“All right, let’s go ahead and break into groups…”
That sentence can be a source of stress for the best of us. There are a wide range of skills, viewpoints, motives, and resources in any environment. Who will you work with? Do they know what they're doing? Will one person be doing all the work? How will it be organized? However, instead of looking at group work as a chore, it can be more productive to look at it as a chance to grow, pool resources, and make a more in-depth analysis of a subject. It can help students develop leadership, organizational, cooperative, and vital communication skills. (University of Birmingham) Additionally, restrictions from COVID-19 have made group work virtually a requirement in many academic settings, necessitating that students band together in a safe environment to remain productive.
As with many things, creating effective group work can be easier said than done. When working with a blend of personalities, a little thought and organization can go a long way towards getting the job done and help students be accountable to both themselves and their classmates. Below are five simple but effective tips to make the transition from in-person to virtual coursework go as smoothly as possible.
1. File-Sharing Tools
Communication is key to group work, so it is important that all students have access to the same academic resources. Utilizing a file-sharing application such as Google Suite or Evernote (which are free) helps groups stay organized and promotes a positive group experience. Canvas or Blackboard are provided by many school districts in the U.S. and offer opportunities for students to interact with members of their team and leave feedback on each other's work. Chat functions allow interactions in real-time, providing a substitute for in-person discussions, and facilitate collaboration throughout the project. (Resilient Educator)
File sharing applications also eliminate the need for emailing, uploading, or downloading files from multiple sources. All resources and documents are located in one place for everyone to access. This ensures that all group members have access to the most up-to-date version of the work. (Power Admin)
2. Make It Manageable
Beginning a group project can be overwhelming. According to (Research Gate), 62% of students experience some difficulty in understanding online projects. To avoid this, teachers can implement the concept of "scaffolding," which breaks down tasks into manageable chunks, and provides the appropriate tools for each class. This allows teachers to ensure that learning goals are met while building the foundation for the project from which the students can learn.
Attention spans can also be shorter in an online environment, with most people losing focus after forty-five minutes or so. (Forbes) Teachers should keep their lectures brief, and provide the opportunity for more direct interaction between themselves and the students, breaking tasks into smaller sections and distributing them between specific members of the team. This will also allow for the teachers to provide regular assessments of student work to ensure their understanding of the topic.
3. Grow Together
In any class environment, there will be a spectrum of learning styles and abilities. Effective group work identifies each student's strengths and tailors team jobs appropriately. Additionally, there is a range of motivation within every group, with high-achievers often "taking charge," leaving less motivated students to hang out in the margins. Every team member should be assigned a designated role, which allows students to grow together as a group and makes sure each student is doing their part.
Before any group project, teachers should train students on how to function in a group, which leads to measurable student objectives and outcomes. Delegating, communicating and goal setting are valuable parts of the learning process and will empower students to do more thoughtful and collaborative work. This ensures that all students are equally responsible for the group's output. (Inside Higher Ed)
4. Minute Taking
Assign a team member, or “secretary,” to take minutes of each meeting on platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet. “Minutes” are simply notes taken during the meeting and are essential for keeping track of who was in attendance, what happened, and who was assigned to take care of each task. While taking minutes, don’t write down every detail — just summarize the issue, taking care to include key points of important subjects. (Resource Centre)
A written record is also helpful to students who were unable to attend the meeting, keeping them “in the loop.” This ensures all team members are held accountable for their work, and helps to track the team’s progress.
5. Team Building
Finding group project partners online is not an impossible task. While assigning students to groups can ensure that they are exposed to a diversity of ideas and backgrounds, it can be difficult if their work styles are not compatible or if the students simply do not get along. (Inside Higher Ed)
Using an online platform such as TeammateMe.com eliminates any barriers to effective group productivity and communication, even allowing students to filter potential partners by skill set, interest, and reputation scores. For students, it supports an engaging learning environment in a virtual platform and teaches them the skills they need to be effective team participants. Connection with peers is available 24/7, providing them with tools such as group chats, DMs, and the opportunity for constructive criticism/feedback in a safe, supportive atmosphere. They can find students with compatible working styles while encouraging diversity.
One More Thing…
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated isolation from friends, family, and peers. Students have had a particularly tough time, as in-person learning and socializing has been transferred to a solitary, online format. But it isn’t all bad news. Collaborating on group work allows students to grow together as they learn: connecting, facilitating discussion, and being exposed to new ideas and points of view which help develop skills that will serve them well later in life. When teachers facilitate group discussions, whether in-person or online, students will learn from each other as well as from any academic source, allowing them to move beyond working on a mere “group project” and become better thinkers, creators, and life-long learners. The world may have become a (hopefully temporarily) more isolated place, but collaborative platforms (such as TeammateMe.com give people a chance to reach out, connect with others, and put their best work forward.