At NUS, students frequently work in small groups—whether
a chosen study strategy or required in a module. Given this prevalence,
it is important to understand a couple of the most common pitfalls
that undermine effective group work.
Pitfall: Group members do not fully listen to one another.
This pitfall is especially noteworthy since we are often unaware
of it. Many of us think that we are good listeners, but the reality
is often quite different.
Try this exercise. Find an acquaintance (friends work less well
here), and give them some controversial statement and ask his/her
opinion. Allow him/her 5 minutes to talk (you should not talk/comment,
except to ask questions about his/her opinion). After s/he has finished,
summarise his/her arguments. Ask him/her if you were accurate. Oftentimes
people are surprised by how much they missed while listening.
The ultimate danger of this pitfall is that it can make some group
members less motivated as they do not feel included or their opinion
valued. Since one of the benefits of group work is the potential
efficiency in terms of time and effort, anything that makes someone
feel less motivated is undermining to the whole group.
Pitfall: Group members label each other.
Sometimes we are quite impatient with group work and fall prey
to the natural tendency of quickly labelling others in our group.
In our efforts to get working quickly, we are driven to identify
the ‘brainy’ and ‘hard-workers’ right away
and find those who may be ‘slackers’ or ‘bo
However, there are many problems with that approach. The biggest
is that we can create those roles, even if that person is not really
that way. In psychology, this is called a ‘self-fulfilling
prophecy’; basically our expectations of others shape their
behaviour. For example, someone may be shy, but they get labelled
‘a slacker’ or ‘bo chap’. When
we believe that perception, we do things that create that role for
the individual (e.g. we may talk to him/her less, direct fewer questions
toward him/her, and give them menial tasks that demean them). Most
people will recede when treated this way, and your group loses one
potentially valuable member.1
How can one counteract such pitfalls?
Very early in the creation of your group, set up a process that
will allow all groups members opportunities to voice their opinion
at some early crucial point (e.g. selecting a topic for group exploration).
Set up ground rules where each person has a few minutes of uninterrupted
time to speak. Make sure all opinions are acknowledged and make
every effort to incorporate some aspect of everyone’s ideas.
When that is impossible, make sure that decisions are made and communicated
rationally—try to avoid the perception that the group is ignoring
some people’s efforts and ideas.
While such efforts may take a bit of extra time in the early stages
of the group, the long-term benefits are worth it. Executed properly,
this approach will motivate all members and the efficiencies in
time and effort of being in a group will be manifested. If group
members are alienated early on, they may not put much work into
the group and the group will lose the multiple perspectives that
make group work better than the sum of individuals.2