Professors at the University of Iowa learning the ropes of group work

Studies proving that there are methods behind group work

IOWA CITY – Students attending the University of Iowa can look forward to better informed professors who want to assign group work.

Dr. Alison Bianchi, director of the Center for the Study of Group Processes, is working  to educate other professors on how to put groups together to maximize learning. Bianchi said, professors outside of the sociology department aren’t informed that there is method behind group work.

“Groups aren’t magic,” Bianchi said.

It is unreasonable to think throwing a group together at random will be the best environment for students to learn. Students haven’t been taught how to be good group members because most work through high school is based on individual skill, Bianchi said.

There are methods to ensure everyone in the group has input. Assigning roles such as manager, reporter and skeptic can help a group tremendously. It at least gives a group a starting point.

Karlie Seiler, a sophomore majoring in pre-pharmacy, liked the idea of roles in a group as she usually has problems with people not pulling their weight.

It was a quick “Yes, there is more structure and people know what their role is,” Seiler said.

If students are unsure of their role, work won’t get done in a timely manner.

To learn more about Dr. Alison Bianchi’s study of how roles can work in a group setting and a more in depth take on group work, listen below.

With any kind of group work informal hierarchies form. There are students with high and low status within that group. Bianchi wanted to make sure these statuses are perceptions, not reality. Just because a student doesn’t feel like they can speak up in one group doesn’t mean they are low status.

Group work becomes a detriment to students who feel low status in a group. Ultimately it becomes troublesome to the entire group, because that low status student may have something valuable to say.

Sophomore Molly Braasch, majoring in business, has had good experiences in groups but expressed her concerns with the hierarchy that forms.

“Someone will say something that differs from you, and you don’t want to say anything because you think you’re wrong,” Braasch said.

This situation is at one end of the spectrum. Here Braasch would fall into the low status for the particular group where she experienced this as defined by Bianchi. But it can go the other way. Students who perceive themselves as high status may think those who don’t speak up don’t want to contribute.

Charlie Boyle, a freshman who is an open major, said one of the biggest struggles with group work is when “a person doesn’t care.” Although he has had mostly good experiences with group work, he sees this even in good groups.

It may be that person doesn’t care, but with Bianchi’s philosophy it could be that person doesn’t feel like they can speak up because in that group dynamic they feel low status.

Although everyone has different personalities, it is important to remember it isn’t an individual project. It should be stressed that everyone has input. Equal opportunity is important in group work because that hierarchy cannot form, Bianchi said.

This idea of equal opportunity presents itself in groups as Scott Hartzell, a sophomore majoring in finance, has experienced. Although most of his group work has been good, there is one lingering issue.

“Sharing the work load is tough,” Hartzell said.

As someone who seems to be high status in group work, Hartzell struggles to make sure everyone has an opportunity because his priority is completing the task. For example, someone who is perceived to be low status could be the person who doesn’t have the chance to have input on anything that goes on within the group.

Evaluating whether students learn better individually than in a group is tough to do. It seems to come down to the student and his or her experiences.

Miranda Kerian, a junior majoring in nursing, has a blend of thoughts to whether or not she learns better in a group or individually, as most of her group work experience has been bad.

“A mix of both, I like to learn things on my own to get a foundation, then finish things off in a group to apply what I know,” Kerian said.

Studies prove that students learn better from each other, Bianchi said. But within that group, students have to be willing and able to work together. She has seen it many times where that isn’t the case.

Bianchi said “Two heads are better than one, except when those two heads don’t get along with each other, then it’s not so hot.”

As group work continues to be studied, the word will spread that it isn’t always easy but it can be dealt with in the proper structures and students knowing what it takes to be a good group member.

Bianchi said, “Students feel empowered when they learn from each other.”