Monday, March 17, 2014

Roles and structuring positive interdependence in groups

Positive interdependence is identified by Smith (1996) as a key element for successful group work.  What does positive interdependence look like?  There are a few things to be on the lookout for, but they all center on group members working together.  That is, students must working together to complete the task(s) and succeed as a team; if the tasks can be split up and completed individually, then this brings the very existence of the group/team into question.  Each member of the group must view the input of the other members as an ingredient for success in order for the group experience to be a collaborative one.

Forms of positive interdependence
A list of possible ways to structure positive interdependence is also provided by Smith (1996):
  • group product-goal interdependence (e.g., one answer must be agreed upon by the group);
  • learning goal interdependence (e.g., each member must be able to explain the group's answer);
  • role interdependence (each member must fulfill responsibilities of an assigned role);
  • reward interdependence (shared reward);
  • resource interdependence (shared resources); 
  • task interdependence (division of labor).
(See this page from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research for expanded descriptions of each form of positive interdependence listed above.)  A number of these are self-explanatory, but the others warrant additional discussion.  Here I will focus on role interdependence with the intention of returning to others in later posts.

Roles for group members
If you are looking around for a list of possible roles, you'll quickly notice that the exact contents of the list will depend on the source; however, lists' suggestions and examples tend to overlap.  I am, for example, currently looking at this list of roles for projects from a Penn State resource archive, this list of possible roles from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research site, and ideas for student roles from the Starting Point project (just three resources of the many out there), and "facilitator" and "recorder" are both common suggestions from all three sources while "skeptic" is offered on the Penn State site as a role for group projects with a notable amount of brainstorming involved.  This last detail points to the fact that roles should align with what is being asked of the groups.  Are the groups completing a semester-long project, or are they participating in a group discussion that is recurring each week?  For the latter, Starting Point suggests "elaborator" - someone who establishes connections between the current discussion and previous topics or overall theme - as a possible role, but this may not be something that is needed (or at least a priority) for a semester-long project.

What about rotating roles?  Again, this is likely to depend on what the groups are focused on achieving.  For shorter/less in-depth group assignments that are recurring throughout the term, having the group members rotate through the roles provides each individual with a chance try different roles - ones that are comfortable and others that are not-so-comfortable.  Of course, for an ongoing project, switching roles may interrupt the group's progress and might not be desirable.

Should the students or the instructor decide the roles?  The recommendation from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research is to allow students with group work experience the opportunity to select/decide roles (when time allows) but that it may be best for the instructor to assign roles if students are new to or not as comfortable with working in groups.  So far, this is the one recommendation I have come across for who decides the roles; I will be sure to update with others if and when they are located.

The group-focused series will continue later this week with more on key ingredients for building effective groups and/or group work experiences.  Identifying clear objectives - the importance of and the instructor's role - is a likely candidate for the next post.

Smith, K. A. (1996). Cooperative learning: Making “groupwork” work. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996(67), 71–82.

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