See Jane Compute

Student group dynamics

I’m supervising a few independent studies this year, with groups of students working on fairly large and fairly fuzzily-defined design projects. These groups couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of the way they act as a group, act as individuals, and interact with me. It’s got me thinking a lot lately about group dynamics among students and the strong influences that certain individuals have over the behavior of the entire group.


One of the groups is highly functional—on the surface. The students all get along really well with each other and appear to complement each other, skill-wise and personality-wise. They truly enjoy working with each other. Yet, their progress has been disappointing. They’ve allowed themselves to get bogged down in details, forgetting to focus on the goals of the project. They get easily frustrated by setbacks, and are afraid to try new and unfamiliar things. They expect everything to work perfectly, and get thrown off track when things don’t go according to plan. This group has two strong, vocal personalities who also happen to be pessimists. The rest of the group is made up of smart but less confident students.

Another group appears to be slightly dysfunctional—on the surface. Some of the group members are best friends, while the rest don’t know each other. This group also has a strong, vocal personality, as well as someone who barely says 3 words at any meeting. It has several very strong students and a very weak student. Yet, the group has achieved well beyond my initial expectations, and has done one of the best projects I’ve seen in years. They are turning out amazing work, and have done so consistently since Day 1 of the project. Amazingly, everyone is contributing equally, and the weak student has done some of the most crucial work on the project. The vocal personality is also pretty good-natured and self-deprecating, so other group members feel comfortable calling this person out when necessary.

In each of these cases, the whole tenor of the group is set by a couple of individuals. My theory is that the first group hasn’t worked out well because the vocal pessimists exuded enough confidence early on to convince the others that they knew what they were talking about—so of course, when they say “we can’t do this, it’s too hard”, their comments are taken seriously. Conversely, the second group works well because others in that group stood up, early on, to the vocal person, setting the tone that disagreement was ok and that leadership, and good ideas, can come from multiple places (that student who barely speaks has emerged as a quiet leader—no pun intended). In the first group, the group opinion is formed by the two; in the second group, decisions and direction are developed by committee.

I’ve seen similar scenarios play out in my classroom as well. I use quite a bit of group/pair work in my classes, and I spend some time on the first day of class explaining why I feel it’s important, what I plan on doing, and what and how I expect them to contribute. Not everyone is on board all of the time, but it mostly works. In one of my intro classes a few years ago, though, I had a cohort of students who sat in the back corner and generally acted “too cool for school”. They were a small percentage of the class, but their actions set the tone for the rest of the class. Getting them to contribute in a meaningful way was like pulling teeth, and eventually their attitude spilled over to the rest of the class, such that group work became a painful exercise for everyone, with lots of cajoling from me and lots of eye-rolling from them. By contrast, when I got sick last fall and *had* to rely on the students to carry more of the class (because I was just too exhausted to make it through an entire class most days), the students came through beautifully and cheerfully—even the biggest and most vocal skeptics of group work.

The tricky thing is that it’s often hard to tell whether a group will be functional or dysfunctional at first glance. At the start of each of the independent studies, I would have bet money that the first group would accomplish more, based on my initial first impressions. With the eye-rolling class, my initial impression was that the class was open to new ideas and experiences, based on their enthusiasm the first week or so. I was wrong in all of these cases. Does this mean I am a bad judge of group character? Maybe. But I’ve gotten it right sometimes, too—typically, I’m able to pick undergraduate research assistants who work very well together, even if they didn’t know each other previously.

I’m not sure if there is a good way to assess group dynamics accurately up front, without knowing the parties well. Doing so would definitely be useful—I might have advised that first group differently, maybe been a bit more proactive early on to diffuse the effect of the pessimists, although who knows if it would have helped ultimately. What about you—do you have good strategies for assessing group dynamics early on? Have you had spectacularly good groups, or spectacularly bad groups, and what made them so? Please share your experiences in the comments!

Comments

  1. #1 Karina
    February 26, 2009

    I was in a completely dysfunctional academic program for the first three classes of the day for all 4 years of high school. Like those kids in the back of your class and slowly took over, a few vocal students dominated the scene freshman year and the dynamic never really changed. It was really unfortunate- the same 30 students for 4 years. It turned out to be a terrible place for me to gain confidence in myself or speak my mind. I spent my entire first year of college (and then some) getting over high school. Thankfully college was a much better place for me and I got to learn in classes with functional group dynamics!

  2. #2 Martin
    February 26, 2009

    Jane,

    have a look at this post by Jeff Atwood,

    http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/001227.html

    and have a listen to the This American Life program

    I found the research very interesting, as I’m involved in running lots of group projects in an IS degree, so I’ve often had the same experience as yourself. This research puts our intuitions about bad apples on a more empirical footing.

    My most spectacular group was the group that looked at the course structure in 1st year, noticed that there was a major industrial experience project at the end, then made sure that through the first two years of the degree always worked together in groups in any course they shared. By the time they hit the third year project, they were a well-oiled machine.

    They built a fantastic project for the industry client, extensible, beautifully documented, incredibly well-tested, they handled the client extremely well. Towards the end, the client said to me, “I wish the consulting company I’m paying $75,000 to build me a system were half as good as your students”. They were a joy to work with. They all went on to great jobs and the companies who got them were lucky to have them I think.

    cheers

    Martin

  3. #3 Adriana
    February 26, 2009

    Oh, I was going to say the same thing as Martin: check out that research on bad apples…

  4. #4 Toaster
    February 26, 2009

    I believe, based on my experience, that willingness to argue and to accept criticism are absolutely critical to group success. One of the strategies I usually employed whenever I fell into leading a group was to break up the project into specific goals and tasks and set up a timeline that had room for everyone to examine everyone else’s work and ask them to clarify, explain, or justify anything that needed it. The editorial vetting process by everyone keeps all group members on the same page in terms of comprehension, but also allows them to engage their specific sub-task with deeper concentration. And everyone has to be willing to argue! If someone says that we need to include ELISAs for TNFa in our project, and no one asks them why or what for, then that group is clearly not working. While it is important to trust one another, vetting and debate are also critical.
    That’s just my $0.02, though.

  5. #5 Jane
    February 27, 2009

    Wow, I had no idea there was research on this stuff. Thanks, Martin and Adriana!

    Karina, your experiences sound horrible! I’ve learned through experience to put certain checks and balances into my system of managing group projects…I am a huge fan of frequent peer review, which helps nip a lot of those problems in the bud. But it’s not perfect, as this post shows.

    Toaster, I think you raise a good point: good groups know how and when to argue, and how to do so constructively.

  6. #6 unbalanced reaction
    February 28, 2009

    I use quite a lot of small group work in my class, and some years are more successful than others. I find that it is really helpful to do a survey at the start of the semester with specific questions about students’ attitudes towards and experience with group work. That way I know the general attitude of the class going in; it really helps me set the tone and anticipate problems before they happen.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    March 26, 2009

    I’ve done a lot with interdisciplinary teams in an environmental course. I given a couple of presentations on it, and may still have a copy of my lecture notes (in both English and Spanish). One of the most important things is to assure diversity in the group: different backgrounds, different levels of experience, different academic skills. Diversity seems to buffer aganst an individual, or a couple of individuals, taking over the group. It is common that the least capable people will make good contributions to the group effort. This same idea of diversity is important for study groups in a class.

    It only takes one or two dedicated eye-rollers to pull a class down. Unfortunately they are much more common than they used to be. I haven’t been in a classroom since 1997, but active colleagues characterize teaching today as “facing an angry mob”. There is a lot of entitlement thinking. “I exist, gimme my A!”

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