How to do group work and social skills in your course?

Group work, collaboration and social skills in general are needed in industry and science. The model of the industry is mostly hierarchy based and work load dividing. True collaboration where everybody works on the same issue at once as most often only used for brainstorming sessions.

All of it should be a learning outcome of each students career. We as a teachers are therefore responsible to encourage them to do so.

Often you then hear the question: Are we teaching the topic or are we teaching the social skills?

The goal is to do both at the same time. How much of the topic versus the social skill can be thought at the same time is dependent on multiple things. Sometimes one has to do a tradeoff, but the fusion is possible and often universities have special personal to help you with that.

In any case the integration of social skills needs preparation and the course has to be design with that in mind. If you are teaching a old fashioned course (teacher in front and students listening), you will most certainly have to redesign the whole course from the ground up as for example group work has to be properly supported to work well as we see later.

A different kind of social skill is the online activity and sharing of results to a wider community. As our technified society relies more and more on the internet, the skill how to use it not only for personal use but also in a institutional way becomes also important.

I am not a big fan of telling anybody to use a certain tool from a big company. In one of my previous posts I already discussed that. The students should be free to use the tools they want to collaborate with each other. If your course allows the possibility to share the students work more public, you can learn them how to be more public that way.

Now I want to focus a little bit more on the working in group social skill.

One can divide the group work in to categories: Forced and Voluntary.
A forced group is a group that was not created by the participants themself. Where in a voluntary group the members founded the group themself.

The difference is in the comfort zone of the participants. Most often in a voluntary group members know each other. Here the collaboration aspect comes more natural. On the other hand they may lack diversity. Depending on the topic one or the other is more useful. But the forced groups have also another different aspect: These groups can stay for years to come in the studies and afterwords [1]. Especially in a new environment you can bound together.

Group work as several aspects that have to be taken care of.

  • Group formation
  • Group tasks
  • Group organization

There are several ways to form a group [2]. Some are more fitting as others. This is a whole new topic and as this post already quite long this is left for the reader.

A recipe to cooperate group work into your course and to tackle the other aspects could be this [3]:

  • Establish the group goal(s)
  • Decide on roles based on each person’s strengths
  • Ensure everyone understands what they need to do and how they can contribute.
  • Ensure what is required of them is clear and realistic.

Combined with the idea of a group contract [4], it can solve (some of) the problems with free riding and purely ending up with division of labour.

In a group contract all students are individually asked to think about how they are most comfortable working (dividing tasks and carrying them out on their own or in long group sessions) and what their strengths are in relation to group work. Meet as a group, listen to everyone’s individual thoughts. Then also establish times to meet, ways to communicate and what to do if someone does not follow the agreements made in the contract.
As a teacher, such a contract is a good help if ever group work does not work out.

This topic is only subtopic of a personal learning network (PLN). The learning network will evolve over time and most often newer sources of education come in to play. A PLN stays your whole life as you learn your whole life. More about this topic can be found in [5]

[3] Idea by Santha Thanasingam, University of Auckland
[4] Idea by Kajsa Nalin, University of Skövde


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  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on group work and collaboration. How do (or would) you facilitate or support group work in your classes?

    1. One important aspect is to mention at the beginning if there is any kind of problem with the group organization the students should inform the teacher about it, so that one can find a solution without ruining the group work experience for this group.
      Also I see the teacher in group work more as a secretary then as a teacher. He should prepare the tools and small things so that the students have everything they need.
      In the end it is important also to mention that often enough the teacher learns something with the group work as well.

      1. I agree, it is important not to leave the students “alone” with their group work. Teacher is still a part, although maybe not an active part of the group work and should make themselves present and available. Motivation is also really important: why are we making this in a group, what are we learning, does working in a group make a difference…ect.