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Group Engagement Contracts for Better Group Experiences

By Katie Reynolds

Group projects and group discussions are proven ways to provide students with critical skills needed for future careers. Group work provides students with opportunities to develop teamwork skills, speak with careful consideration, manage deadlines, run meetings, resolve conflicts, learn an appreciation for diverse beliefs, and formally present accomplishments. These skills are developed in group work, whether it is in a face-to-face or an online setting. In an online environment, however, group work is a means to connect students, which improves the likelihood of course and degree completion.  It also helps students learn to work with others at a distance, which is an increasingly vital skill in the remote workplace environment. There are, however, essential skills that course instructors must have to facilitate this effectively for positive outcomes.

Group dysfunction is a common complaint from those forced into group work without much guidance or accountability. Some of the complaints that have been voiced concerning group discussions and group work are; “My group members tried to agree to a regular time to meet, but after a few meetings, it was evident that some members just weren’t committed”,  “I lost patience and decided to take charge”, “I let those who were the bosses do most of the work. We all get the same grade anyway”, and  “It wasn’t very enjoyable for anyone.” There seems to often be that one person who never shows up for the group meetings, does not complete their work by the deadline, or does not meet the standards necessary to fulfill the project's requirements. On the flip side, once another student decides to be the boss, the work might get completed, but it is stressful and unenjoyable to those trying to meet the leader’s demands.  Others give up and let the ones willing to take the abuse do all the work. 

Group work in the classroom can either be one of the best experiences for learning or a dreadful annoyance for students. The role of the instructor and the pre-emptive work to establish group work protocol is extremely important to make group work effective and enjoyable for students. This same role applies to group discussions as well. With agreed-upon guidelines, you can promote the ability of those less vocal to be heard. 

Group Agreements

The process of establishing effective group work guidelines for a class requires student input. Student input can be collected in the form of a contract created by students for their use. Providing basic guidelines for discussion protocol is fine, but students should have the opportunity to review, discuss, and revise the agreement until everyone in the group or class agrees to the terms. When students make a “contract” for expected behavior and guidelines for interactions, they own the process more than they would if only provided a set of “netiquette” rules. 

For Group Projects

Taking time out of the first class to discuss a group contract emphasizes to students the importance of the task and the importance of the contract itself.  If your class is an online synchronous class, this is an important element to discuss during your first virtual meeting. If you are teaching an asynchronous course, you can direct your students to complete this step as their initial homework assignment during the first week of the class.

If you are concerned about the time this would take out of class, consider having students review the syllabus outside of class. An online syllabus quiz can be conducted before the first meeting or in the first few moments of class. Respond via email or through video before the first class or at the beginning of the first class before undergoing the contract development. 

Here are the steps to follow to facilitate the contract development process.

  1. Explain to the students what a group contract is and why it is important. 
    Some talking points include:
    • The benefits of group learning - deeper learning, information retention, communication, and teamwork skills. (Bennett, 2015; Cartney and Rouse, 2007, Rezaei, 2018)
    • Group input and consensus ensures that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the conversation by articulating their expectations, contributing to the decisions of the group, and approval of group policies. It also helps solidify ownership and commitment. 
    • It protects group members.
    • It increases a sense of community. 
  2. Provide students with templates to use while developing their contracts.
  3. Provide time for students to discuss, develop and agree on their agreement. 
    • This process will take approximately 45 minutes to an hour.
    • Follow the process outlined in the PowerPoint
    • It is important that groups are not rushed and have adequate time to go through the process. If you cannot provide this length of time in a class session, have groups meet and complete it outside of class. 
  4. Ensure that groups submit their finalized and signed contracts and individual reflections.
    • Review contracts for completeness.
    • Review individual reflections submitted by students for any concerns.
    • Record attendance and completion grades for the submissions.
  5. Check-in with groups on a regular basis.
    • Be sure to ask for group reports on a regular basis. 
    • If you are in a face-to-face class, sit in on some group discussions or ask to drop in on group meetings.
    • For online courses ask for written feedback or ask to join a group’s virtual meeting once or twice over the term to check on progress. 
  6. Close out the term with group evaluations. 
    • Provide groups with an end-of-term group evaluation.
    • Consider these carefully and incorporate the feedback to individualize each student’s grade for the group project rather than assigning the same grade for all team members.

For Whole Class or Group Discussion

Class and group discussions are extremely important in face-to-face and synchronous classes. Creating a group agreement that directs how discussions take place, helps ensure a safe and equitable environment for individual participation. This is especially important in courses with controversial and politically charged themes.

Steps to Implement a Group Agreement for Discussion

  1. Similarly to the group work contract, let the class know how vital quality discussion is to the class's success and your desire to see all class members feel safe and confident to contribute in a quality manner.
  2. Lead a brainstorming session with the class and write ideas on the board as they are mentioned. The following questions should be the focus of this idea formation.
    1. What makes this a safe and respectful place for us to have productive discussions?
    2. How can we create an environment where everyone feels like they can take risks, test ideas, and ask questions?
    3. How can a group of individuals with different identities work together to build a community identity that fosters learning?
  3. Once you have a list, read each idea out loud and check for clarification on the idea’s meaning. Clarify what suggestions mean by defining vague terms and how these are applied in action.
  4. Check for agreement on each statement/idea. 
    1. Converge ideas that are similar and refine work.
    2. If certain ideas are related to others, kindly identify this with the class and remove duplicates or similar statements.
  5. Finalize the agreement with the revisions to which the class has agreed.
  6. During each class discussion, put a copy of the agreement on tables in the chat box for members to refer to. Ask students if they have any need or desire to make additions or changes before the discussion begins. 
  7. Communicate frequently with students how they should address what they feel to be violations of the agreement.

Allowing students to set the rules and expectations for group discussion will encourage them to take an active role in class and hold them accountable for contributing to the course discourse. This same process can be applied to the discussion board work in a virtual class.

Other Applications of These Principles

The classroom is not the only place that group work contracts and group discussion agreements are helpful. These may be used for one-off roundtable meetings, seminars, departmental work with colleagues, and other similar arenas.

The time and effort both you and the students put into this contract will pay off in increased productivity for groups and discussions and appreciation and respect for you as the instructor who takes their well-being and input into account for the success of the course. 

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