I often get questions about group work. Recently, the question was phrased like this: “Can students learn anything in groups?” And, like faculty sometimes do, this questioner proceeded with the answer. “I don’t think my students can. When they work in groups they have no interest in doing quality work. Whatever the first person says, they all agree with that and relax into a social conversation.”
Standing opposite the experience of faculty members like this one is an accumulation of research that strongly supports students learning from and with each other in groups. There’s research and analyses of group learning now reported in virtually every discipline. Here are five things students can learn in groups, all well-established by a wide range of empirical analyses.
- They can learn content, as in master the material. Whether they are working on problems, answering questions about the reading, or discussing case studies, when students work together on content, they can master the basics. The reason they learn is pretty straightforward, when students work with content in a group they are figuring things out for themselves rather than having the teacher tell them what they need to know.
- They can learn content at those deeper levels we equate with understanding. I just highlighted an article for the April issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter which reported that the explanations students wrote to justify a chosen answer were stronger after just seven minutes of discussion with two or three students. When students are trying to explain things to each other, to argue for an answer, or to justify a conclusion, that interaction clarifies their own thinking and often it clarifies the thinking of other students.
- They can learn how groups function productively. In order for groups to function productively, students must fulfill individual responsibilities. Productive group members come prepared, they contribute to the group interaction, they support each other, and they deliver good work on time. In order for individuals to function productively in groups, they have the right to expect the group to value their individual contributions, to address behaviors that compromise group productivity, and to divide the work equitably among members.
- They can learn why groups make better decisions than individuals. Students can see how different perspectives, constructive deliberation, questioning, and critical analysis can result in better solutions and performance. If students take an exam individually and then do the same exam as a group, the group exam score is almost always higher because students share what they know, debate the answers, and through that process can often find their way to the right answer.
- They can learn how to work with others. Group work helps students learn how to work with people outside their circle of friends, including those who have different backgrounds and experiences. They can even learn how to work with those who disagree with them, and others they might not “like” or want as friends.
Now, it is absolutely true that students don’t learn any of these things just by being put together in groups. Student attitudes about group work are often negative and that’s because they’ve been in lots of groups where they didn’t learn anything other than the fact they don’t like working in groups. Much of the group work used in college classrooms is not well designed or well managed. But when group work is carefully constructed and when teachers help students deal with those group dynamic issues that compromise group effectiveness, students can learn the content and the skills listed above.
It would also be nice to be able to end this post with a reference of a comprehensive review of research on group work. I don’t think that piece exists. Research that documents that students can learn these five things is so scattered across the disciplinary landscape that finding it all and then devising some way to quantitatively compare the results is all but impossible. But just because the findings aren’t organized or integrated does not diminish what has been documented time and again in study after study. Students can learn from and with each other in groups.