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Groups and Teams

So you are interested in having your students engage in group- or team-work. Great! There are resources listed below. But first, when deciding which strategy to use, the first question to ask yourself is how does this activity relate to my Learning Outcomes? Learning Outcomes are broad statements about the desired outcome for students: what will they be able to do at the end of your course? How does this group or team activity fit into my learning sequence that will help students achieve that goal?

Some examples of group and team activities are included 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 based on cooperative learning, asking students to interact in a way that has them process ideas and information, or practice skills. Groups are often temporary, lasting from the duration of a class to a month or two. On the other hand, team work is based 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.

Regardless of the terminology, 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): TBL 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.

What’s TBL’s track record?

TBL is now being used internationally in every academic discipline. The extensive emerging research helps explain why it is attractive not only in technical and applied fields such as medicine, engineering and business, but also in natural science, social science, and humanities. It is also now being used in Trades education. Research data confirm consistently that TBL allows instructors to challenge their students at a higher level. Several studies provide evidence that students in a well-run section of TBL will typically outperform students taught through more traditional approaches.

What are the principles behind TBL?

TBL emerged out of research in organizational and cognitive psychology. Among the principles that drive the method are the following:

  1. Effective group work most often depends on the type of work. Group work is most effective when used with assignments where students are asked to converge their diverse thinking in making a single, collective decision, much like a deliberative body.

  2. Students learn best and are more motivated when feedback is frequent and immediate. The use of groups increases opportunities for frequent, immediate feedback and reflection among peers.

  3. Groups need time together to learn to function as a team, hence the use of permanently assigned groups.

  4. Effectively functioning groups need very little instructor oversight or management. TBL is therefore a more efficient use of an instructor’s time, and can be scaled to classes of any size.

What does the TBL process in a course look like?

A course will normally be divided into 4 to 7 instructional units within a 12-15-week time frame. Key elements of a typical sequence over 2 to 4 class meetings would be as follows:

  1. A substantial reading assignment (outside of class)

  2. Graded individual “readiness assessment” test on the reading (in class)

  3. Graded team “readiness assessment” test (in class)

  4. Short (mini-) Lecture, if needed, to clarify confusion made visible by the tests

  5. Team responses to cases; problems; applications, etc., all using the material in the initial reading

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.