Group Work Gone Wrong: Best Practices for Cooperative Learning

It is nearly impossible to complete an educational program without some form of cooperative learning. If you have ever been a student, you have felt the instant dread and anxiety when the instructor announces a group project, and maybe you have also felt the excitement of picking your partners. Make no mistake, working with others generates learning on multiple levels and for multiple learning styles which is why it cannot be eliminated. It can, however, not go as well as planned.

Gilbert, Sawyer and McNeill (2011) named quite a few advantages to group work, including that it creates an active and interactive environment, and exposes learners to a variety of viewpoints. Some disadvantages they mentioned were that some individuals can dominate the group or the experience, the course of working together can lead to disruption, and the outcome can be unpredictable.

So how do you set yourself up for success as an educator, and make sure your students get the most out of group work? Here’s a little bit about what to do, based on what I wish I did not do.

When facilitating workshops and trainings, I often use the Concept Development Model to lead participants towards comprehension of terms and concepts. I prefer this model to the Concept Attainment Model since I am most likely working with a short amount of time, and I probably won’t see participants again. I have to be swift and effective, and the Concept Development Model calls for building off topics that are known (Estes, Mintz, & Gunter, 2011).

Pairing group work and concept development is highly useful for many of the reasons Gilbert et al. (2011) identified, especially hearing the viewpoints of others. Also, even though it seems like our electronic devices hinder committing information to memory, we’ve actually been using our friends, family and colleagues to hold pieces of information for us all along. Check here for more on transactive memory, and how it is another rationale for cooperative learning.

In facilitating a workshop on gender microaggressions, I decided to pair group work with concept development. There were over 100 people in the workshop so I split the room roughly into groups of 20, and randomly assigned each group to the categories of cismen, ciswomen, transmen, transwomen, genderqueer, & gender non-conforming.

This is going to be great, I thought, and it was, but not without some hurdles that could have been avoided.

Each group accomplished the task of listing the ways people experience gender bias, but some people mentioned feeling uncomfortable speaking about a gender identity they did not identity as. More so, others mentioned feeling uncomfortable being spoken about. I’m familiar with group work outcomes being unpredictable, but I think there were several things I could have done to ensure that the participants had a more enjoyable experience.

Here is how you can take this experience and be more successful. First, when discussing topics in human sexuality, remember that people are at varying comfort levels. Not everyone has had a sexuality attitude reassessment (SAR) experience, and the chances of your topic being particularly charged, maybe even triggering, are very high. Granted, this was not a mandatory workshop and people self-selected to attend as well as to leave. The fact that people took care of themselves is a sign that there was an element of safety in the room, but how could it have been safer?

In hindsight, I realized that the exercise was too intimate for a large group. In other words, with that many people, we needed to do a less intense activity than talking about gender biases. Having 6 groups of 20 people was like teaching 6 classes at the same time. There was no way I could hear everyone, speak to everyone, and gauge whether we needed to pause for more process if something came up. In the future, I would definitely do this again, but with a much smaller group.

My rationale for not asking people to self-select their gendered category was that I didn’t want people to feel they needed to out themselves. Talk about triggering! I also didn’t want to set up an arena of judges, both internal and external, about people’s “realness.” We were at the Philadelphia Trans* Health Conference which is heavily attended by folks of all genders, and a time where one doesn’t necessarily have to don a label. Although, my expectation that conference attendees have a generally heightened awareness of gender biases might have set me up for conflict.

I tried to think of it as if we were at Creating Change, or a conference where race and ethnicity are discussed at length. If I had randomly assigned people to ethnic groups, how would people feel? As a person of color and as a feminist, I expect my allies to know something about my difficulty navigating certain spaces; as an educator, I expect myself to create a supportive environment where allies and community members can both learn.

Another aspect of difficulty with the workshop was the limited amount of time. With only an hour and twenty minutes and a large group, it is best to keep the goals and objectives of the workshop to a minimum. Group work can still happen, but the level of depth will need to be adjusted. That is not to say that some people may take the material deeper, and that is going to happen, but as an educator it is important to steer the methods towards accomplishing the objectives. More time allows for more depth with both small and large groups, but even an hour and twenty minutes can be a constraint on a small group depending on the topic.

What are gender microaggressions you ask? Check back for more on that topic, and how you can apply the framework of microaggressions to your specialty.

Gilbert, G., Sawyer, R., & McNeill, E. (2011). Health education: Creating strategies for school and community health. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.
Estes, T., Mints, S., & Gunter, M. (2010). Instruction: A models approach. (6th ed). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.

5 responses to “Group Work Gone Wrong: Best Practices for Cooperative Learning

  1. This was a very helpful post, Jaymie. Do you think perhaps an activity like that would work if you weren’t necessarily as specific. I’m thinking of things like the Brown Eye/Blue Effect exercise or assigning them other types of characteristics. This way participants still understand what it is like to feel “othered” or not and then have them apply it to situations like your more specific labels of cis and trans*.

  2. While planning cooperative activities using the Concept Development Model, an instructor needs to be extremely organized yet realistic. In a time frame of one hour and 20 minutes, I wonder how the class was structured. I am assuming there was in introduction explaining the process, but how were the 6th groups of 20 chosen? Did the instructor randomly assign students, did they self-select based on gender, did they have to spend some of that time moving to other rooms, or where they all in a lecture hall? Since each group reported out was there one spokesperson per group, or did everyone have the opportunity to speak if they so desired. Did each group have the same assigned task and where there any other parameters used in this cooperative learning process? You stated ” some people mentioned feeling uncomfortable speaking about a gender identity they did not identify as…others mentioned feeling uncomfortable being spoken about”. In light of this reflection, was there an opportunity for anonymity thus, avoiding any embarrassment for those students. I certainly understand the value of cooperative learning, but I strongly agree with Jaymie that this was an ambitious undertaking with the number of students participating in the class.

  3. This is so on point, Jaymie! Thanks for sharing that experience – it is so helpful to hear other’s stories about techniques they’ve used and what kinds of tweaks or changes to consider.
    I love that you included transactive memory as a rationale for group work! The Times article you referenced blew my mind when I read it last semester, and it really does give an interesting perspective on how we can boost retention by including others in our own learning.
    I imagine this might be a really powerful rationale to get reluctant adult learners to “buy-in” to participation in groups. I think that because adult learners are so self-directed (as explained by Knowles, Holton, & Swanson in The Adult Learner), it is much harder to give up the power of individual learning and fully embrace group work. The transactive memory theory is simple enough to be explained to an adult classroom with wasting a lot of time, but really provides a convincing argument for why group work is crucial and will help learners retain more info in the long run.

  4. Jaymie,
    What a helpful post. Thank you. I find that we, as educators, often over plan and under-anticipate the challenges with too much information and a short amount of time. I agree with the above comment that embracing group work is a challenge as an adult learner. As I think about the challenges with group work, it seems as though they are very similar to the challenges of teaching. Being patient, open-minded, being fair and allocating tasks are all part of group work and educator work. Maybe all the group work that we are required to do as adult learners is to teach us about the larger concepts of working together toward a larger goal of understanding.

  5. Great article, Jaymie!
    I am very grateful that you have had this experience with such a big group. I have yet to imagine teaching a group of 100 people, much less what educational strategy I would use with them. I like the choice to use concept development model. It actually got me thinking about how to control the levels on which we want students to be. For a workshop so big and so short, how do we keep students at a lower negative affect level while still incorporating deep feelings to draw out change or insight? I think you did a fantastic job for many people during this exercise, but I can also see the concern for making others uncomfortable. I’d be interested in hearing how to avoid this concern in the future.

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