This article describes the application of facilitator-led group conversations which provide a structure to address common scenarios that arise in group projects that inhibit effective group work. The article specifically focuses on the following common scenarios of group work: forming groups based solely on interests, merging initial brainstorming ideas into one overly complex idea, avoiding volunteering for tasks, and inaccurately interpreting the complexity of the work completed by other groups.
Group projects are common in university settings as a way to approach teaching and learning. Group projects for university students may be as short as a team assignment or may last through the duration of the semester. However, group work is not limited to only the classroom setting. Industry work also commonly involves group work or group projects. Thus, learning how to function well in a group is a valuable skill to use both within the classroom and beyond. Applying a structure to group conversations would give students a framework to equip them to lead group conversations in class projects or industry careers.
Completing a group project or doing group work nearly always includes working through conflict, issues, or roadblocks. The Tuckman model of group development outlines phases groups commonly go through: forming, storming, norming, and performing.1,2 Forming involves the creation of the group, members expressing eagerness, and discussing expectations. The storming phase includes disagreements, lack of participation, power struggles, and high emotions. Norming is the process of the group reconciling and finding functioning strategies. Finally, performing is a group with a healthy system and balance between orienting for the task and for the process. Although groups experiencing each of these phases is typical, an instructor may create structures and practices via group conversations in order to avoid common issues or resolve issues quickly and effectively. However, instructors are not aware of every group’s struggles to work effectively, especially if students do not want the dysfunction to be revealed to the instructor. Teaching assistants (TAs) may help to bridge the gap in communication. Undergraduate students tend to be more willing to communicate openly with TAs as they are perceived to be more peer-like.3
Facilitator-led group conversations (FLGCs) were implemented in a FNPS 3200/8200 Packaging Design course held M/W mornings for one hour with an additional lab held only on Mondays for two hours. The course revolved around a semester-long group project. Each group consisted of three to six people, and there were between five and eight groups in one class. All packaging science undergraduate students are required to take the 3200 course. This brief includes observations from a graduate student TA spanning three consecutive semesters. The graduate student was a TA for the first and third semesters and a student participant in the second semester. The class opened an accompanying 8200 section for graduate students to participate in the class. The graduate students were required to serve as group leaders to the students in the 3200 section of the course. This brief aims to expose and discuss ideas to address some of the common scenarios that arise in group projects that may benefit from a FLGC as observed by the graduate student TA
Description of Teaching Activity
FLGC, also known as classroom meetings, have been used by instructors at many educational levels, including elementary through higher education, to discuss the thoughts, needs, and concerns of the class members.4-6 The frequency of group conversations is either managed routinely or based upon perceived need. In the FNPS 3200/8200 Packaging Design course, FLGCs were primarily facilitated during the lab time on the day groups were established. Another session of an FLGC was added into the schedule when a need was identified such as observing not all group members sitting together while working, individuals being absent from class repeatedly, or not all group members being able to answer questions or comment about their project or recent progress.
A guide for facilitators of FLGCs and examples of questions are listed in the Appendix.
Establishing an FLGC is typically accomplished by arranging the environment for discussion. This can include groups sitting together around a table facing each other for individual project group conversations or pushing desks and tables out of the way to make one large circle for an entire class group conversation.
A facilitator for the group conversations leads the discussion by asking questions and either the same facilitator, or an assistant, asks follow-up questions and moderates the conversation. The facilitator challenges or asks questions to expound upon the statements made.7 Each student who participated in the group had a moment to comment and answer the posed question. For entire class group conversations where it is not feasible for all to be heard one-by-one, a select few may volunteer to answer the questions, or the instructor may assign breakoff conversations and then bring the class back together as a whole and ask students to share highlights from the discussions. After the discussion of the first question, the facilitator moves on to subsequent questions. Time may only permit discussion of one or two questions. Even if time permits, facilitators should avoid asking too many questions and instead should dive deeper into responses from the discussion.
A facilitated group conversation often is initiated when a problem has become evident within the groups. However, recognizing scenarios that are an issue may be difficult from an instructor’s limited perspective.7 Anticipating and recognizing common scenarios that negatively affect or inhibit effective group work allows the facilitator to schedule group conversations to address the issues before they become overbearing or halter group effectiveness.
The graduate student TA observed the following scenarios within the project groups throughout three semesters within this review period.
- forming groups based solely on interests
- merging initial brainstorming ideas into one overly complex idea
- avoiding volunteering for unfamiliar tasks
- inaccurately interpreting the complexity of the work completed by other groups
The professor was largely unaware that the students experienced these scenarios. With the perspective of the TA, the professor was able to address some of these scenarios that can inhibit effective group work.
