On group work and experiencing the student’s point of view

I recently heard a conversation between two of my students during a break. One of them was complaining about an extensive group assignment she was given in another class. She didn’t like having to adapt her work schedule to fit the group and already anticipated that some of her classmates wouldn’t do their fair share of the work.

I kept my thoughts to myself but I must admit that I wasn’t really empathetic. I like group work and I often find that I actually work faster and more efficiently when I can bounce ideas off someone else. I’m also painfully aware of the fact that I’m not the best organiser so it is always nice to be able to rely on a group to keep me on tracks.

There is however one thing I didn’t realise: as far as I remember, I had never experienced group work as a student. Back 20 years ago, my home university had a very individualistic approach to learning, and apart from a couple of presentations in some elective courses, I always studied on my own. As a result, when I assign group work as a teacher, I tend to focus on the pedagogical advantages and I forget to address the practicality and the social aspects from my students’ perspective.

Working on Topic 1 with my ONL team, I’ve started to understand what my student was talking about. First of all, there is the timetable. Scheduling a Zoom meeting is quite manageable. We just have to accept the fact that not everyone can be present at once. Then we have to agree on a common interpretation of the proposed scenario, which means that the work might take a completely different direction than what one originally anticipated. Dividing the work comes next and it is definitely the most challenging part. How do you effectively measure one’s contribution to the collective effort? How do you then balance it against the amount of, say, research necessary to one individual, whose background and prior knowledge might differ completely from the ones of the other group members?

I think this is where the FISh model comes nicely into play. There is phase between Focus and Investigate when everyone is able to self-evaluate and to assess what they will need to investigate individually in order to accomplish the task. The simplest way to “catch up” at this point is probably to ask the others about the things you don’t know or don’t understand. If someone is able to answer, problem solved! If no one can help you, then it becomes just one more item on the Investigate list. The only problem? For this phase to go smoothly, everyone has to feel safe and comfortable. If you sense, even undeservedly, that the others judge you, will you still admit the work is more difficult for you than for them? And if this is difficult for you as an accomplished, professional adult, how is it for an insecure, already overworked, 20 year old?

As an educator, I see group work as a way to develop emulation and synergy. However, it is only possible under certain condition with which, I’m afraid, I haven’t always provided my students.