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!