Group Work - An Effective Learning Method
A Powerful Learning Tool
Group work is one of the most effective strategies for learning at any level. It is a powerful teaching device which is used to enhance learning and productivity. At all levels people learn best from their peers in informal groupings whether in the classroom, at workshops, training sessions or other forums.
Group work is a form of collaborative learning which requires members to work closely as a team. Essentially, it is a pooling of knowledge, skills and competencies to produce desired results. It facilitates learning of concepts, solving problems, planning for events, designing projects and allows for discussion, sharing, explanations and exchange of ideas among members.
Traditionally, group work has been done in the classroom/meeting room/conference room. However, in modern times, group projects have become a vital component of course work carrying a fair percentage of the total score at most colleges and universities. These projects are usually assigned at the start of the semester so that students have adequate time for planning and preparation. It is done outside of the classroom at a venue agreed upon by team members or online.
Effective at all levels
Consultants use this strategy to obtain information for their reports. For e.g. when working on a project, they might convene a series of workshops and consultations with relevant stakeholders where participants will be placed in groups and assigned to work on separate aspects of a project, document or other material with the aim of producing feedback and recommendations which will then be reviewed by the consultant and used in the compilation of his report.
Facilitators at training sessions and workshops frequently use group breakouts as a complement to their power point presentations for they are well aware that there is usually a fair amount of varied knowledge and proficiency to be found among participants. In is a fact that more learning is achieved through group discussion and sharing which follow presentations than through the actual presentation.
Teachers at all levels – primary, secondary, tertiary- employ this method widely for it has been tested and proven. Collaboratively, students can achieve more as well as undertake more difficult tasks than would be expected if they were to work individually. Group activity which is well designed and managed is usually much anticipated and well enjoyed by students. Group break outs can take place in informal settings – from sprawling on the classroom floor to sitting in comfortable spots outdoors. Students like the idea of being in charge of their own learning and look forward to the opportunity to learn in the relaxed atmosphere which group work allows. Students will shy away from group work only when it has not been well organized; for e.g. when it places the burden on the shoulders of one or a few students.
A very important factor in the success of group activity is the composition of groups. This depends largely on the type of activity and the intended results. Below are some common methods of grouping. However, each type of group would expectedly, achieve different outcomes:
- Random grouping – This type of grouping is mainly intended to encourage the participation of all. It is more often used at training sessions where the facilitator is unfamiliar with the participants. For this method people may be assigned to groups by common letters, colors, numbers, etc. For e.g. each participant is asked to pick one out of a number of given colors which actually represent the groups, then all the reds would be in group1, all the blues in group 2 etc. This would obviously be varied ability grouping.
- Grouping by task – Where the aim is to produce a document, design a project or something of that nature or where the purpose might be to review a document and provide feedback and recommendations. The work may be broken down into separate areas or tasks each to be handled by a different group. Persons would be assigned to a task/group randomly or based on their skill or area of expertise.
- Grouping by ability – This is more often used in classrooms. Students of similar abilities may be placed together so that they can move at the same pace. In this type of group stronger students are grouped together and the same is done for average and weak students. In this way each group can maintain an acceptable pace and not be kept back or lost through working at one speed with the entire class.
- Heterogeneous grouping is another type of grouping by ability. In this case children are deliberately placed with others of different abilities so that the weaker students can be assisted by the more able ones. In this mixed ability grouping brighter students are given the opportunity to serve as facilitators who assist the teacher in teaching concepts, and guiding their peers in arriving at the desired results. In addition, responsibility is placed on the stronger students to ensure that their less able peers understand. Children love that!
There are other methods of grouping for e.g. by age, gender, background etc. depending on the aim of the exercise. For e.g. in study groups members usually prepare topics or questions.
Middle School Group
Some other benefits of group work in the classroom include:
- It brings out leadership qualities in students - After discussion has taken place, reporting must be done. The reporter/group leader does not have to be the brightest member of the group. More often it is the boldest person or the one with innate leadership qualities who accepts to be leader. However, in order to report effectively, he must understand the task and be able to articulate the results. It is therefore the responsibility of the other group members to ensure that the reporter understands clearly so that he can present successfully. If there are different students with leadership qualities then the role can be rotated.
- It encourages student participation - The teacher can call upon any other member of the group to clarify or verify an answer or point made by the reporter. Also, under proper supervision from the teacher every group member should make an input and all members have the responsibility to ensure that the other members of the group are clear and in agreement on the work done and results achieved. The teacher must confirm this by asking questions such as: “Did anybody do it differently?”, “Did anybody get a different result?”, “Is everyone clear on this answer?”.
- It fosters team spirit - Children learn to appreciate the value of teamwork and cooperation. They learn to support one another as a team.
- It allows stronger students to pull up weaker ones. They can share with each other and explain difficult concepts to one another without feeling pressured by the teacher or the rest of the class and without being made conspicuous as would occur in whole class activity. This type of sharing would of course, happen where groups are heterogeneous/mixed.
- It yields greater productivity - With appropriate supervision, students can accomplish more collaboratively, than when working on their own. Their ideas when merged bring about a greater level of creativity in their findings /responses/projects/presentations.
- It helps students overcome shyness. The small group setting encourages the more quiet students to become active rather than passive learners in the sense that they can make their voices heard without drawing great attention to themselves. Additionally, a shy student will take part in a group presentation because he is bolstered by the support of his group members and the attention of the audience is divided among all the participants, rather than being focused on him alone. After this has happened a few times he will gradually begin to feel more comfortable doing things in front of the class.
- It improves communication and builds confidence. Often, it is in trying to explain a concept to someone else that a student really gets to understand it thoroughly himself. That’s the beauty of study groups. You review a topic, but the information is all cluttered in your head. It is when you try to break it down to group members that you find the best way to articulate it and this is important when studying for examinations.
- It nurtures important life skills - Group activity which is timed allows students to acquire the discipline of working within a certain time frame. This improves time management skills which will be useful for advanced studies and for the workplace. Other life skills which are sharpened through this activity include: decision making, problem solving, critical thinking and conflict resolution.
- It gives a sense of responsibility and independence - Although monitored by the teacher, students have a certain measure of latitude which would not be had in a whole class setting. Each student has a certain level of accountability with respect to his team members; they must produce good work the results of which, when presented will be as good as or better than that of other groups; if it is to be graded they must get a good grade.
10. Enhanced grades - Heterogeneous group activity provides an opportunity for enhanced grades for all. The stronger students will ensure that the work is well done so that their average does not go down. However, if this type of group work is not well managed, it can have the disadvantage of encouraging lazy students to sponge on the hard workers. Confident that the committed students will do everything to ensure that they maintain their high average, lazy or irresponsible group members may leave the bulk of the work to their devoted peers comfortable in the knowledge that the work will be done and done well and that they will all share in the high grade received.
Undoubtedly, group work is recognized as a powerful teaching/learning tool and it is being embraced by teachers, educators, trainers and consultants everywhere. However, while the potential learning benefits are many, it can be hugely counterproductive if it is not well designed and supervised.
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