The old adage, "Many hands make light work," remains as relevant today as it did centuries ago. The fact is, large tasks become far smaller when divided among a group of people -- regardless of what the job or goal at hand might be.
This concept consistently proves itself in classrooms and workplaces all over the country as groups of students collaborate to accomplish a task or come up with the next big idea. However, the benefits of group work aren't limited to faster completion and the convenience of more hands on the wheel. Online group projects also benefit the individual immensely by exposing them to unique perspectives and teaching them to rely on others to achieve a common goal.
The benefits of knowing how to work in small groups can also extend beyond higher education and well into the working environment. After all, the world beyond graduation is filled with opportunities to work with others, including co-workers, teammates and clients. Participating in online group work in an educational setting can be an effective way for students to prepare for those situations. Furthermore, a growing body of research suggests group work may be far more beneficial than educators and students realized previously.
How students benefit from working together
A recent study conducted by the Institute of Education at London University involving 4,000 students between ages 5 and 14 found that children performed and behaved well while working in small groups. In fact, after observing the students, researchers noticed that they were not only accomplishing the goals at hand, but focusing intently and participating in greater amounts of thoughtful discussion with their group partners. These findings led researchers to suggest teachers should focus more on group work and transition into a supervisory role.
"Group work serves the learning needs of pupils," Ed Baines, one of the project's researchers, told the Guardian. "What teachers should do is encourage pupils to get over their personal difficulties. Teachers shouldn't dominate a group but support it."
An article from the University of Arkansas, "Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams," also backs up the claim that student benefit from group work by asserting that those who work in small groups learn more of what is taught and retain it longer when compared to those who learn in a teacher-led environment. According to the University of Arkansas piece, , students who work in groups also appear to be more satisfied with their classes while simultaneously gaining valuable skills.
Those skills can include anything from conflict resolution to appreciation for the contributions of others, the University of Arkansas piece stated, but the advantages of group work don't stop there. Additional research from Stanford University suggests that the benefits of group work may also include, "increased participation by students in all components of the course, better understanding and retention of material, mastery of skills essential to success in the course or in a career, and increased enthusiasm for self-directed learning -- the kind of enthusiasm that can spur students on to independent research or honors projects."
In other words, properly constructed group work might be enough to encourage students to pursue an advanced degree or achieve more than they might have otherwise. Who can argue with that?
Best practices: collaborative learning and online group projects
It's not uncommon for students to gripe when confronted with the prospect of group work. Research shows, however, that online group projects or in-person collaborative learning stands a better chance of success when certain boundaries are set. For example, students and teachers benefit when group work is carefully thought-out and explained to students ahead of time. Simply put- the more details, the better. It's also crucial for students to ask questions and take the initiative to clear up any misunderstandings ahead of time.
Some other tips for teachers and students experimenting with group work in the classroom, according to the University of Arkansas:
- Learn how to succeed or fail together: Research shows that tying potential rewards to the performance of the group -- and not the individual -- can be a powerful motivator for students. That's why University of Arkansas suggests group work that promotes interdependence; it can help students learn how to motivate and encourage one another for the common good.
- Find a purpose in the group work at hand: Although group work might be seen as a necessary evil in some cases, it's important to understand its importance in the context of course objectives. Take time to understand how the project relates to the topic at hand and try not to dismiss group assignments as "busy work."
- Ensure fairness: Experts suggest it's wise to create group work with some underlying system to ensure a fair division of labor. Nothing can sour a student on group work more than doing far more than their share.
- Develop your listening skills: Since some students have never been forced to work with others in a group environment, listening skills and overall tolerance of other viewpoints may be limited. Use the opportunity to hone listening skills and work on managing personality conflicts.
Love it or hate it, online study groups and in-person collaborative learning are here to stay. After all, it's almost impossible for students to learn how to work and operate in a group without experiencing the difference firsthand. Eye rolls and grumbles aside, group work continues to be an effective educational tool for teachers and students alike.
Interested in learning more? Develop your collaboration skills at a school near you, or enroll in an online degree program. You can start the process by searching for career college programs by degree, certificate, or subject/major.
"Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams," University of Arkansas, July 29, 2014, http://tfsc.uark.edu/193.php
"Group work benefits pupils, study finds," The Guardian, March 31, 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2006/mar/31/schools.uk2
"Cooperative Learning: Students Working in Small Groups," Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, Winter 1999, http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/cooperative.pdf