To Group or Not to Group

Group work facilitates community but cannot in itself be the online community since it usually does not include all the participants of the course. I do however believe that students who work in a group form stronger and deeper community attachments to their group members than to the rest of the students in the course. Reflecting on my online experience, the students I remember, are the ones that were part of my group at some point.

According to a post in Faculty Focus “Better Group Work Experiences Begin with How the Groups Are Formed” group formation depends on what the instructor wants students to learn from the experience. If the assignment entails tapping into a variety of skills then it might be better for the instructor to select group members based on criteria required to complete the assignment. Group work should produce an assignment that accomplishes more than would be possible for an individual. In “Five things Students Can Learn Through Group Work” a key thread is encouraging a deeper level of thinking. Through interactions, explanations and trying to justify ones own point of view, thinking is clarified and students learn to “figure things out.”

One of the advantages of group work is it reduces the instructor’s workload. According to Restine in “Group Work, Discussion Strategies to Manage Instructor Workload”, it is important for the instructor to plan group work. Simply putting students in groups to work can in actual fact increase the instructor’s workload and negatively impact students’ learning. Students enjoy many advantages of working in groups such as; sharing ideas and perspectives in case studies; enjoying a safe place to explore ideas and questions; expand their knowledge of people beyond their friends; develop higher cognitive thinking; developing group skills. Maryellen Weimer in “Reflection on Group Experience”, suggest the use of journaling about the group experience.

Disadvantages of group work include the famous “easy ride”. Frequently students enjoy an easy ride while other group members do all the work and then happily accept the mark awarded to the group. Some students are leaders and others are followers, group work often encourages the leaders to control the direction of the group work. If careful group selection is not implemented these followers seldom present their views as the leading idea in group work. If clear guidelines are omitted, group work can result in disrespectful interactions, frustrations with the easy riders and discoherence if there are too many leaders. The instructor can be involved in very time consuming mediation that is often unrelated to the course content.

Allowing students to self-select groups has both advantages and disadvantages. Students that select groups usually know each others strengths and are able to collaborate immediately. However, repeatedly selecting the same friends will minimize the learning experience because other students’ views and perspectives will not be added to the learning experience. In face to face instruction, there are usually disappointed students because their friends picked other group members. Self-selected groups are also not reflective of the real work environment. In my personal opinion self selected groups can be incorporated into learning activities but should be used in moderation. In the study “Are Student Selected Groups More Effective” the final conclusion is that they are not.

Teaching the ECE certificate program included and enormous amount of group assignments. To balance the group selection I used a variety of methods such as random, criteria selection, instructor selection and student selection. Regardless of the selection method the “easy riders” remained a concern for all group members. Since our course was overloaded with group work, students were quick to develop a negative attitude to group work and it required in depth planning on my part to ensure that the groups would foster a positive learning environment.

In an online environment I think group work is essential in starting the community environment and some form of group work should be included in each course, even if it only involves two students working together. In my opinion group work should not exceed 25%- 30% of the final mark.

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About Karin Potgieter

Originally from South Africa, I have been privileged to enjoy the beautiful lifestyle of Canada. My career in Early Childhood Education has been motivating, ranging from the endearing relationships with the children and families of the Preschool that I owned to the inspirational interactions with my students as instructor of the Early Childhood Education Certificate Program. My qualifications include a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology, Early Childhood Education Certificate, Provincial Instructors Diploma and en route to completing the Certificate in Online/eLearning Instruction.
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