Individuals reviewed the proposed topics for packaging design, selected one, and sat at the corresponding table dedicated for that group. Project topics ranged from foods and snacks, to pet accessories, moving supplies, and beauty products. As the groups formed, most people were complete strangers, but they did share some interest in the established project topic. Groups were given time on the first and second days of class and lab in an FLGC to share expectations for the project and group members’ cooperation.
The project consisted of each group coming up with many packaging design ideas at the beginning of the semester for the first two weeks of class and then continuing to refine and produce one of the ideas for the rest of the semester.
Group projects were completed through the division of tasks. Task assignments were determined by each group without any restrictions as to how the tasks were divided. For example, some team leaders gave assignments, some groups had members volunteer for tasks, other groups met outside of class time and worked together.
Assessing Project Difficulty
A recurring tendency among the groups was discussing their particular challenges and struggles relative to what they perceived of the other groups’ projects. The behavior of comparing was observed among various groups in the course and was not structured by an FLGC or scheduled to be addressed by one.
Discussion of Outcomes
Although some points of concern arose during the FLGC in the first week of class, there was hesitancy to address these potential issues as the groups were just forming. In the forming stage of groups, group members are more self-conscious and want to be well-perceived.8
However, throughout the semester as other issues arose, the need to resolve conflicts increased. In one instance, a classwide FLGC was implemented when a student presented an issue mid-semester to the instructor via email. During the FLGC students participated and voiced other related concerns like receiving constructive feedback or working under a potentially over-controlling manager. Some students offered their insights into how the situation might have been managed or how they managed similar situations in the past. Students commented on how they felt better after the discussion and noted improvements in the particular issue.
Although this particular issue was identified and communicated to the instructor, other issues throughout the semester were not addressed with an FLGC since the instructor was unaware of the scenarios. As the graduate student TA observed group behavior and dynamics over the three semesters, patterns in scenarios emerged and were then brought to the attention of the instructor.
Forming Groups Based Solely on Interests
During the FLGC in the first week of class, conversations revealed that there were some group members who were willing to put in the effort needed to obtain the highest grade and others who did not mind coming up a bit short. Eventually, it was noted that those who were willing to be lenient on meeting the expectations were those who later on did not fulfill intra-group assignments on time or who were less willing to make time outside of class to meet and work as a group.
The differences in willingness to participate were tolerated by group members for the first couple of months, but nearing the end of the semester, the lack of expected effort was less tolerated. Some groups took action by communicating with the instructor about their distress. Alternatively, other groups had members who completed both their assigned portion and the portion of others who did not complete their tasks.
Merging Initial Brainstorming Ideas into One Overly Complex Idea
When selecting one potential solution to pursue and refine, groups tended to try to merge many ideas, possibly trying to avoid rejecting any one individual’s ideas. One example is a group with a project to improve cheese packaging by suggesting adding a reclosing feature, recipe card, farmer’s story, pairing suggestions, and tips for a girl’s night, included on a new flavor of cheese packaged in a fully biodegradable material with composting instructions. Although combining more than one idea was not inherently detrimental to the result of the end product, over-complicating the proposed solution led to inefficiencies and confusion about the purpose of the product.
Avoiding Volunteering for Unfamiliar Tasks
Tasks where individuals lacked confidence in their ability to complete them successfully or when they had never done them before were considered unfamiliar. Group members tended to only volunteer for tasks they had done before or were confident that they could complete. Even when specifically asked to take on a particular unfamiliar task, some group members rejected the assignment and expected others to complete it instead. The group leader tended to take on the additional unaccepted unfamiliar tasks. Examples of unfamiliar tasks included contacting suppliers to get a material quote, establishing a budget, and using heat-seal packaging equipment.
Inaccurately Interpreting the Complexity of the Work Completed by Other Groups
Group members discussed other group’s projects and compared them to their own. Comments typically focused on how much easier their project would be if only it were like another group’s or how other groups did not have to work as hard to achieve the same result because their project was easier, more straightforward, or required less creativity.
Reflection of Outcomes
The instructor was unaware of many of these group scenarios during the semester. Some students admitted to avoiding bringing their concerns to the instructor because of the culture of not wanting to make others in the group look bad. In addition to cultural pressure, students recognized that since the industry of packaging is relatively small, their classmates are potential future employers and coworkers and were unwilling to risk damaging the rapport within their relationships. These concerns would be avoided with the facilitator initiating the conversation topics of anticipated issues. The open group discussion would lead to better functioning within the groups and with the facilitator.7
Forming Groups Based Solely on Interests
With group members having different expectations for quality of work and time contributed outside of class, dissatisfaction occurred amongst students. The selection of groups was focused on project topic rather than these or other team-functioning attributes.
