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Developing the Group’s Potential

Group work

It is important to keep in mind that participants have to find their role in the group and learn to work together before they will be able to successfully take on major tasks. Group work is the main method for promoting this development because it takes the focus away from the trainer and develops a team in which participants can contribute with their knowledge and experience.

In reality getting participants to effectively engage in group work is often not so easy. Everybody has experienced unsuccessful group work. Especially in the beginning of the teaching process trainers often face a situation in which participants react negatively towards group tasks and the envisaged results are not achieved. The prospect of working in groups can raise doubts and anxieties in the participants that are similar to those experienced at the beginning of the course (See “Getting things going”). The difference is that in the meantime the participants have already found their place in the group, have gotten to know their colleagues, know what to expect from the trainer, and have adapted to the situation – the result is a “consumer mentality”, where they are prepared to follow the course but do not want to leave their newly gained comfort zone. On this background the trainer’s request to work in groups is perceived as a threat to the established order, which again raises doubts and more questions: “Who else will be in my group?” “How should I present myself in the group?” “Why do we have to do this?” “Wouldn’t our time be better spent continuing to listen to the trainer?”

The trainer also often feels anxious about inviting participants to work in groups: “Will they be motivated to work actively?” “What to do if they deviate from the topic?” “Will they keep to the given time frame?” “What to do with participants who don’t participate?” “Maybe it would be better if I stay in control and continue guiding the participants through the content?”

The more the trainer himself/herself doubts the given task, the greater the chances that it will indeed be unsuccessful. Previous negative experiences with group work can decrease a person’s belief in the benefits of this method. Therefore the trainer should be prepared for a situation in which the learners will not receive the invitation to work in groups with enthusiasm. For group work to succeed, it must be carefully prepared. Group work requires trust in the participants and flexibility towards the process and results.

Effective group work – step by step

1. Defining the task

Both the trainer and the participants need to have a clear understanding of why a task has to be carried out. If the feeling arises that group work is being done just for the sake of group work, it will rightly create dissatisfaction. The task should be relevant to the learners, challenging and thought-provoking, and offer the opportunity for sharing experiences. Group work is unlikely to have a positive effect if the task’s relation to the course is unclear, it only asks for the repetition of known content, or the learners get the feeling that the trainer already knows the “right” answer and their efforts will not adequately valued.

2. Presenting the task

People tend to overhear and misunderstand instructions. Therefore, instructions should be given before participants split into their groups, else it will be difficult to get their attention again. Aural instructions should be complemented with written information, e.g. by writing it down on the blackboard or providing the task as a handout. Participants should get a clear idea of what is expected from them and how they will present their results.

The trainer has to ensure that the groups have adequate working conditions, e.g. enough distance between working groups so they do not interfere with each other, required resources are available, etc.

In order to ensure that the participants’ doubts do not transform into open resistance against the task: Be definite when presenting the task, do not give room for alternatives. If the invitation is phrased as an offer to the participants, e.g. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we continue now with work in groups?”, it will create hope in the participants that there might be a way to avoid it and they might start revolting. Later in the process, when the group has become used to collaborative work, there is less resistance and more motivation for working in groups. To summarise: The less experienced the group, the more decisive the trainer’s instructions should be.

3. Dividing participants into groups

There are a number of ways of dividing participants into groups: randomly, based on common interests, based on sympathies, or based on a trainer’s plan. Using a random selection approach, e.g. counting or picking playing cards, ensures that participants will familiarise with each other and that nobody is left aside. Selecting group members based on common interests, e.g. similar background or similar aims, will make the process more purposeful and increase motivation. If participants create groups on their own, the result will be a positive atmosphere but this method can result in less popular participants being left out. If the trainer takes responsibility for the group division, e.g. in order to ensure an equal distribution of participants with leadership skills or knowledge of the topic, this is likely to deliver good results, however it requires good knowledge of the group and can be a time-consuming process.

4. Making the group work more effective

Group work will be more effective if the learners have spent some time individually familiarising themselves with the task, e.g. reflected on what they know about the given issue, what is their attitude towards it, what could be their contributions towards the task at hand or what ideas they have for solving the given problem.

For the group work to follow a structured and purposeful process, the trainer should offer a framework, e.g. using a teaching method that provides a guideline for the work such as “”Moderation cards””. To promote thinking outside the box and foster the involvement of persons who usually remain silent and let others do the talking, the inclusion of non-verbal elements is beneficial, e.g. asking for the results to be presented as a drawing or a charade.

The trainer needs to be prepared to support the groups during the group work, e.g. by clarifying the task, bringing groups that have deviated back on track, and providing the groups with required resources.

5. Presentation of results

This step often proves to be more time consuming than expected. It is important to demonstrate fairness towards all groups and ensure that all are treated equally. The trainer should show respect and be be open-minded towards the results, even if they are not what he/she expected. Where applicable, results should be documented and used in the upcoming teaching process, e.g. by writing down the main findings on flip charts.

The trainer as a facilitator of group work

Adult learners have a high level of knowledge and experience, which can become a substantial resource during a course. For this to happen the trainer has to step back from teaching and give the participants room to reflect on their own experience and introduce it to the group.

Tasks of a facilitator

  • Prepares a structure for work and ensures the availability of all needed materials and equipment.
  • Offers tools and methods in order to structure and guide the process; the participants are responsible for the content.
  • Observes the group dynamics, fosters a positive atmosphere in order to ease communication, interaction, and participation.
  • Is neutral and dedicated in order to promote group activity and cohesiveness.
  • Makes the process transparent (visualisation) and offers rules when needed.
  • Avoids a leadership role; a facilitator does not express his/her opinion or criticise because it is human nature to place more value on what is said by a leader than by fellow participants.

This work by Toms Urdze is licensed under
CC BY-SA 4.0