Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Grouping in the Dark

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Grouping in the Dark

Article excerpt

What College Students Learn from Group Projects

More and more college and university faculty are assigning students to work in groups to solve real-world or simulated problems (Gamson, 1994). The trend toward classroom teamwork has been stimulated by students, prospective employers of college graduates, accrediting agencies, and educators who advocate cooperative learning. Many students, particularly the growing population of returning adults, appreciate interactive learning experiences (Watkins, 1990). As companies rely more on teams to improve productivity (Schilder, 1992), they also emphasize the need for college graduates to be skilled in teamwork and effective communication (Coleman, 1996). Accrediting agencies also stress the importance of group experiences for students. New criteria established by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), for example, require engineering programs to demonstrate that graduates have "an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams" and "an ability to communicate effectively" (ABET, 1997). Seve ral educators who have investigated the benefits of peer group learning experiences for elementary and secondary school students also advocate that college students collaborate as they learn (Bosworth & Hamilton, 1994; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991, 1998).

The umbrella term "collaborative learning" refers to a variety of instructional practices that encourage students to work together as they apply course material to answer questions, solve problems, or create a product (Smith & MacGregor, 1992). Research conducted with college students indicates that participation in group projects promotes students' academic achievement, persistence in college, and positive attitudes about learning (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1997). Students are more likely to attain positive outcomes from group experiences when instructors provide students with information and guidance about how to work together (Bosworth & Hamilton, 1994).

The types of guidance instructors should provide are specified clearly by proponents of "cooperative learning" such as Johnson and Johnson (1994) and Slavin (1983) who maintain that group work will enhance learning more than individual work only if instructors structure assignments to meet specific conditions. These conditions include providing instruction about interpersonal skills, encouraging positive interdependence among students, making individual goal achievement dependent upon attainment of group goals, and encouraging students to reflect on the group process (Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Slavin, 1983). With proper guidance, students will hold all members accountable for group performance, support each others' learning, share leadership, and monitor their efforts to improve the group's performance. When instructors fail to provide such guidance, Johnson and Johnson (1994) argue that students will not hold other group members accountable, have little commitment to other group members' learning, work alone as much as possible, only recognize a team leader appointed by the instructor, and fail to assess the quality of the group's progress.

The conditions for group learning in higher education settings rarely meet the standards advocated by cooperative learning scholars. Few faculty have either extensive experience working in groups themselves or formal training about how to manage groups. As a result, many well-intentioned faculty assign group projects without providing students the information and guidance prescribed by cooperative learning advocates. A survey conducted with participants in group projects at a single university found that many students had negative reactions to group learning experiences. Students were particularly frustrated when they believed that the instructor had poor group skills or shirked responsibility for helping the groups (Fiechtner & Davis, 1984-85). The survey also revealed that many students, nevertheless, perceived that some of their group experiences were positive. …

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