Prior to forming groups, the instructor could initiate a classwide FLGC. The facilitator could bring up topics to consider including personal goals, skills relating to the project tasks, personality in roles, availability, or desired outcome. All of these topics were mentioned by various students after the course had completed as they looked back on their semester group project. Although other research may suggest that there is no practical difference in the average satisfaction or grade received based on various methods of group selection, averaging overall grades and satisfaction may be masking differences between groups.9
Even with an FLGC the same day as groups were formed, discussion about expectations in the group seemed easy to believe all would go well, as commonly happens in the forming stage of groups.8 But, as the weeks went on, after the initial forming stage moved into the storming stage, that is when an FLGC would have been particularly relevant to aid the students to the norming stage of group work and eventually move on to the performing stage. Three weeks into the semester course may be an ideal to address this issue. When asked, the group members who over-performed indicated that they had identified the members who would underperform within the first few weeks, but they did not bring up this concern with the instructor hoping the issue would resolve itself.
Merging Initial Brainstorming Ideas into One Overly Complex Idea
As group members avoided selecting only one idea to pursue, the idea became overly complex and difficult to implement. Students felt the difficulty of the project as the semester progressed and some regretted their selection of their idea but were too far in to dramatically pivot.
During lecture time introducing brainstorming, the instructor could outline the benefits of having a well-refined single idea rather than a good attempt at patchworking many ideas. The instructor could address the common concern of rejecting others’ ideas by explaining that idea selection is a decision among the whole group where systematic methods may help.10
An FLGC could then be held to discuss how the students feel about their selected idea and the challenges that could arise as the idea is implemented. Students could be asked to discuss in an FLGC “How do you feel about the idea-refining process?” and “How could you make this idea simpler but still solve the problem you have identified?” Groups tend to amplify the initial preference held by the majority of the group even at the expense of better ideas that follow. This phenomenon Bang and Frith label as “group polarization”.11
Avoiding Volunteering for Unfamiliar Tasks
Rather than each group member performing some of each task, complete tasks were divided amongst the group members and completed individually. This method of dividing group tasks poses a few points of concern.
One point of concern is that not all students are acquiring the skills outlined in the course objectives if they can dodge some tasks altogether. For example, just because the group completed a budgeting task does not mean that all members of the group know how to create a budget. In some settings group projects have resulted in a lack of individuals learning new skills.12
Another point of concern was the lack of willingness to volunteer for tasks which commonly left group leaders with more of the workload to complete. This phenomenon is labeled as social loafing and tends to happen more if an individual’s contribution is hard to identify from the whole.11 Since the group received one grade as a whole, rather than as individuals, it was easy for individuals to social loaf without much consequence.
An FLGC could address the scenario of students avoiding new and unfamiliar tasks. Questions might include: “What tasks seem too hard that you don’t even want to attempt them?” Then the instructor could follow up the responses with a question digging deeper: “How could you go about accomplishing a task that you are unsure how to do?” or “How could knowing how to do this task support you in your future?” For dividing tasks more fairly, a question could be posed “How might your group divide the less-desirable tasks to be equitable?”
Inaccurately Interpreting the Complexity of the Work Completed By Other Groups
The groups complaining were comparing the difficulty of what they could observe about the other groups’ projects while knowing first-hand the difficulties of their own project. Their perspectives were limited and imbalanced which tends to happen without carefully considering the other’s perspective.13 A classwide FLGC could help students see the inside perspective of the groups’ challenges. Discussion around each group’s struggles could lead to empathy and may even lead to students offering solutions after overcoming a similar hurdle.4
Discussion of Potential for Adoption in Other Courses
FLGCs aid students in group projects to move more gracefully through the phases of forming, norming, storming, and performing within a group work setting ultimately improving group dynamics.
The common scenarios that lead to ineffective group work dynamics discussed in this article will not account for all issues. However, with the help of TAs, student reviews, and instructors asking for feedback, instructors in their respective courses can observe and decide which topics to discuss during FLGCs. Discussions could be based solely on one topic or could include a few topics but should be limited to allow for dialog from many or all group members. Topics and questions should be prepared ahead of time for smooth implementation.
FLGCs could be scheduled regularly into the syllabus during some lab times or could be scheduled into some class meeting times if there is not a lab associated with the class. Either way, FLGCs should not take extensive time as outlined in the description of teaching activity section of this brief. The instructor may act as the facilitator of the FLGC, but a TA or group leader could also facilitate. A guide for facilitators of FLGCs with examples of proposed timing of FLGCs with accompanying questions are listed in the appendix. FLGCs could be adapted to operate not only in relatively small classroom sizes, but also in online classroom discussion boards or breakout rooms or large classes with many groups.
