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What makes group work work?

Posted by on Wednesday, September 2, 2015 in News, Resource.

by Cynthia Brame, CFT Assistant Director

We’ve all been there: victims of unproductive and frustrating group work. Perhaps an instructor poses a question, tells us to turn to our neighbor and discuss it, and we all sit silently…because the answer’s obvious and there’s nothing to discuss. Or perhaps we have an end-of-semester project to develop, and two of the four group members don’t show up for meetings, fail to do their prep, and generally don’t pull their weight.

Hopefully, we’ve also been on the other side of the equation, where group work has allowed us to learn deeply and to produce work that is better than we could produce individually. For example, the students in David Mathes’ biology class are learning more about plasmid design while working together than they could hope to do alone:

and the project developed and presented by Vanderbilt engineering seniors required a team to reach fruition:

So what makes the difference? What structures allow group work to be a productive learning experience for students?

One of the key elements to making group work productive is to pose questions or problems to students that they cannot answer confidently by themselves. That is, the question should be hard enough, knotty enough, or complex enough that multiple perspectives are valuable in answering it. This puts students in “the zone of proximal development,” or a situation where they are reaching for understanding that is just beyond them. First described by Lev Vygotsky, this situation allows students to work productively with colleagues to extend their knowledge structures.

Effective groups also have a role for each student. Whether the group works together transiently on a small problem or for a longer time on a larger project, each group member must have a role to play.

How do you develop structures that allow you to incorporate these key elements and others that are necessary for productive group work? The literature on cooperative learning is a rich resource for answers to that question, and the CFT has recently developed a teaching guide that summarizes much of that literature and provides examples of strategies and tools that can help make your group work rewarding and effective.


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