Assign students into groups, rather than ask them to choose a group

Several JMU students who were interviewed for this project indicated their preference to have professors assign them to groups, rather than ask them to self-select into a group. (See Video) In addition, it is often observed that students from the same country “clump” together in classes and that if asked to form their own groups, students tend to choose to work with people that they know or who appear most similar to them.  Couple this with the research that indicates that multi-cultural work groups are more effective than mono-cultural groups (Sweeney, 2008). In addition, as society becomes more and more global, we are doing our students a disservice if we do not take every educational opportunity to prepare them for a world which will certainly include the need to collaborate with others from various cultures.  Thus, it is recommended that professors create groups which are diverse in cultural background, while taking into account strengths and challenges of each student. 

Provide opportunities for small projects/in-class group work prior to setting the groups free to conduct a larger project
  • Providing short-term projects for an in-class assignment allows the groups to begin to assess strengths of each participant and to build trust with each other.  It also allows the professor to observe difficulties that may arise and to address those issues at the front end.  For instance, if one person in the group seems to be uninvolved in the discussion and outcome, it may be appropriate to have a discussion with that student to find out what is holding him/her back.  If the problem seems to be overall group dynamics, the professor may want to meet with that group separately to address this before they begin to tackle the larger project. 
  • Often, English language learners may not be used to the pace of U.S. conversations and may not know how to interject a thought or idea without having time to form their English responses. Students with the U.S. cultural expectation for turn taking may perceive this lack of interjection to indicate disinterest or lack of competence.  Both JMU’s English Language Learner Services  and the Communication Center  assist with developing small-group communication skills for students interested in learning the best practices for demonstrating engagement and building credibility.

Set ground rules for group work

Some professors may want to provide their own list of rules for group work, which might include active listening skills, decision making options, mutual respect, etc.  Other professors may want to give this task to each group to develop their own ground rules.  Either way, this should be completed before the group begins work on the project, and each group should be expected to demonstrate that they followed the rules.   This is especially important when groups are made up of people from different cultures, where “mutual respect” may mean different things and where “group work” has numerous meanings. 

Provide clear expectations for group work

Is it important that all students participate in an oral presentation of their end product? Is it important for the group to demonstrate equal participation? Are all students expected to provide their own notes to show the work they conducted?  Is the group expected to meet on a weekly basis to collaborate on their project, or is it acceptable for them to produce separate work that they pull together in one final meeting?  For the sake of all group members, all requirements should be explicitly stated in writing at the outset of the project.    

Consider giving an incentive for inclusion of a global theme in the project

It may be difficult for students to understand and accept the advantages of having a culturally different person in their work group (Sweeney, 2008).  Including a global theme in the project is one way that a person from another country might be able to provide an advantage to the overall group work.  The intention is not to convey that an international student can only contribute to the group work if a global outcome is included but rather that the inclusion of a global theme is one way of reinforcing the fact that the students will be working in a global society and understanding a problem from a different cultural viewpoint is important to the learning outcomes.  

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