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Groups and Teams

So you are interested in having your students engage in group- or team-work? Great! When deciding whether to use groups or teams, the first question to ask yourself is: how does this activity relate to my Learning Outcomes? Learning Outcomes are broad statements about the kinds of things students will be able to do with the course content that they could not do before taking your course. You need to consider how group or team activities will fit into learning sequences that will help your students achieve those outcomes.

Some examples of group and team activities are described below. But first, a clarification.

Cooperative vs collaborative work

An important distinction needs to be made between group work and team work. Group work is a strategy focused on cooperative learning, asking students to interact in a way that has them process ideas and information, or practice skills together, but not to create new things or rely on one another for ongoing learning. Groups are often temporary or ad hoc, lasting from the duration of a single class to a month or two. On the other hand, teamwork is a strategy that focuses on collaborative learning, where students work together to produce something for which they share responsibility. Teams are formed for longer projects, involve more sustained collaboration and require team-building efforts because the projects or the intended learning require that all students in each team engage equally to achieve a common goal. Keeping this distinction in mind is important to determine which strategy works best for the students to achieve the learning outcomes you have set out for your course.

Having students work in teams or groups has many benefits. It provides opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and creates community. It mirrors the real world, and it can be a dynamic way to engage and get to know your students. Many different levels of activities can be utilized, from in class, short-term activities, like Think-pair-share, to year-long, course designed Team Based Learning (TBL). We summarize a few of them here and provide links and resources for more.

Strategies for the classroom

Think-Pair-Share: students are presented with a question or problem and are asked to think about it individually (Think). Each student is then paired with another student or small group, and they discuss their answers (Pair). The final step involves the pairs or small groups sharing their responses with the whole class (Share).

Say Something: students work in pairs at first, and then combine with other pairs to form small groups. This works well if you want to engage students in a discussion about a text that is relevant to the course material. Students review or read a part of the text (ie. the introduction, the first 5 pages), then each says something to their partner about the text. It can be a summary, the most interesting or controversial or problematic thing, and they discuss their choices. The pair repeats the process for other parts of the text. When they are done going through the text (or going through all the parts you mean to cover), they share with another pair of students, saying what the most interesting points were, and compare notes.

Jigsaw: the jigsaw involves students working to complete a group project by each becoming experts in a given topic. Students are assigned a group, and each member of the group is assigned a specific topic. Students meet with the other same-topic students to go over the topic, discuss, clarify, define, and return to their group to explain the topic. All the pieces fit together.

Team Based Learning (TBL)

Team-Based Learning is a comprehensive instructional method developed by organizational behavior professor Larry K. Michaelsen. TBL puts students into roles of greater autonomy and responsibility for acquiring and using information. Some critical components of TBL are:

  1. Teams are permanent. The permanent team structure is key to creating conditions that ask students to perform at higher cognitive levels;
  2. A process to ensure individual student readiness for group work;
  3. Assignments that require students to work collectively on rigorous application of course content;
  4. Peer evaluation.

Additional Resources

There are many ways to engage students in your classroom, and having them work collaboratively and/or cooperatively can be very stimulating and fun. Along with the techniques presented here, many others exist. Please visit these resources for inspiration and techniques.