Group work: Planning

Why am I setting a group task?

Group work may be an overall programme aim or an intended learning outcome for the unit. Working with others is an essential skill in most workplaces and one which many MMU programmes seek to develop. If this is the reason for setting a group assignment then the process of working in the group and producing a group outcome should be assessed as well as the outcome itself.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself; if the answer to any of them is 'Yes' then setting a group task may be a good idea:

Do I want to assess students' ability to:

  • research, analyse information and prepare summaries for their peers?
  • agree a collective outcome?
  • take on different roles in a group?
  • create something as a group?
  • manage their time effectively, set deadlines and manage outcomes within deadlines?
  • accept and fulfil agreed responsibilities among their peers?
  • give and receive feedback from their peers?

Using group work may also give an opportunity to involve students in assessment and to get used to evaluating and commenting on each other's work.

There is some work to suggest that group performance can exceed individual performance, (Michaelsen, L. et al. 1989) and this may also be a factor in setting a group task rather than individual ones.

Is it really a group task?

Activities which lend themselves well to group tasks are things like:

  • Analysis of a complex situation
  • Case study of a multidisciplinary team
  • Problem solving which requires several leads to be followed up
  • Organising an event or trip

It's a suitable group task if:

  • It would be difficult for one person to complete alone
  • It can be broken down into meaningful sub-tasks
  • There is an opportunity for different roles to be deployed in completing the task
  • You can assess process as well as outcomes
  • There is enough time available for the group to spend on it
  • You have enough time available to monitor group process and progress

How big should the group be?

There has been surprisingly little hard research on the issue of group size in educational settings. Smaller groups make it difficult for individuals to 'hide' but larger groups have been shown in some non-academic situations to do better at thinking up creative solutions.

Some people are definitive about group size; according to the Institute for Interactive Media and Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney:

Four-member groups work well for a number of reasons. These include:
  • students find it easier to organise meetings as there are less clashes with timetables.
  • students get a larger piece of the work to do and feel they can make a meaningful contribution to the group assignment.
  • students are more visible and accountable to each other. This often reduces the problems associated with the withdrawal of effort (eg. free-riding/shirking).
  • there is less chance of fragmentation and the emergence of splinter groups.
  • there is a greater chance that the group will become cohesive in a shorter amount of time.
  • it is often easier for members to make collective decisions (eg. reach consensus).

Others are convinced that a group needs to have an odd number.

A summary of the general consensus would be that a group of 4-6 seems about right. If you want to simulate a real-world employment activity with different employment roles (eg a creative team in an advertising agency, a team planning a particular event, or a team deciding on the best treatment plan for an individual), then that would be a better decider of group size than a simple numerical choice.

You might also want to get students to experiment with playing different group-working roles to explore their own strengths and weaknesses in a group situation. This might also determine the group size. The Belbin team-roles list is often used to indicate the range of potential roles within a group and can be used as a basis for self-evaluation as well as role-play. You can download a copy of the Belbin Team roles summary descriptions from the BelbinTeam Roles website.

next: Forming the groups »