Terms in bold can be found on the Glossary page.
It’s very important to figure out what is the goal of the assignment. What do you want the students to get out of the assignment? Do you want them to review material? Do you want them to apply it to a new situation like a case study? Do you want to integrate across topics, so really defining if you will the learning objectives? I do it in a more informal way than a formalized way. I pay attention to how big the group size will be. Often I try to make groups large enough so that there’s conversation and interaction, so minimally for students, usually not more than 7 students in most of the group type work that I do although there can be different ways of using groups, two groups, one preparing questions for the other to answer or that sort of a thing where you make a larger group with sub groups.
So structure and numbers matters because you want to make sure everybody can participate in an active way and contribute to the group, and one student won’t necessarily be able to easily answer all the parts that the group should do so that it sort of trumps the learning of others because they sort of step in and answer the questions or whatever. That there in fact is more of a dialogue or discussion around the questions, that they’re open and leading questions rather than find the facts, find the information so that there’s more of a discussion that happens around that and they have to come up with a summary of their collective ideas as part of the activity rather than just answer questions from what I covered in lecture or what they read in an article or something like that.
What I try to do is use online as a way of extending what happens in the classroom or reinforcing what happens in the classroom, although I do fully online kind of group work that I never have a classroom but there’s some component of learning that happens in lieu of a face-to-face experience that precedes this kind of group work typically. That said, the group work really is where they utilize that material in a new way, that they either integrate it or apply it or use it as an opportunity to teach each other as a way of learning themselves because a lot of times learning is really as you try to teach someone something you realize what you know and what you really don’t know, and so that process of teaching each other.
For example I teach a genetics class where they’ll pick a topic of their own interest or their own practice experience and they’ll teach that in a very defined format to others. That way they can kind of be clear on how and articulate about a subject they believe they know well, but as they’re preparing it they find that there’s a difference about their knowledge and how they express their knowledge. Particularly I work a lot of the times with nurses or clinicians that work with patients, and part of their role and responsibility is educating patients about their own health. So how do you convert this knowledge into layperson’s terms that actually is meaningful and informative and also provides a comfort with it’s not so far over one’s head that it doesn’t really have value, and it also opens up an opportunity for feedback and discussion with the patient or the client.
So typically I have used group work mostly for application of lecture content or topic content in an online class, which means that they are either case studies or a problem set type activity with a series of questions, but the questions are not necessarily identify a factual answer. It’s more about how would you apply this material to this case? What are the concerns that you have about this client with regard to their history and their cardiovascular outcome? So they’re more critical thinking thoughtful questions. There often times isn’t a “right” or “wrong” answer. There’s a generally right answer typically but not an absolute right answer.
So those types of questions are very helpful. It’s similar to creating a discussion board. What are the types of questions that prompt discussion? You want things that allow the students to explore, to offer opinion, to summarize material. Sometimes as I said before the cases are used to teach each other so one group might create a set of questions. I throw out the topic, myocardial infarction. One group comes up with a case, another group comes up with the questions, and a third group answers the questions, and then that triad actually works together to kind of feed back all the parts. That rotates around. Not always does the same group create the questions and etc.
So each has on different topics a different role to play, and that kind of rolling door kind of idea actually works fairly well. The students feel like it’s a different kind of challenge to come up with the questions than it is to answer the questions, and to be thoughtful about what are the most important pieces of information I need to garner from this case. Again I’m working mainly with nurses who have to do this in clinical practice all the time. They have to ask the questions. They’re asking questions to the patient about their history.
Here’s what they present with. What are the things you wanna know? What kind of lab tests would you wanna find out? Part of that is how they again are learning material is by applying it to a new situation even though there might’ve been examples in lectures similar to that. Now they have to come up with this on their own, and again there isn’t always right or wrong answers. There are priorities and things that are more right, but that’s part of the follow up and the discussion.
Sometimes there’s a random assignment, which literally I go down the alphabet and make groups of 7. Sometimes for example I have a nursing class that’s a graduate class where approximately a third of my students are experienced nurses and a third are students who are in a direct entry program. That means they have a previous Bachelor degree but it’s not in nursing and they’ve never practiced as a nurse. This is a pathophysiology course, beginning class. I tend to try to put into groups that same distribution of one-third experienced nurse, two-thirds kind of inexperienced in terms of nursing practice, but often that cohort is much more connected to their underlying physiology and their underlying foundational schoolwork that helps the assignment.
So each part has a contribution to make and I try to encourage them to teach each other and to help each other. I often times will try to balance. If I have a mixture of population and preparation I tend to balance that within the groups as well, and I think that has worked well. It’s also helped these somewhat seemingly disparate groups appreciate what the other has to contribute to the process, that they can learn from each other. Part of what I encourage is that there’s a lot of learning that happens in these group assignments.
