Taking the Struggle Out of Group Work
A MiddleWeb Blog
Most history and social studies teachers understand the value of group work, especially now, in the era of collaborative learning.
Most of us assign group work. And most students, at one time or another, struggle with it.
These struggles are often universal in theme:
I do all the work, so-and-so doesn’t do ANY work.
I don’t like working with ______. We can’t agree on what to do, can’t we just do it alone?
I want to work with ____ instead.
What’s going on here? It’s true that often one or two students in a team do most of the work. But can that be ameliorated?
How we help groups work together
A colleague, Jacob Hall, studied group work for his master’s project at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. He found in his research that assigning a pool of points for a team, say 40 points for four students, and having the students divide the points up depending on who did which percentage of the work, was effective in raising students’ participation in a group project.
We have tried this multiple times, though not for every group project, and each time we are surprised at how honest the students are in their responses.
Most often, the students who did not do their share of work (“10 points”), know it – and they also know who picked up their slack. A student may say on their anonymous card/email that they did only six points of work, but a teammate did 14.
This also goes a long way in placating the students who feel like they have shouldered the brunt of the work as participation points are then factored into the whole project grade.
Moreover, the students realize that there is a tangible effect if they do not do their work. Their 10 points did not go away. Someone else had to do their share. Someone else stepped in and took those points.
Tracking participation with digital tools
Another, very quantifiable, way of discerning and holding students accountable for what they accomplish during group writing/projects is using Google Drive to track participation.
Recently, Jody had her student teams collaborate on a paragraph about the influence of the Iroquois Charter on the Constitution. When she noticed that two students in one team were doing the bulk of the content discussing — and the two other students were doing the bulk of the off-topic talking — she checked the revision history on their Google document. Sure enough, the students talking about off-topic items hadn’t done any work in the past 15 minutes.
While it does seem a little intense, perhaps, to quantify contributions by tracking a counter, it really does allow this subjective experience to be concretized in a small way. Jody simply mentioned to the students in question what she’d noticed, and they refocused and jumped back into the writing.
Teamwork is stronger than “group work”
The most important thing about collaborative work, we have found, is making the students metacognitively aware of their role in a team.
Like Aaron Brock, our fellow MiddleWeb blogger, we call the groups “teams” so that the students feel more invested in their work together–identifying themselves as all on the same side, working for a common goal.
At the beginning of the year, after some small group work and before really intense group work, we have them reflect on past experiences, what has worked, what hasn’t, what role they tend to play in a group, what their goals are for themselves in group work.
This discussion, of course, doesn’t solve every problem, but it does give teachers and students some common goals and a shared vocabulary with which to frame the the work they will be doing collaboratively in the coming year. And when good intentions and the solid foundation break down, THAT’s when we use the point system.
How do you hold students accountable for group work in your social studies and other classes?