Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Improving Student Perceptions of Group Work

03 Oct 2019 8:45 AM | Anonymous

Krisztina V. Jakobsen (James Madison University)

I have been teaching using team-based learning (TBL; Michaelsen, Knight, & Fink, 2004) for almost a decade. TBL is a flipped classroom method in which student learn course content outside of class and work in permanent teams during class to complete application exercises. Although the literature is somewhat mixed, TBL is at least as effective as other teaching strategies with respect to content acquisition (e.g., Carmichael, 2009; Chung, Rhee, Baik, & A, 2009; Jakobsen, McIlreavy, & Marrs, 2014). I personally use it because it works for my teaching style, course objectives, and students (Jakobsen, 2018). In my view, TBL provides students with opportunities to master core content consistently, while potentially developing transferable stills for other endeavors (Hart, 2006; Robles, 2012). For example, TBL provides opportunities for students to critically analyze information to solve problems, to use effective oral communication, and to collaborate with others.

A central component of TBL requires students to work in permanent teams throughout the semester. When students realize that they will be working in groups for the whole semester, I can see the hesitation in their faces, as they may not have had positive experiences with group work in the past. Some students have told me that they feel that group work holds them back, that they are taking on more work because of slackers, and that the groups tend to devolve into irrelevant or unproductive discussions. When I explain that we will be working in teams during each class, many of the students are dubious about the team-based format and would prefer lectures and individual work instead.

Although possibly the most vocal, students who eschew learning in teams are in the minority. Previous studies find that students generally have positive perceptions of group work (e.g., Walker, 2001), particularly in structured, well-defined group work experiences, as is the case in TBL (e.g., Butt, 2018; Vasan, DeFouw, & Compton, 2009; Willis et al., 2002). However, there are conditions under which students report concerns about group work. For example, when students do not feel a sense of being connected to members of their group (Jassawalla, Sashittal, & Malshe, 2009), they report concerns of social loafing (Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). It is in precisely these two areas—being members of a community and decreasing social loafing—that TBL may excel.

First, TBL holds students individually accountable for learning the course content outside of class through an individual quiz at the beginning of the unit. Following the individual quiz, students complete the same quiz again in their teams. After a short clarification lecture, teams complete application exercises in which they have to make a specific choice that they share simultaneously with other teams before having a full-class discussion. In order to contribute to the team quiz, application exercises, and class discussion, students must be prepared for class and are held accountable for being prepared. Midterm and end of semester team evaluations are also a critical component of the TBL structure. While the midterm team evaluations provide students with feedback on what they are doing well and how they can improve their contributions to the team, the end of semester evaluations determine how many of the team points each individual student will earn toward their final grade.

Because TBL has some features that may alleviate concerns with previous group issues associated with feeling connected and social loafing, we were particularly interested in students’ perceptions of group work after participating in a TBL course. I asked students (N=68) in a developmental psychology class about their perceptions of group work at the beginning of the semester and after participating in a TBL class. At the end of the semester, I also asked students how their experience working in TBL groups compared to working in groups in other classes.

Some of the perceptions students had of working in groups did not change over the course of the semester. These tended to skew toward the positives of group work and found that students, in general, have positive views of working in groups, as supported by the literature. For example, students believed that they could learn from working in groups and that they enjoy working in groups. They also believed that working in groups prepares them for their future careers and develops their communication skills along with the ability to work with others, even when they have different perspectives.

What did change over the course of the semester were student perceptions of being part of a learning community and perceived social loafing. Students’ perceptions of being part of a learning community increased and their perceptions of social loafing decreased  from the beginning of the semester to the end. Permanent teams may increase feelings of being connected to members of a group which decreases social loafing (Jassawalla et al., 2009; Springer et al., 1999). These complementary processes may be key features that promote positive student perceptions of working in teams.

Although TBL has yet to demonstrate consistent benefits for content mastery beyond those of competing pedagogies (e.g., Jakobsen et al., 2014), TBL may provide the kind of structure that provides an opportunity for students to master other important abilities that are highly desired by employers (Hart, 2006; Robles, 2012). Thus, TBL may provide added value above and beyond the mastering key content. This is one of the reasons that keeps me teaching in this style. Taking the leap to restructure a class to TBL may be daunting, but the principles of providing a good team experience for students can be done without all features of its specific structure. Ensuring individual accountability prior to group work, using permanent teams, and working during class (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999), can be achieved in almost any class.

As with all pedagogical strategies, there is much to be done to understand how working with others benefits learning and influences perceptions. While the TBL structure provides opportunities for students to work on numerous other transferable skills, including oral communication, flexibility, and applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings (Hart, 2006; Robles, 2012), little research has examined how TBL may contributes to directly developing these skills. Our next steps are to explore the role of individual differences in group work. As group work becomes more prominent in the college classroom, not everyone may benefit in the same way. For example, individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds, personality traits, and genders may have very different experiences working in groups (Myers et al., 2009; Šerić & Garbin Praničević, 2018), which teachers who use group work should, at minimum, be aware.

There are a number of pedagogical systems and strategies that have been demonstrated to positively influence learning course content. The strategies that are most effective are those that fit the context, goals, student level and instructor while demonstrably making progress towards the learning goals. Beyond course content, there may be skills and perspectives that teachers hope to integrate into their classes. If one of your goals is for students to become more proficient in employable skills like working in teams, it is laudable to consider those issues as you select your teaching strategies. For me, TBL is a very good fit to meet those additional goals.


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