If an FLGC is not as effective as hoped upon the first attempt at implementation, there is evidence to support the quality of the discussions becoming better and students becoming more engaged in the conversation after various FLGCs.7
FLGCs aim to provide increased intelligence and sympathy while encouraging participation and empowering action.4 Implementing the practice of FLGC would provide students with a framework for managing group dynamics in projects for school and in the future workplace.
- Cresswell-Yeager T. Forming, storming, norming, and performing: using a semester-long problem-based learning project to apply small-group communication principles. Communication Teacher. 2020 Nov;35(2):155–165.
- Tuckman BW. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin. 1965;63(6):384–399.
- Dillard JB, Sadek K, Muenks K. Undergraduate perceptions of graduate teaching assistants: competence, relatedness, and autonomy in practice. Higher Education Research & Development. 2023 May:1–6.
- Boyd MP, Edmiston B. Creating democratic classroom communities with morning meeting humanizing social practices. A response to “the morning meeting: fostering a participatory democracy begins with youth in public education”. Democracy and Education. 2021;29(1):6.
- Li M, Zheng C, Tang X, Sang G. Exploring the nature of teacher-student interaction in small-group discussions in a Chinese university setting. Journal of Computers in Education. 2015 Aug;2:475–491.
- Lewis-Kipkulei P, Singleton J, Singleton T, David K. Increasing student engagement via a combined roundtable discussion and flipped classroom curriculum model in an OT and special education classroom. Cogent Education. 2021 Apr;8(1).
- Sheridan G, Drewery W. Restorative practices meet key competencies: class meetings as pedagogy. International Journal on School Disaffection. 2011 Mar;8(1):13–21.
- Schmuck RA, Schmuck PA. Group processes in the classroom. Journal of extension. 1972;10(3):65.
- Brickell JL, Porter DB, Reynolds MF, Cosgrove RD. Assigning students to groups for engineering design projects: a comparison of five methods. Journal of Engineering Education. 1994 Jul;83(3):259–262.
- Abdel-Basset M, Atef A, Smarandache F. A hybrid neutrosophic multiple criteria group decision making approach for project selection. Cognitive Systems Research. 2019 Oct;57:216–227.
- Bang D, Frith CD. Making better decisions in groups. Royal Society Open Science. 2017 Aug;4(8):170193.
- Mills PC, Woodall PF. A comparison of the responses of first and second year veterinary science students to group project work. Teaching in Higher Education. 2007 Aug;9(4):477–489.
- Hall JP, Kurth NK, Ipsen C, Myers A, Goddard K. Comparing measures of functional difficulty with self-identified disability: implications for health policy. Health Affairs. 2022 Oct;41(10).
Reference Sheet for Facilitator-Led Group Conversations
Establish Groups for Conversation
Decide ahead of time which arrangement would be best for the topic of conversation. Considerations for group conversations could be
- Singular groups
- All groups combined
- Virtual break-out rooms
- Online discussion boards
Groups may arrange into circles for ease of conversation by moving chairs and tables. However, it may also work best to keep the classroom arranged as normal.
Facilitator Initiates Questions for Conversation
Ask the pre-determined question and allow for a response. Each student may be required to briefly comment, or a select few could volunteer to respond. Alternatively, groups or temporary mixed-team discussion groups may be allowed to have breakout conversations with a visible timer for all to see that allows a few minutes to respond. After returning back as a whole, ask for some groups to share highlights from their conversations.
- What are your desired outcomes for this project?
- What skills will be necessary to complete this project?
- What skills would you bring to a group?
- When is your availability to schedule group meetings outside of class hours?
- What do you expect of other group members?
Immediately After Forming Groups
- What can be done when a group member is not present in class?
- How could tasks be divided to provide equitable responsibility among group members?
- How might you, as groups, avoid common pitfalls that tend to occur within groups?
Paired with Class Lecture Relating to Project Selection
- What are the weaknesses of your current solution?
- What could be done to streamline your group’s proposed solution?
Three Weeks into the Project
- What tasks are you most dreading? Why?
- How might you go about developing the skill needed to complete a difficult task?
- What can be done when a group member is under-performing, not responding to group communication?
Mid-way through the Project as an Entire Class
- What are you finding most difficult to overcome in order to progress in the project?
- What challenges does your group face that other groups might not be able to notice?
- What is the greatest challenge your group has overcome? How did you overcome it?
- What advice would you give yourself if you could start this project over right now? How could you implement some of your own advice at this point in the project?
Facilitator Initiates a Deeper Dive into Responses and Allows Other Students to Comment on the Shared Thoughts
Encourage students to dive deeper or branch off from previous comments to get their perspectives. Consider asking “Why?” if you are unsure how to follow up.
Return to Proceed with Class or Lab
This activity should not last more than an hour but could effectively be done within fifteen to thirty minutes for only one to three questions. After completing the conversations, reorganize the classroom space and move forward with class or lab.