mark to be allocated the team work participation and, if individual contributions are moderated, individual team contributions.

What do students say about these sessions and their impact on group assignments?

Adam: We’ve just done an online evaluation, where we asked students how the sessions affected their group. Overall, the responses were positive. Here’s a few comments that students made about the sessions:

“Helped to keep our group grounded and down to earth. As well as helping us identify potential group relations problems in the future.”

“I thought it was good. It kept us talking even if jokingly – challenges we were having were address.”

“It was easier to hold each other accountable. It helped us to discuss things about working together that we might not be willing to discuss otherwise.”

“They’re very helpful, it helps us keep the group work updated and on track. Evenly distributed work load and time management.”

“Gave us a sense of direction and structure. Allowed us to define our roles in the group.”

I’m really pleased with these comments, as this is what we are hoping the sessions achieve. It’s about giving the students the opportunity to have the discussions they need to have. That said, it is important to note that a few comments were less glowing. For example, one expressed that the sessions were rushed, which is a fair comment we can address. Another expressed disappointment that their group failed to adhere to what they had agreed to do and the sessions thus gave a “false sense of security.” This one is important to note, as the sessions are not the panacea for all of the ills of groupwork. The sessions are intended to help the students have process-related discussions. The extent to which groups follow through on their intentions is another issue. But going forward we might need to check back in with groups to see if things are progressing as they planned.

Jurgen: There is a video documentary about my subject, it is about 20 min long. We made this documentary to show students what they can expect in this subject and how it is run, and how past students managed their research projects and small teams. We followed three students from three different teams as they went through this subject starting from the initial conception of their research theme to the finally submitted and professionally published research paper ten weeks later. Every other week we asked them what they think about the progress of their work, how their team is working together and how they feel within their own team.

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