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Making Online Groups More Effective

November 03, 2016

By Emily Keener

Group work is messy, especially in the online classroom where project details need to be impeccable and students need to be self-motivated. Yet, each semester, brave SIUE faculty design collaborative projects across a variety of disciplines, including music, engineering, instructional technology, and mathematics. What is it about group projects that makes them worth the effort?

One huge benefit of collaboration is that it gives students an opportunity to hone those essential "soft" skills that nearly every profession demands, such as communication, conflict resolution, and professionalism. Studies suggest college graduates just aren't making the grade when it comes to mastering these skills.  As Dr. Trish Oberweis in Criminal Justice Studies says, "Where better to practice than in a place where the direct report is someone who really, truly cares about your future and what you’re learning in the process?" I agree (and so do a few experts in the field of collaborative learning): the classroom is a great place to practice working in teams. Although it's not always easy, this article aims to give you some strategies for making group work run more smoothly in a place where it seems to fall apart quickly: online. 

B. Jean Mandernach, professor of psychology and senior research associate in the Center for Cognitive Instruction at Grand Canyon University, facilitates a 20-minute Mid-Week Mentor video on making online groups more effective (you can watch it anytime on the Mentor Commons site). Below are a few of her tips to help groups run more smoothly, along with some examples and suggestions from SIUE faculty.

Create a good activity.
Sometimes group projects fail because they just didn't "work" as a collaborative assignment. Mandernach says effectively designed group activities have a few things in common. First, they are meaningful. The activity should line up to something students might do/care about outside of the classroom, whether it is in their current or future professions, at home, or elsewhere. A good example of this in a quantitative reasoning course at SIUE: students collaborate on the most efficient ways to pack a truck full of non-perishable goods. (All students will pack something at some point, right?) They use what they know about weight, size, and shape to try to pack the most stuff into a small space. There are multiple ways to tackle the assignment, and not one absolute answer, but students are required to back up their choices with what they have learned in the class.

That brings us to the next point about good group activities: they are relevant to the student. "When will I ever need to know this?" Try to answer that question before it is even asked. If students can see the usefulness in what they are doing, they are more likely to invest in it (more on this later).

Finally, good group activities require interdependence. To ensure that students are drawing from each other's knowledge and skills, the project should be complex enough that it would take multiple minds to solve the puzzle. Students should also be able to find enough resources to succeed, but not necessarily be given every resource up front. For example, a group project could draw upon an earlier individual exercise where students conducted research on different topics. Students would have enhanced access to material related to their topic, which could then be shared with the group. This is a strategy some faculty in the School of Education, Health and Human Behavior have used.

Establish roles.
Roles can help prevent common disputes, especially involving the distribution of work.  Mandernach suggests that a "lead communicator" be assigned in each group who would be in charge of getting the group moving in the first few days and sending out messages as the project rolls on. Faculty might set other roles, as well, that describe who does what throughout the project. To avoid giving students too many or too few tasks, Mandernach suggests setting up small groups of between 3-5 people. SIUE's Dr. Oberweis says she provides a framework for students on how to approach the project's workload, but allows students to depart from that framework as needed. When it comes to mid-project complaining about group members, however, Oberweis does not entertain it. She wants students to practice conflict resolution and gives them the tools to do that.

Set clear parameters.
If instructors state from the outset how students should attempt to resolve group problems, they can expect students to (at least attempt to) settle those mid-project disputes internally. Rules for conflict resolution, submission deadlines, and even technology choices help create a functional atmosphere for group activities. On project deadlines, Mandernach suggests using multiple milestones to motivate students and help prevent common points of project delays. For example, an instructor might say, "Within 24 hours, your groups should choose a leader; within 5 days, you should show a draft of your work to the class." She suggests telling students precisely where to post draft submissions in the class (ex: in the "Project" discussion forum under the "Week 6 folder"). These parameters can help preempt concerns about who should post what, where, and when, which saves time for both the instructor and the groups.

In addition, you might set up some rules for how students collaborate. Maybe you recommend a specific software, such as Microsoft's OneDrive, that allows faculty to see what students are working on.  Mandernach suggests offering one or two alternatives, but warns against overwhelming the student with technology choices. She makes the observation that technology should help facilitate group collaboration, but not limit students or turn the project into a lesson on technology (unless, of course, that is a desired learning outcome).

Get students to invest.
This is something Mandernach and several SIUE faculty said was essential to creating an effective group activity: get students to see the point of it. It could be as simple as sharing one story or a few sentences that connects the students' collaborative work in the course to something else important to them. Mandernach uses the workforce study linked at the start of this blog, called "Are they really ready to work?" She shows students that learning how to collaborate with other people can help them find a meaningful career, and make them better prepared than most graduates to enter or advance in the workforce. Other faculty share examples of great collaborators who have changed the world; or show how collaboration can lead to invention, success, or beautiful designs; or how collaboration can make life better.  

Another way to get students to invest goes back to setting parameters. By instructors saying, "This is your project. You manage it. If you run into problems, here are tips for handling it. My role as an instructor will be … x, y, z." Let students know the extent of your involvement before the project gets underway. Tell them the Plan B for when students drop or when someone is not carrying their weight or whatever problems you anticipate. This will put the responsibility, and ownership, back into the hands of the students, making it more likely that they will care about the process and the result.

Use a rubric.
Rubrics show students what is expected of them, how they will be graded, and what "success" looks like. For group projects, many faculty at SIUE say rubrics for peer assessment are essential. Students who know they will be graded on their ability to work within a team might invest more in the project. Good group rubrics assess students not only on the final product, but on the process as well. This encourages students to work together on problem solving rather than splitting up work and racing to get it done individually. Carnegie Melon University has more tips on assessing group work that you might find useful, along with sample assessment documents and rubrics for group work. 

So, what do you think? Are these ideas helpful as you plan collaborative assignments for your class? Do you have some additional tips to share? Use the discussion board below to share your thoughts!

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