The Extraordinary Teaching Project: Group Work Strategies from a Group Processes Expert

Featured Instructors: 

Alison Bianchi, Ph.D., associate professor and sociology director for the Center for the Study of Group Processes

Overview:

Help all students engage in deeper learning through thoughtful facilitation of group work.

Benefits:

  • Empowers and motivates students
  • Encourages deep exploration of complex course concepts
  • Increases social awareness and collaboration skills 

Description:

Professor Alison Bianchi, an expert in structural social psychology and the director of the UI Center for the Study of Group Processes, explains the research-based strategies she uses to set up high-functioning groups that help all students to learn at their highest potential. 

Instructor:



Alison Bianchi, PhD

Associate Professor, Sociology

Director, Center for the Study of Group Processes



Overview:



Help all students engage in deeper learning through thoughtful facilitation of group work.



Transcript:



Group Work Strategies from a Group Processes Expert





00:00 – 00:18



In the early 1990s, group work, peer – peer instruction is what it was called – became like a really big thing. And there's a lot of studies out there, good studies, that demonstrate that students actually learned better from each other.







00:18 – 00:52



Put them in groups and having them work and have students take responsibility for their own learning, I love that, but you can't just let that be the petri dish for the status hierarchy that reinforces all the stuff about prejudice and discrimination and oppression in this society. And if you're low status, by definition, according to theories of group processes, you’re not given as much influence. And so, over time, especially looking at like maybe a half a semester in a group, people who have low status aren’t as engaged.







00:52 – 01:23



Every student’s got a story. One of them is gonna say, “I hate working in groups because I'm always the one that drags the group along. I'm the one that does all the work and everybody else takes advantage of me.” And then you’re gonna have another student say, “I hate group work because no one ever lets me talk.” So I have the students go to the board and write what the pros and the cons are of group work. And then I tell them, “So now in your new group you’re gonna write six or seven bullet points” that the students themselves come up with about how they expect to be treated and how they will treat others.







01:23 – 01:48



What's most important is that students have had an opportunity to voice their concerns and to have others hear their concerns knowing that they can – knowing that they'll be addressed. And it works beautifully. I gain a little bit of trust with the students on that first day. We're creating a group dynamic that's going to be – it's going to advantage everybody.







01:48 – 02:26



I wouldn't just randomly assign students into groups or just let the students assign themselves into groups on the first round. Instead what I would do is kinda get the GPAs of all the students. It's not the best indicator for ability and intelligence, I understand that, but it's the best you can do, I think, in the beginning of the semester. And then I kind of assign groups with high-, middle-, and low- GPA students. Now that, in and of itself, actually would create hierarchy, which could be a problem, so you don't just stop there. But what it also does is it disperses the kind of the high-GPA students to help out the low-GPA students.







02:26 – 02:45



And at that point you've really got to have the high-GPA students buy into the fact that, research-wise, it's actually true, if you teach you know it better than if you just kind of study it. So, then, once that kind of group assignment happens in the beginning of the semester, then you can do random assignment.







02:45 – 03:17



So the next thing I do with groups is I do a role assignment that makes the hierarchy kind of go away. And that is I have a student be what's called a Manager, a Reporter, and a Skeptic. The Manager is the one that's going to facilitate. The Skeptic is going to be the one that is going to, in a positively constructive way, critique. And the Reporter is the person that pretty much writes it down and gets ready to maybe stand in front of the class to talk about what's going on.







03:17 – 03:40



So that gives them a structure, but more importantly I rotate that structure mid-group task. When that hierarchy tries to emerge, it can't because this role assignment where people have certain role expectations outweigh these other expectations, these cultural understanding expectations, that are brought in.







03:40 – 04:14



Professors and instructors have an enormous amount of power to change people's perspectives. Once you've noticed that one person is being left out, I would walk by that group a couple of times and listen to what that student is offering the group. And then swoop back in and say, “Did you hear what that person just said?” You'd be amazed at what that does to a group structure. Only do that for students that aren’t engaging. That's when you kind of go in and affect the group dynamics. Otherwise stand back and let them do it, because for the most part it's gonna work.







04:14 – 04:40



If we can teach them how to work well in groups we’ve got an opportunity to use a group experience to help students arrive at their own understandings about what it is that creates group structures, and how it is to combat them.