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Teaching Strategies for Online Group Work

By Dr. Donna Petherbridge, with contributions from Dr. Diane Chapman, Jamie Sue Reed, Dr. Karey Harwood, Pete Janca, and Dr. Susan Osborne

Teaching Strategies for Online Groupwork – Home
Teaching Strategies for Online Groupwork – Annotated Bibliography
Appendix A – Sample Assignment
Appendix B – Sample Email

As an online instructor, working with groups presents a special challenge. Problems in working with online groups are not unique, and concerns about working with student groups in both face-to-face and online environments are certainly expressed to me by other faculty. While difficult to manage at times, I am a big believer in teaming students for certain assignments, because the ability to collaborate with others and the inevitable collaboration and project management experience that comes in working with multiple individuals on an assignment are skills as valuable as the other content that students will take away from my course.

Colleagues that I’ve spoken to also see and value the benefits of group work, noting that in the real world, students will often be expected to work with other people and more often than not, leverage technology for teaming, as online environments continue to be a prevalent part of not only educational, but business settings. Grouping students, ensuring that the students work together equitably, managing a successful experience for the students, and evaluating group work are areas of focus each time an online course is taught.

At a DELTA seminar offered earlier this year, “Teaching Strategies for Online Group Work,” I had an opportunity to discuss with several of my faculty colleagues their suggested best practices for creating, communicating with, and evaluating group work in distance education courses. Post-seminar, and now two more online classes into the group work experience myself, I have spent some time reflecting on our collective thoughts and experiences, and have also reviewed some of the literature that supports (or perhaps will have us even reconsider) our various practices (see the Teaching Strategies for Online Groupwork – Annotated Bibliography).

Thoughts about Creating Groups
Instructors participating in the seminar used a variety of methods for creating groups, including planned group assignments, random group assignments, affinity groupings, self selection, and structured self selection.

Pete Janca, Adjunct Lecturer in Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, College of Management, noted that he has tried different strategies for creating groups, and has found that his groups have the greatest success when he assigns them based on certain characteristics. He uses the class information provided from Registration and Records to identify each student’s major, gender and nationality as best as he can, and uses that information to help create diverse groups. He teaches predominantly engineers, but there are also some scientists in the class, and thus he tries to include a scientist in each group.

“By mixing them up I have the best opportunity for them coming up with some creative ideas,” said Pete.

In teaching my graduate level course in the College of Education, with student numbers in the course usually around 16 – 18, but sometimes up to 25, I follow a similar practice to Pete; based on certain characteristics that students share during the course orientation, I will place students who are taking their first online course with those who have taken several, place students who have worked in teams before with those who have not, group by availability for synchronous discussion, and group by “online presence factor” (for me, this is simply a way of saying that I mix up the students who are logging in early and often to the course in the first week with those who get started a little later). This has worked well for several years now, and it is manageable because of the number of students that I typically teach, though an occasional problem does occur and students can then be moved around.

My colleague Diane Chapman, Teaching Assistant Professor in Leadership, Policy, and Adult & Higher Education, College of Education, who has been teaching online for eight years, and who also teaches a section of the course I teach, as well as other courses in the program, does a sign-up method, and asks students to join groups 1, 2, or 3. Diane believes that she can give students more responsibility by asking them to choose their own group, and feels that the groups may work better together if she lets students choose – particularly because many of these students in the program have worked with each other before in other classes and some of the group dynamics are already established.

Similar to Diane’s self-sign up method, Susan Osborne, Associate Professor of Curriculum, Instruction and Counselor Education, College of Education, who is newer to teaching online and who also uses Moodle to support a traditional, face-to-face course, often allows students to select a topic that they would like to study for their group project, and the students then sign-up with other students who have selected that same topic. Sometimes, though, Susan will assign groups randomly for certain tasks, and she notes that students do not seem to have issues with that particular method, either. Also worth noting, Susan has stopped assigning groups in the first week of the course because she waits for the class roll to stabilize so that group membership is stable.

Another faculty member, Karey Harwood, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, often does random assignments for groups, noting that her online class size of around 45 students influences that choice. Karey indicated that she has tried assignment by topic choice, but that student performance and outcomes don’t typically get any better results in her course (bioethics), possibly because the students don’t know anything about the topics ahead of time and thus aren’t necessarily excited in advance about working on a particular topic. Karey said that for her, random selection seems to do better than choice, though she will sometimes intervene with the random selection to have a better gender mix.

Jamie Sue Reed, lecturer in English, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who has been teaching exclusively online for over six years, uses a different method of student-led group selection which all of us found extremely interesting in our discussions. Jamie Sue teaches between 60 and 90 students in an online business communications course, and for one particular team assignment, she has students write an application to be on a team. Tied tightly to the goals for the course, the writing of this application treats applying to be on a team very much like a real job application, and students post the application which includes factors such as their availability, strengths, and interests/experiences. Students then have to go through and review applications, interview each other, and then request who they want to be with on a team based on this experience.

