DoingCL - Group Dynamics





Group Dynamics

Let's start by emphasizing that collaborative group work does not mean each student does the same task individually and then compares answers when done, nor does it mean one student writes a report and puts all the students' names on the top, nor does it mean that the faster students help the slower ones (Smith, 1996). Rather, properly structured collaborative group work involves a carefully planned task that includes positive interdependence, social skills training, group processing, and some form of group evaluation. First, a comparison of the traditional learning group and a cooperative one is helpful for clarification (Johnson, et al., 1991):

Cooperative Learning GroupTraditional Learning Group
Positive interdependenceNo interdependence
Individual accountabilityNo individual accountability
Heterogeneous membershipHomogeneous membership
Shared leadershipOne appointed leader
Responsible for each otherResponsible only for self
Task and maintenance emphasizedOnly task emphasized
Social skills directly taughtSocial skills assumed or ignored
Teacher observes and intervenesTeacher ignores groups
Group processing occursNo group processing

To help foster a positive experience for the students in the formal groups, it is incumbent on the instructor to teach the social and group skills necessary for their success. Students must understand and use conflict resolution skills, know how to build trust within the group, communicate their ideas effectively, listen to other ideas, be respectful to one another, be able to reach consensus within the group, and stay on task. These skills do not always come naturally to students: They must be taught, learned, and experienced.

One way to have students practice various skills is to have group roles rotate. For example, the group facilitator could change for each meeting. The instructor may need to explain some basic facilitator skills such as encouraging everyone to participate by asking questions of those who haven't volunteered a response, setting a schedule, and prompting if the group gets off-task.

The instructor can encourage learning by occasionally using the last 5-10 minutes for the group to break into pairs and have one person explain a topic to the other student. The instructor then provides a second concept and the two students switch roles.

The problem of having one member dominate the discussion can be solved by giving each member an equal number of times to speak. In this way, a dominant member is limited to the same number of comments as other group members. Further, in encourages all group members to reflect before they speak knowing they will only get a specific number of opportunities to speak (Millis and Cottell, 1998).

To ensure that groups are functioning well, the instructor must stay engaged with the groups. The instructor should note whether all students participate, no student is dominates, and all students respect one another. It also provides insight into how the group is going about completing the task and if the group is confused or mis-directed.

It is a good idea for the instructor to initiate periodic group processing sessions by setting aside five minutes for a questionnaire that asks the groups to list three things the group is doing well and one or more ways it could improve. It is important that sufficient time be given for this, that processing is specific and not vague, student involvement is maintained throughout the processing, and that group processing goals are explained to the students (Smith, 1996).

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. (1991). Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty instructional productivity (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Millis, B. J., and Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty, American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education. The Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ.

Smith, K. A. (1996). "Cooperative learning: Making "Group work" work" In Sutherland, T. E., and Bonwell, C. C. (Eds.), Using active learning in college classes: A range of options for faculty, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 67.

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