The Value of Group Assignments in Online EducationOnline learning has certainly earned its place as a valuable option for individuals who wish to continue their education. However, it is the individual, versus the group, concept of online learning that has permeated people’s view of what it is to take classes online. It is true that much of the learning process online takes place through the student completing individual activities and assignments, and the option for group activities is sometimes overlooked or unwanted by the student. The value that group activities can bring to the learning process should be considered by faculty in providing students the opportunity to engage more within the virtual classroom and develop valuable team building skills through working with their peers.
I Work Best Alone
Over the years of teaching online, it has been common to hear students make comments about their preference to work alone. In fact, students complained about group work in traditional classes long before online learning became an option. It seems likely many students who begin online learning do so with the expectation that assignments will be individual in nature unlike what they may have experienced in elementary or high school.
Adding group assignments into a course design, faculty should consider how it benefits the students more than an individual assignment. For example, a group assignment in an organizational development course might be beneficial to the students’ growth more so than it would be in a literature course. In other words, the objective should not be to just add group assignments for the sake of doing so, but instead when the outcomes are best achieved as a team. The addition of group work should ultimately be done to challenge and benefit the students’ learning and growth.
Positive Aspects of Group Assignments
The objective of incorporating group assignments into an online class is ultimately up to the professor or course designer. When done properly, group work should be used to prepare students for the type of challenges or work they may face in their professional career. Individual assignments are generally considered acceptable by students, but group work does not always come with the same level of acceptance. The truth for students to understand in group work is that they need a variety of skills which allow them to learn and work effectively in groups (Weimer, 2010). Learning how to work in groups, even in an online setting, can benefit the student through the practice and process of working with others to accomplish a goal.
It is fair to assume that future graduates will have to work in group settings at some point in their professional career. For this reason, group work must not be overlooked in online course design. Group work is considered a staple of traditional class activities, but may at times be overlooked in online courses due to various reasons. Learning to interact with others, discuss various topics, and complete activities are just some for the ways that students can grow through this type of work. Regardless of the forum, the key objective is to challenge students through course work designed to prepare them for their next journey.
Effective communication and teamwork are some of the most rewarding aspects of group assignments. These translate well to online learning, as students are connected virtually on a daily basis though not usually in a way that requires objectives to be met. Online activities can come with a level of isolation, so learning to work with others, complete tasks, and achieve a common goal are all valuable parts of education. On the other hand, group work does raise some challenges for the professor to consider in determining how to incorporate it into the course.
Challenges to Group Assignments
Group assignments can raise challenges within the classroom that should be noted and considered. Taking note of potential challenges will allow for a proper educational response when complaints from students arise. One potential challenge is that the time students must invest in an assignment can be greatly increased with a group project. The need to coordinate responsibilities, consolidate work, and even manage communication can make a group assignment exponentially more difficult to complete than an individual assignment. Communication among the team members is often one of the key time constraints and struggles students experience in the coordination of completing the required work.
Another factor to consider is that group assignments do not always correlate to equal work among team members. Each member will have responsibilities, such as a project leader and scribe, however these assignment do not mean they will each complete the same amount of work or uphold their role in the team. It is not uncommon for some members of the group to rely on the work ethic and determination of others to make sure the assignment is completed on time. This deference can obviously lead to strain among the group members, especially when the students remain connected throughout the length of the course.
Making the decision whether to incorporate peer evaluations or assessments is not always an easy decision. There can be positive and negative aspects depending on how they are utilized or designed. When used, peer assessments must be designed with clear expectations and parameters to ensure that students see the value in providing honest feedback about their team. Including a grading component into the assessment can also motivate students to participate and may encourage involvement in the group work (Michaelsen, 1992). The instructor may also choose to merely use the assessments as a way to track group progress and individual contributions.
It should be noted that students may not always be receptive to the use of peer evaluations. Some may not want to be honest about their peer’s performance while others truly want to hold their peers accountable. Additionally, there could be conflict developed as a result of assessments negatively impacting grades or there being obvious tension among team members. In the end, the assessment should be evaluated based on how it either benefits or hinders the learning process. It may be necessary to adjust the performance measures within an assessment depending on the outcomes achieved or desired.
Putting it all together
Students may not always understand why group assignments are useful to the online learning experience. Therefore, it is important as faculty for there to be clear about learning outcomes and objectives in the course design. Likewise, when concerns from students do arise regarding group work, there can be great value in not shying away from how the challenges foster the learning within the course. Sometimes the difficulties and obstacles faced can provide the greatest opportunities for learning and becoming a stronger student. Finally, there is value to be had for each student through the varying types of experiences they encounter individually and as a group.
Written by Christopher Summerlin, PhD, Adjunct Faculty
Michaelsen, L. K. “Team Learning: A Comprehensive Approach for Harnessing the Power of Small Groups in Higher Education.” To Improve the Academy, 1992, 11, 107–122.
Weimer, M. (2010). Working alone and together. Faculty Focus. Magna Publications.