It’s not satisfying my sort of whim. It’s really more about the exploration in that group is the learning process, and really the final document they produce is not what’s critical. It’s the process. It’s not that sort of final outcome where the learning happens. Obviously I need a record of that but that’s really where the learning happens is in the discussion and in the facilitation and in the teaching back and forth.
I actually think group work makes a big classroom intimate, and especially one of the structures that I have is I have these groups of 4-7 students. Typically they’re about 6 in number and I have one TA work throughout the semester with two of these groups. So each of those groups of six, that’s twelve students, really get to know their TA well, and their TA helps facilitate with me any issues that come up in the group so they have a sounding board that has a direct connection with me if they don’t feel comfortable bringing issues to me. The TA’s also identify trends and concerns and areas, which have not maybe been covered well or that students feel like they need to review because they keep asking them questions.
So I think that the students feel like they have more of a connection. They’re not just a number sitting in a lecture hall because they get to know the members of their group. I use again in e-learning there’s the roster function, which allows them to post their photographs so they can quickly sort by group and they can see everybody that’s in their group and they can in the lecture hall sit next to somebody and say, “Hey, I think you’re in my group” and that’s how they get to know people there. It creates actually a more intimate sense of community when you have these groups working together. I typically have groups working together across the full semester so I don’t necessarily have every activity a new randomized set, because I do think part of the value of those groups is to give a sense of community and that means you have to have some sort of time for that to develop.
One of the things that I’ve done to make sure that people are participating in this is that as the group turns in their assignment the discussion board, you look at every student’s – what is their substantive contribution? Have they made a substantive post that contributes to the final document? It’s pretty easy on a discontinuous discussion board to see who’s posting what about what and what ends up in the final document. The other thing that I have done is really asked the group to assess if a member is not participating because they depend on each other and if someone is not participating often times the groups will inform me of that and then I encourage them to resolve it. I encourage them to set up their own rules at the beginning of the semester, and part of that is what do you do if somebody is not doing their part? If that doesn’t work I’m more than happy to intercede and facilitate that a little bit, but typically the group in my experience has resolved any issues among themselves.
I often times will work where I have like a teaching assistant or somebody who’s monitoring what goes on in the group activity, which alleviates a lot of the pressure for me to kind of micro manage that, and the teaching assistant’s responsibility is to make sure that the document that’s submitted, actually the substantive comments that are made that every student contributed in order to get the grade that’s assigned to that. Sometimes someone will not agree with what the group has come up with as the final document. I allow students to submit their own documents or to argue why question number two is in their opinion answered incorrectly, but I require them to use that as a teaching moment to the group, that there’s a discussion about where they disagree and the TA or I usually facilitate that.
That usually helps people sort of understand both sides and also helps reduce the number of individuals who feel like they have to submit their own documents. Most of the time I’ve found that they feel that they’re not being heard or they’re not being appreciated, and so doing that early on tends to make everybody feel like they’re a participant and that their words are really being heard by the group.
First is don’t be afraid. Try it. Try it small, try it very controlled, and seek advice. There’s a lot of expertise but just how to start out the first kind of discussions, making sure that has a good chance of success by participating in trainings or asking colleagues that use discussions or talking to the people in technology who facilitated these kinds of discussions, but don’t be afraid to try things out because you’re never going to be able to make that leap if you don’t experiment a little bit, and it’s okay to say to the students, “I’m experimenting with this. It might work, it might not work.”
Students actually like it when you’re kind of up front with them about the expectations, and ask their feedback because the students will tell you if this was a waste of their time, if this worked, if this didn’t work, what they would suggest in changing the assignment. So do a little experiment, try it out, get the feedback, and then modify it for the next time.
The second thing I would say is group manager. Group manager, which is a feature of e-learning, saves the day in terms of setting up groups so people may not appreciate that in group manager you can create groups. Make sure to add yourself as a demo student so that you can see it in student view, add in your TA’s, make groups for just your TA’s, all sorts of ways of cutting across the student population but in this group work that can again create a very easy way of making discussions on lots of different topics on the discussion board. So I think group manager is something that – make your friend because it will make your life a lot easier.
I also think that it’s very important to kind of look at different ways of doing groups and part of that is I guess related to the experimentation but we may have in our minds like this is what a group is. You’d be surprised that there’s lots of different ways of making groups and lots of different ways groups can work. There can be groups that are a preceptor and the student and the faculty member just talking about their clinical experience. There can be groups that are a group of students who have dialogue or discussion about an assignment.
There can be groups that are related to I’m gonna self-select into this group because I wanna know more about cardiovascular disease and here’s an experienced nursing student who is an expert in that or is practiced in that for 15 years, and that person might have a group sort of activity that happens that way. There’s lots of ways of making groups and using groups, even ones I’m sure I’ve not thought of. So I think being open-minded about what is a group and how it might work is also important.
Terms in bold can be found on the Glossary page.