Number. 41 © CDTL 2003
Small-group Work: Common Pitfalls
Kevin S. Carlson, Ph.D.
Educational Development Specialist, CDTL

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 chap’.

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

For more information

  1. Tips on effective listening skills:
    Center for Rural Studies, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Vermont. (20 April 1998). ‘Exercise Four: Active Listening’. (last accessed: 29 May 2003).
  2. See the case of ‘groupthink’ as an example where multiple perspectives are not allowed expression:
    Department of Education Policy and Management, Faculty of Education, The University of Melbourne. ‘482–898 Managing the Educational Organisation, Session 4: Group Dynamics’.
    http://www.edfac. (last accessed: 29 May 2003).
  3. Tips on intra-group communication:
    North Dakota State University Extension Service. (September 1999). ‘Leadership Development Within Groups: Communicating Effectively’.
    http://www. (last accessed: 29 May 2003).
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