Effective Groups

By Barbara Leigh Smith1

The old adage that says “two heads is better than one” is actually true. Considerable research2 shows that working collaboratively in groups produces far better results than working alone. The ability to effectively work in groups is an important skill that is useful in the family, in school and in the workplace. Cases and workshops provide a wonderful opportunity to develop these skills.

What is the best way to form groups? What is a good size for a group?

Groups of 4-7 are generally most effective with 7 being the max to allow maximal participation of everyone. Groups larger than 7 often have the problem of some students dropping out of the conversation and relying on others. Usually, the best groups are NOT self selecting; on the contrary they and diverse and heterogeneous and formed through a random selection process such as counting off. Groups can be one time events for one assignment or more long term. Allowing some time for the group to get to know one another is always good. Many groups go through predictable stages of “forming, storming, norming, and performing” as they get to know one another and figure out how to work together.

What are the different roles in a group?

There are different role functions in groups as indicated in the table below. Sometimes formal group roles are assigned such as recorder/scribe, facilitator, participation encourager. People differ in whether they think assigning roles is too linear a process for their students and whether they believe learning these various roles is important.

Role Functions in Groups

RoleFocusNeedTension /stress
Task orientedEmphasis on getting it doneControl/accountabilityAvoid competition and re-focus on shared goals
CatalystSensitive to everyone’s feelingsAcceptance/inclusionHelp them focus. Ask for help. Thank them
VisionaryCreativity/brainstormingFreedom/stimulationListen. Allow expression of feelings & ideas
OrganizationalStresses how to get it doneOrder/clear prioritiesTime to process info & decision. Delegate to strengths

What are the characteristics of effective groups?

In effective groups, participants---

  • Listen to one another carefully
  • Include all members in the discussion
  • Stay on task
  • Self correct when needed
  • Learn from one another
  • Are able to include multiple points of view

Students can learn the important skills of becoming effective participants in a group over time. This learning is enhanced when opportunities are provided to reflect on the group’s performance and their own contributions at the end of a session and over time. (See sample form on p. 4)

What role should the teacher play in the groups?

When the decision is made to use groups the teacher’s role is dramatically altered from what Elizabeth Cohen describes as direct supervision to supportive supervision. Too much hovering over the groups will undermine their ability to develop their own solutions and authority, but the teacher can and should still play a role. Using questions to help groups open up their thinking is one way the instructor might be helpful, especially if groups get stuck. Cohen also suggests the following strategies as supportive supervision: give feedback, redirect through questions, supplying resources, encouraging the group to solve its own problems, help manage conflict.

How can teachers re-enforce the importance of groupwork?

There are numerous ways that teachers can re-enforce the importance of group work by devoting class time to group work, including it in grading and student performance evaluation, and structuring the group assignment in ways that encourage interdependence and public accountability. One way to encourage accountability is through public presentations of their work with all the students playing a role. A key element is being sure that this group work is relevant to the content of the course and not just peripheral, time-filling busywork.

What are common problems in collaborative group work and how can these be addressed?

Many of the problems with groups stem from the way the assignment/task is structured (or not structured). It is very important for the instructor to give the groups clear directions with timelines. Accountability is enhanced if there is a product that must be produced and/or presented. Often case discussions are followed by small groups doing a public presentation to the larger class accompanied by posters.

Many groups encounter issues around roles and participation. Unclear leadership and roles can sidetrack the group work. Discussing and assigning roles is one way to address this issue. Silent students and dominant students can also be an issue. Hitchhiking can be an issue in groups where some students “ride on” the work of others.

We do cases in one class called Battlegrounds in Indian Country that is a combined class of about 60 students--first year and second year students from Grays Harbor Community College and upper division students from Evergreen. One of the purposes of this combined class is to develop peer relationships across institutional borders and encourage students to complete a Bachelors degree. We see this as an opportunity for peer mentoring and creating a community of aspiration. Mixing the students is a deliberate strategy.

If left to their own devises the students will simply revert to sitting with their friends so we purposefully create random, mixed groups. It takes time for some beginning students to find their place and become active participants. Some of the more vocal advanced students find their silence annoying. The teacher may have to quietly coach the students to be patient and help each other become more effective group members and make space for the quiet ones to step forward. Over time, all the students gain confidence and become more involved. We believe students should have explicit instruction on why working in groups is important and how to be effective. This is a teachable skill that improves over time and is highly transferable beyond the classroom.

How can group functioning be evaluated?

The product itself produced by a group is one obvious way to evaluate a group’s performance. If formal presentations of a group’s work is done, the audience is often invited to fill out evaluation forms. Group functioning can also be evaluated by the individuals within a group by filling out evaluations at the end of the process. Sometimes formal peer evaluation systems are used where points are given within the group to the individual members for their contributions. There is a large literature on peer group evaluation and many open source evaluation forms are available on the web.

SAMPLE Student Self Reflection

In effective groups, participants–

  • Listen to one another carefully
  • Include all members in the discussion
  • Stay on task
  • Self correct when needed
  • Learn from one another
  • Are able to include multiple points of view

So try to do these things today as you work together and at the end of the session we’ll ask you to assess how your worked together.

How did your group function today?

Group Collaboration TasksStrongly AgreeSomewhat AgreeNeutral/Neither Agree nor DisagreeSomewhat DisagreeStrongly Disagree
I was satisfied with the way we worked together     
Everyone contributed to the discussion     
I contributed to the discussion     
We communicated well as a group     
I learned new points of view from others in the group     
We stayed on task and/or self corrected when needed     
I was satisfied with the final outcome     

What are your strengths and weakness as a group member? What aspects do you want to improve?

1 Barbara Leigh Smith is an Emeritus Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College. This article is copyright (2011) by the author.

1 Elizabeth Cohen, Designing Groupwork; Alfie Cohen, No Contest: The Case Against Competition; Goodsell et al. Collaborative Learning