It can be surprising to laypeople, those outside of education, that adults can have behavioral problems in the classroom.
There is, however, a generic “student” behavior that even adults revert to when in the student role: procrastinating, lateness, difficulty with following directions, and so forth. Another undesirable student behavior is talking, or inappropriate talking, in the classroom. Students can, often enough, converse intelligently on course content such as the analysis of an essay, even using subject-specific terms such as “transition” and “analysis,” for example. However, there is sometimes the sneaking suspicion among teachers that the moment the instructor has stepped away from the group, the discussion reverts to Saturday’s party. While this may just be paranoia, there are still some safeguards against off-topic talking the instructor can take.
Acknowledge 6 Problems with Group Discussion
Lack of Direction
A major cause of poor and off-task group discussions is the lack of or vague directions in the discussion. If students are just told to “get into groups and discuss the reading,” this leaves the novice student floundering with a number of questions: what kind of group and how big? What aspects of the assignment do we discuss? How do we discuss it? These are all points that the instructor should make explicit in setting up the discussion groups, or the discussion will almost certainly flounder and fail.
Student inexperience in academic discussion, alluded to above, is another major concern in the failing group discussion. New college students in all likelihood don’t know the difference between an academic discussion and a casual conversation, and therefore, not surprisingly, if students are just told “discuss the reading,” then they will use the discussion style they know. Training needs to be provided in what an academic discussion is: its rules, conventions, and values of respect for other viewpoints directed toward advancing the discussion toward some common insight.
Poor Group Dynamics
Poor group dynamics are another major concern with group work. It isn’t surprising that students often want to choose their own discussion partners as students can have extreme differences and clashes in cultures and personality styles. Learning to get along with others of different backgrounds is, of course, a major objective of a discussion course and of education itself, but again, students need guidance in how to do this, to remain unemotional and respectful of other perspectives that can evoke a very emotional response, to actively listen and engage with each other, and to not engage in ad hominem attacks. They should not be just thrown into groups and told to “get along.”
Lack of Motivation/Different Learning Style
Some students have a learning style that creates barriers to participating in groups. In fact, given the amount of emphasis typically placed on individual endeavor in school, possibly most students who go on to college actually prefer working by themselves. This does not mean, of course, that students should not be asked to work with others occasionally or even often, but the barriers created by preferred learning style have to be recognized.
Lack of Preparation
Often, of course, poor group discussions are the result not of teacher lack of preparation and setting up the task appropriately but lack of preparation on the part of the students. Half of the class or more sometimes come to class without having done the required reading for the group discussion. Therefore, predictably, when they are supposed to be discussing the reading, they are back to discussing weekend plans or covertly—they think—doing the reading on their tablets under the desk.
Lack of Student Accountability
A final major problem to group discussion is lack of accountability. Who gets a better grade in group discussion—the student who prepared diligently, read the work, took notes on points to raise in discussion, then actually addresses those points to advance the discussion and encourages his peers to do so? Or is the student who didn’t do the reading at home, struggles to catch up in class, and responds in the discussion with grunts or “I don’t know”? Often, truthfully, there is no difference in the grade; it is a group grade. Individual effort should be recognized and rewarded for fairness and an incentive for preparing for class.
There are a number of reasons group discussions flounder and fail. But there are also methods to prevent the wandering and pointless group discussion, which follow. Through careful preparation and training, the instructor can keep control of the class and the discussion while teaching students important values and skills related to academic discourse.
Use 5 Methods to Address Concerns with Group Discussion
As mentioned, students often come to college with little or no experience of working in groups or engaging in academic discussion. Education has to be provided by the teacher on both skills through lecture, handouts, and if possible videotaped model discussions from past classes or from online. Students should be taught explicit skills on how to raise a new point, how to counter another student’s point, how to extend a previously raised point with an example, and how to encourage other students to provide further examples or elaboration of their comments. Students need also to be trained in the skills of courteous discourse of actively listening, gently encouraging quieter peers to join in, and requesting of the more verbose to let others speak. All of these are complex skills that are developed over time and with practice. However, students at least need to be made aware of conversational strategies before jumping into a discussion that will not disintegrate into either party plans or a shouting match.
The instructor should at least initially plan the groups. Some instructors plan groups by balancing gender and language background, for example, but I find it more helpful to set up a group by personality style—spreading the natural “leaders” throughout the groups instead of in just one, making sure there is at least one more talkative student per group, and so forth. Later, as students get more skilled in discussion, they can set up their own groups or the instructor can simply count off the groups with all “number 4s” sitting together, etc.
Provide a Focus
The groups also should have focus or goal. Oftentimes just covering a set of discussion questions is not enough. Rather have students engage higher thinking skills by solving a problem, completing a task, or creating something new: for example, if students have been discussing the issue same-sex marriage, they could in their groups draft a statement of what shall constitute “marriage.”
Consider Individual Learning Style
As mentioned, a number of students work best alone. This should be taken into consideration and options for working alone sometimes provided, with students also being offered the choice to work in groups if desired. If this option is presented later in the semester after students are already acquainted with and have practiced working in groups, they often are eager to choose the option of working together, and few students opt to “sit out. Because the students themselves have chosen to work together, they are more committed to the success of the group.
Hold Students Accountable and Offer Incentives
Finally, students should be recognized and rewarded for effective group participation and held accountable for it. In the example above, students who choose to work together should be given extra credit for so doing to deliver a message about the value of group work. Students who take the trouble to prepare for group discussion by doing the reading and then actively participate should earn higher grades than those who did not make this effort. A rubric regarding the grading of group discussion should be introduced at the beginning of the term to acquaint students to the standards and expectations of class discussion.
Setting up an effective group discussion is more complex than handing out a list of questions and telling students to “work together.” Rather, strong group discussions are the end result of careful planning, effective training, and clearly articulated grading standards. However, by following these steps, group discussion is much less likely to disintegrate into ramblings about the weekend.