Everyone has to interview someone as part of this assignment (though everyone does not have to be interviewed if they are not picked for an interview). After about a week into this process, 90% of students have formed teams, and then the other 10% get placed by the instructor. Rather than just assigning randomly or than relying completely on instructor assignment, Jamie Sue feels that it is very important for students to choose groups based on something about themselves. Jamie Sue sets clear expectations through those assignment guidelines, and she was kind enough to share a copy of this assignment with all of us (see Appendix A – Sample Assignment).

As far as the way technology can support instructors in managing groups – we noted that Moodle has a choice tool which can be used for sign-ups, as well as a way for instructors to either select-or randomize groups. Actually, Moodle has many ways to assign groups to groupings at advanced levels that I’m still trying to figure out myself!

In the Annotated Bibliography, Hanson (2006) makes some suggestions about assigning team members, citing some research that may indicate student preferences for selecting groups are not the most important criteria in some situations, and Chen, C.C., Wu, J., Yang, S.C. and Tsou, Hsin-Yi (2008) discuss the importance of diversified leadership roles on a team.

Setting Group Expectations
I’ve often struggled with what to communicate to the groups in order to help them be successful; how do you help them become a team that is collaborative where there is no social loafing, and where one Type A person doesn’t feel that they have to do all the work? I send an email (see Appendix B – Sample Email) to students that provides some guidelines on how I expect them to work together, but I often wonder, is this enough?

My colleague Pete Janca notes that he has to remind his students over and over that one person shouldn’t do the work themselves, telling his students “You really need to understand and get practice in getting stuff from everybody. You’ll get a better result and you won’t have to kill yourself.”

Jamie Sue Reed, with her requirement that students post a job application to be selected for a team, clearly sets the expectation through this assignment that group work is valued and students are expected to be contributing members.

In addition, both individual and group expectations are enforced by all of us in the various self and peer rating and review processes that we use in the evaluative part of groupwork, discussed later on in this article.

Facilitating Group Communications
Part of helping groups succeed is enabling places for them to work, and then communicating with them about their work. In chatting about our courses during the DELTA seminar, we noted that for general course communications, that we all tended to use announcements to push information to students and give the entire class guidance, updates or info around many course issues (whether or not related to group work). Most of us, too, have set up a general frequently asked questions type forum where FAQs can be posted and then a response created for view of the entire class.

Several of us also use team forums (easy to create in Moodle) to specifically support group work. In this manner, groups of students have an easy to use, auditable trail of their communications in and around a project. Karey Harwood and I both noted that we jump into group forums quite a bit, especially early on, and make a point of communicating with groups. have noticed that if I provide more hands on guidance with the first group project, which is a consensus-based discussion posting based on a question that I have assigned, that the students seem to feel more comfortable about the work (particularly new online students – I have had students remark to me before that they are “less nervous” if they feel I’m reading through their group discussions and pointing them on the right track if necessary; and if they are doing fine, to let them know early on by posting within the group forum that they are on track).

Jamie Sue Reed takes an interesting twist on group forums. She forces subscriptions to team forums, because, based on her experience in teaching online over the years, she feels that as students don’t have class meetings, they forget to participate in their teams sometimes. Of course, part of forcing a subscription (also easily accomplished, by the way, in Moodle), is to educate students on how to set up a filter for their Moodle class emails because they can potentially get a lot of email, and they will complain about it.

To help facilitate group communications in his course, Pete Janca has recruited some volunteer group mentors to be the voice of experience in group work. The mentors meet with the groups online using Elluminate, a synchronous discussion/conferencing type tool, and these mentors provide guidance in working together on projects.

Diane Chapman also mentioned that she makes Elluminate available for student groups to use in every course she teaches, in addition to the various discussion forums that are enabled for student groups to use. Diane provides an Elluminate password for each course so that students can schedule Elluminate meetings, do real time chat-rooms, application sharing, etc. I also give student groups the option of using Elluminate, and have indicated to groups that if they want me to attend a group meeting, to let me know and we’ll try to mutually schedule a time; and I’ve also offered to review recordings of group meetings, in case there is a question or concern coming out of a particular group. Elluminate seems to be well-liked by the students, and I get very positive feedback on its availability and use (I hear from other faculty, too, that they receive very positive student feedback about Elluminate) .

One of the interesting side conversations that we had during our time in the seminar was how to support English as a Second Language (ESL) students in group work (especially communication). Jamie Sue noted that to put ESL students at ease, she evaluates students not only on their communication with their groups, but relies heavily on their written and oral communication with her. 10% of their grade is based on this communication. (Several of the articles in the Annotated Bibliography, especially Davies, 2009, address this issue).

