The Ever-Present Challenges of Group Work

I have written previously about how group work is both great for students and difficult to do well. Today I had a conversation with a student and faculty member that reinforced these ideas again.

Prof. X, a faculty member that that I know, is trying to incorporate more small group work in an upper division mathematics class. Through a set of circumstances that are too complicated to explain here, today I happened to talk to Student S who is in Prof. X’s class. Student S shared some difficult moments that she experienced in the class recently.

(1) In one situation, Student S said that she was in a group of four students. The students were asked to answer questions on the back of a worksheet, which involved parsing some definitions on the front of the worksheet. Three of the students chose to forge ahead on the questions without reading the definitions first, referring to them when they needed them. She wanted to read the definitions first and understand them before moving on. They left her behind and she basically worked on the assignment by herself.

(2) In another situation, Student S was in a group of four and was the only female student. Each person in the group was given a different task to complete and had to explain how to do that task to the rest of the group.  When it was Student S’s turn to explain her task, a student in her group was a bit confused and another student jumped in and explained Student S’s task instead of letting her explain it. And, that student didn’t explain it correctly! But, Student S diplomatically corrected the situation by giving the correct explanation to her group and also helped the student who jumped in realize that it wasn’t right that she wasn’t given the chance to talk about her assigned task. Nevertheless, Student S said that this “mansplaining” happened two more times that day.

Experiences like these caused Student S to feel frustrated in these group work experiences. Student S also shared that she has had a difficult semester full of experiences that have caused her to doubt her mathematical abilities. I don’t know all of the details, but I do know that one of the reasons why active learning (and group work in particular) is so risky is that it puts students at risk of being judged by each other and the instructor as being incapable, slow, unprepared, less than.

I also happened today to talk to Prof. X, who genuinely wants to make his class a more welcoming and inclusive space by using group work. He shared with students some research showing that that group work helps improve student learning overall but also tends to have disproportionately large benefits for women, first-generation students, and students of color. That transparency is very important and most of us could probably benefit from being more transparent about the rationale for our instructional choices. However, there is a slight danger here that I hadn’t considered before: these research studies show positive results of using group work on average, but that research does not guarantee that individual students will always benefit from the effects of group work. In fact, my hunch is that the variance of experiences in active learning settings may be higher than in a more controlled lecture classroom format. So, while transparency is important, I also wonder about whether in sharing evidence for these instructional approaches we also need to be careful to avoid making students that don’t have good experiences as a result of those approaches feel bad about that.

Let no one misinterpret what I’m saying here as a pronouncement against active learning or group work–on the contrary, we should double-down on group work and active learning, recognizing that it is simultaneously beneficial for students and difficult to implement well. We instructors need to think carefully about how we deploy group work and other forms of active learning so as to mitigate any potential negative effects, as much as is possible. Here are three questions to ask ourselves to do so:

  1. Who is likely to benefit (as a result of me using group work or some other form of active learning)? Who is not?
  2. Who is likely to feel included? Who is not?
  3. How would I know if I need to intervene in some way?

To answer questions #1 and #2, I suggest we think of groups of students such as first-generation students, introverted students, students of color, students for whom English is not their first language, students with learning disabilities, students who have had bad experiences in a mathematics classroom, etc. For example, in the case of (1) above, it might be the case that the group work was inadvertently structured in a way that students who needed or wanted more time processing definitions were at a disadvantage. It would then be a good exercise to think about ways to mitigate the difference in experiences caused by the way the activity was structured.

Note about questions #1 and #2: Almost certainly students who come to class prepared are more likely to feel included or to benefit from your class activities compared to students who don’t come to class prepared–that is a difference that is expected and that you may or may not want to mitigate.  It’s those other unintended and unwanted consequences that we need to look for.

Regarding Question #3: Student S is a remarkable person who has enough self-assurance that she was able to have a long conversation with Prof. X about these difficult topics, which led Prof. X to make some changes to the class. But, that leads me to wonder: in the absence of having such thoughtful, well-composed, mature students as Student S, how would we find out about these kinds of problems in our class? We can’t be everywhere all at once in the room when group work is happening. If we don’t have mechanisms to gather student feedback, problems can go unnoticed and result in real harm to students.

These conversations today also remind me the important of setting and maintaining norms of behavior in the classroom. It’s easy to set up good norms. It’s much more difficult to maintain them and creating a culture in your classroom where those norms are pervasive.

The reason these conversations were so poignant for me is that I know Prof. X has the best intentions and is making a strong effort to be inclusive and welcoming and yet Student S experienced these discouraging situations. It made me wonder how ignorant I am about such things happening in my class.


One thought on “The Ever-Present Challenges of Group Work

  1. Thank you for posting this. I see both myself and my daughter in Student S – less the part about the student actually approaching the professor about the difficulties. I suppose I assumed that the professor/teacher already knew my struggle and/or did not care. There are educators who believe in the survival of the fittest approach.

    So many thanks to you for being so thoughtful in your practice. I hope that others do the same.

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