Collaborative group work is a common component of many classes across the curriculum. All of the information that is shared in this section is representative of processes that should take place with any group project assignment, however it is specifically adjusted to focus on the necessity of asynchronous work when students are working together at a distance. As a first step a faculty member should be able to answer each of these questions before assigning a group project to their class:
- What learning goal is the collaborative work addressing? Ensure this learning goals is represented in your assessment criteria.
- How will you assess the group’s work?
- How are you going to teach, support and mentor students through group work?
If you are not sure how to answer question #3 – good news! That’s what we’ll cover in this section. If you are stumped on questions 1 & 2 this might be a sign that you should re-think the assignment and determine whether it truly needs to be a group project, or if you could address the same learning goals by transitioning the project to an independent one.
Before students can work together effectively, they need to understand the way that they work and the implications that process will have on a group project. This can be done relatively easily by assigning a self-assessment to students. Here is an example.
This work can be used as a foundation for developing agreements within the group. In an asynchronous format student could share their self-assessments in a shared drive or document so that they can all learn a little bit about each other before they begin working together. You could also ask students to share a video or audio narrative of their assessment with their group as a way of helping them to get to know each other as more than text on a screen.
Being able to provide a default communication channel option to groups of students is a great first step in helping them to develop as a team. Keep in mind that some tools – like Google Docs, are not easily accessible in all countries. Be sure that you recommend students test out different solutions with the full group before settling on any.
As a way of testing out their communication tools, it’s a great practice to require groups to come up with a team agreement where they can establish norms for how their group will communicate what info and how quickly members should expect a response. It will be important for them to consider what information is communicated best via text vs. in person in a video or phone call. Consider how easy it is to misinterpret tone in an email and how that can foster miscommunication. How will the team work to mitigate this?
When working remotely it is very easy to feel alone. It’s important for students to know this and find ways to proactively address it within the group from the start. One way to combat this as a team is for team members to actively reach out to each other throughout the week to check in, ask questions and share progress. When in doubt – over communicate! It’s easy to feel like “no one needs or wants to know this” but ask yourself how often you have been annoyed by someone sharing information with you about a project that you are working on? Work against the assumption that you are “bothering” someone and towards the idea that you are “connecting” with someone.
Collaborative documentation can take the place of synchronous meetings, however it is important to mirror many of the processes that would occur in a meeting, within the documentation. Comments in the margins can mimic the in meeting chatter to clarify ideas, ask questions, etc. Be sure to leave space for questions and challenges to assumptions and welcome them into the conversation. Questions and challenges are potential for growth!
An “Action Items” section at the end of notes can be used to summarize what was decided and action steps that need to be taken along with who will take them.
Guide students through considering how you will organize your asynchronous work to ensure that everyone stays on the same page and everyone can find information quickly. Documentation can also be a good way to clear up confusions, as not all team members may remember an outcome the same way you do. Having it written down makes that confusion concrete and gives teams the opportunity to address it.
Set your students up for success by requiring them to create collaboration plans. The communication plan discussed in the previous sub-section should play a big part in this process. It’s really important for remote teams to set expectations and consistent guidelines for how they will work. You can consider this the blueprint for your students’ work moving forward. Without it – it’s very easy to get off track as there is no foundation to return to if the work is not going well. Make it clear that as a group it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that all voices are heard. Group members should actively work to ensure that all members of the group have time to share their ideas and questions. Specifically point out that this means that students who like to participate actively should be sure to take on the responsibility to be sure to draw others into the conversation. Conversely, group members who tend to like to listen more and document work, will now need to ensure that they share their thoughts frequently.
Encourage the group to check in frequently with each other to be sure that technology is working well for all members of a group. If someone is experiencing difficulty, work together as a group to come up with solutions for what you might do to ensure the experience is better for all group members. If you are not sure how to solve a problem – check in with DLINQ, we’d be happy to offer some suggestions!
At any point in time different team members can be impacted by a variety of events, challenges, etc. in their life. It’s important to address this with students before they run into this issue so they know how to be on the lookout for issues, and what to do to address them. Being mindful, observant and kind are all valuable skills regardless of the location of any team that we work on. Life events can significantly impact our ability to show up as fully engaged team members. Remind students to be careful about making assumptions about a team member’s behavior, as you never know what is going on in their life at any point in time. Over time groups will develop trust that will enable them to be more upfront about impacts on their work. Clarify to students that this doesn’t mean everyone needs to share details about their personal life, but it can mean that you feel comfortable telling your group members when something else is on your mind and you are not quite up to the task today. It’s important for all team members to be aware of when they are making assumptions about others’ behavior, and consider that they might not know the whole story. This is a good time to point out that you are a support that is available to students. If students feel something is off with a team member and they don’t feel comfortable reaching out to them, checking in with you may be a good first step.
The last piece of advice that we have here can be a tough one, but it’s critical. Remind your students of the importance of assuming positive intent, and model this in your interactions with students. Working remotely is challenging and it is so easy to misinterpret cues, behavior and language. Trying to reframe your conversations by starting at a place of positive intent can truly improve the connection and trust between team members. It’s not easy work, but when done well it can be a transformative experience and certainly one that students will use again and again in their future.
- Some Tips for How to Work Collaboratively Online – blog post about the project that initially inspired these resources by DLINQ instructional designer Heather Stafford
- 8 Ways to Improve Group Work Online by Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis
- Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively – from Vanderbilt University
- Assessing Group Work – from UNSW Sydney
- Reflective Listening – from UNSW Sydney
- Five Steps to Improving Online Group Work Assignments – from Faculty Focus
- Tips for When Group Projects Aren’t Working – from the Eberly Center Carnegie Mellon
- Assessing Group Work – from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon
- Project Based Learning for Online Spaces – from the Instructional Design team at WPI
- Self & Peer Evaluation of Group Work Contributions for Research Papers and Oral Presentations – from California State University, Northridge