Evaluating Group Work
For group work, I do both self and peer-ratings for each assignment, and then factor in those ratings with the final score of the product produced by the group. use a shorter form for smaller team tasks (for example, a one-page consensus posting developed by the team over a week or two time frame), and then, a more extensive rating form for the larger group projects that count significantly more (for example, the large case-study paper).

I borrowed this idea from my colleague Diane Chapman, who does a peer review form that is extensive, where students rate themselves and all team members at the end of the major project. Some dimensions of this final peer rating include judgment, reliability, and other dimensions of working together as a group (not personality).

Diane notes that if she has a well functioning group, then the evaluations are rather short (just numerical ratings with few comments). However, if the groups are poorly functioning, the feedback is long and detailed, and she noted that if a student is especially emotional about the group, he or she will provide long responses to a peer rating. Diane and I score teams similarly, but she saves a half letter grade worth of points for student evaluation based on performance in the team. While feeling that this is somewhat subjective, Diane bases the performance grade on peer reviews and monitoring student discussions and activities for evidence of individual participation (both quantity and quality).

Karey Harwood, who has more students than Diane or I per individual section, notes that Moodle helps her track quantity of posts by individuals, thus providing a clue to someone’s overall online participation, and she also has a TA to help her track the quality of posts – to ensure that individuals are contributing content instead of only posting “great job!” within their teams. Karey also expressed that she never wants a student to feel like his or her grade suffered because they were in a bad group, so she keeps a careful eye out for how things are going in the groups.

Pete Janca noted that he uses the same evaluation after each semester, and finds that results vary all over the map between peer and self-ratings. With his students, he emphasizes that they should carefully consider significant differences between self and peer ratings, because they might, in effect, have an over (or sometimes, under) inflated opinion of their ability to work with others – an important consideration as they go into a future work situation. With Peter’s course, everybody in a group gets the same grade on the group project, and Peter feels that gives students’ incentive for the groups to work well. Pete does, however, have a separate category in his course for participation, and an individual’s participation in groupwork (or lack thereof) would be duly noted here.

In addition to self and peer-participation type ratings, Jamie Sue Reed gives her online groups a lot of peer review opportunities for students’ individual assignments. Students post a document (in Moodle), and their group members review the document, one at a time. At the end, there are reviews from everyone in the group, and then Jamie evaluates the students’ reviews, the quality and completeness of which is worth 10% of the overall course grade. Jamie adds her comments to the reviewed document. In addition to the experience students get in reviewing others’ work, a benefit for Jamie is that reviewing on top of the other reviews saves her time in writing comments because the students catch much of the elements that need feedback in advance.

Jamie Sue also gives students an opportunity to contribute to a second team for extra credit (in addition to participating as expected on their assigned team). She has group leaders note who in the team did what, and this “who did what” document is public so that anyone who disagrees with the evaluation of their performance can feel free to do so. Jamie Sue instructs her students not to compensate for other team members.

Hanson (2006) and Mandernach (2010) discuss the importance of peer and self evaluation as part of the groupwork process – ensuring that individuals are accountable is key.

When Good Groups Go Bad
I mentioned earlier in the posting having to occasionally reassign groups. In a recent case, two students were simply not getting along. Both were very strong personalities and could not find a way to work together, to the detriment of the entire team. In that situation, teams were reshuffled around for the next project, and a quick feedback form was used after the next assignment to ensure the second grouping was working. Having experienced this, I wanted to ask my colleagues how they handled this type of situation as well.

Karey Harwood noted that she spends a lot of time paying attention to what the online groups are doing, especially early on, so that the group atmosphere stays positive – kind of like an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure approach. Pete Janco noted that he really tries to keep the teams together because he feels that working together through any challenges builds community, but he is willing to let people switch partners/groupings when it is necessary.

Pete also noted that he makes sure he is very approachable especially with his ESL students because they may sometimes feel uncomfortable in a group setting. By keeping lines of communication open, Pete feels that he is able to successfully get most of his ESL students working well in groups in the course. We all concurred that getting students to participate well online, whether in groups or not, is related to them becoming comfortable in the online environment. Whether that is achieved through an initial online orientation, via personal coaching/mentoring from the instructor as they get their feet wet, or simply through time, achieving a comfort level individually seems to be a big step for students in succeeding in online group work.

We talked about the challenge of how one deals with “bad blood in a group,” as it is difficult to correct, and agreed that sometimes individuals may need to be moved around in order for groups to work. When things get really bad, as Susan Osborne and Diane Chapman both noted, students can either be offered or told to be in a group of one.

We all concurred that grouping students for work (whether online or face-to-face) is a challenge, but we all believe in the value of it and plan on continuing grouping our students. Like it or not, students are going to have to work with others in almost any field that they go into, and we feel that participating in a group situation is a bonus skill that students hone in addition to the content that we cover in our courses.

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