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Group work in higher education

Group work in higher education

By: Debra A. Hrelic, PhD, RN-C

Make it work for you.

In healthcare, you need not look long or hard to see teamwork in action. Many hospital units run like well-oiled machines under the attention of interprofessional patient care teams (physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, dieticians, social workers, and others) who meet regularly to discuss, plan, and implement patient care. This approach takes advantage of individual team member skills and abilities to support productivity and meet individualized care goals.  

Within higher education, group or team projects facilitate academic knowledge and provide opportunities for students to build cooperation and collaboration skills. According to Riebe and colleagues, employers want universities to do more to prepare students to work in environments that require collaboration.  

Class assignments, the use of appropriate tools (such as wikis, discussion boards, Zoom, Skype) and group-building exercises can help students create and complete successful collaborative projects. What little literature available on the topic of group work suggests that, in most cases, the group process benefits from allowing students to choose who they want to work with. Of course, at the beginning of a semester or class when students might not yet know each other, faculty should assign group projects to give everyone time to settle in and build connections.

Benefits of group work  

Collaborative learning and working toward a common goal effectively transfers nursing knowledge and reinforces skills important to both group and individual work. Complex tasks can be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts, which individual members can then tackle. Group members can refine, discuss, and explain difficult-to-understand concepts. Students can practice presentations and receive feedback for refinement and adaptation. Members can challenge one another’s assumptions, and develop stronger and more confident communication skills.  

According to Dionne and colleagues, teamwork and group projects also help students develop skills specific to their collaborative efforts. In a group situation, students frequently solve more complex problems than they would on their own, which provides them with additional learning opportunities. Within groups, students may take on leadership roles, delegating and shouldering responsibilities. Group work also presents a forum for sharing different perspectives. When approached with an open mind, this opportunity can foster personal growth and pool knowledge and skills. 

Members of the group will need to hold one another accountable to timelines and for assigned work. The group provides a social support system in which individuals can develop new approaches to resolving differences and difficulties while expanding critical thinking skills. The benefits of group work can be significant for students, but not all students have meaningful teamwork and collaboration in mind when they join a group. (See Overcoming group work hurdles. 

Steps for group success  

Whether in school or on the job, learning how to master group interactions can help ensure project success.  

Start your group project on a positive note. If possible, get to know one another. Whether face-to-face or online, make the time to meet and break the ice. If you’re all in the same area, try to hold this meeting in person. If not, use an online video platform, such as Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams.  

Identify a group Leader. Designate someone as a group leader who can oversee the whole project and help motivate group members to complete their goals. The group leader should project a positive energy and a willingness to listen. These attributes, along with clarity, consistency, and honesty in communication—all necessary in a group leader—build trust. This person tracks group progress toward the end goal and updates the group on achieve­ment along the way. This complex role can make or break relationships within the group. The group leader also can act as a liaison with course faculty, communicating issues and asking questions.  

Ideally, someone will volunteer for this position. If more than one person volunteers, hold a vote. If nobody volunteers, consider volunteering yourself. This prime opportunity enables you to apply your leadership skills and serves you well in your nursing career. Other roles that may aid the group include a scribe (note-taker and consolidator of shared documents), facilitator (brainstorming and problem solving), and liaison (if the group leader doesn’t serve in this role, requests assistance from or contacts external sources). 

Expectations must be clear and transparent to all group members. Establish group goals early in the process. Decide as a group who will complete which task and create a timeline for each. To avoid misunderstandings, each group member must acknowledge expectations (roles, rules, responsibilities, timelines, and decisions).  

Be honest. Every group member must be honest about their ability to complete assigned tasks. Ideally, each member receives a task that matches their skills and strengths. Any member who doesn’t feel capable of completing a task should speak up rather than put the team at risk of not meeting goals or missing deadlines. 

Stick to deadlines. Each task set by the team should have a realistic timeline that ultimately allows the group to complete the project as assigned. Consider setting mini-deadlines throughout the project to keep the group on task.  

Meet regularly. Frequent in-person and online check-ins with group members facilitate accountability and encourage members to complete individual tasks. They also provide the rest of the team with an opportunity to offer help or re-direction as needed. In virtual classrooms, students can connect and meet using discussion boards, wikis, emails, and other platforms. 

Practice respect. Whether face-to-face or online and whether you agree or disagree with a point of view, show your fellow team members respect. Communicating via email or chat can be challenging because you can’t see facial expressions or hear voice tone and inflection. If you must meet remotely, try to use an online video platform. 

Celebrate. When your project is complete, recognize everyone for a job well done. Reflect on what went well during the experience and what might benefit from improvement. Taking time to look back will help you plan for your next group project, which may be right around the corner.   

Make groups work    

Group work helps students apply knowledge, develop problem-solving ability, and improve communication and critical thinking skills to implement on the job. However, putting individuals together for group work doesn’t make them a team. Teamwork requires effort, placing the right members in the right roles, and following essential rules for success. You may approach group work with a negative attitude because of unpleasant past experiences. However, when you follow a few simple rules, you can make group work work for you.   

Debra A. Hrelic is the RN-BSN program academic coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. 


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