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Information Studies - Working in Groups

"In business and industry, over half of all writing is a group effort because of the size of the tasks, the [interdisciplinary] nature of the tasks, and the time constraints involved. Learning how to write in a group is an essential part of learning the writing process" (Thiroux 22).

"Everything secret degenerates; nothing is safe that does not bear discussion and publicity" (Lord Acton, quoted in Time, August 22, 1969).

The Group Process

It is important to realize that whatever career or job you are hoping to attain, the odds are extremely high that your position responsibilities will include working effectively on one or more teams. Assembly line workers now work in teams. Research grants are no longer routinely given to individuals--they are awarded to research teams. It has become standard practice for professionals--doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, etc.--to work in teams. It is critical that you learn the skills necessary to make a team work effectively. Your future job, income, and career hopes may depend on it.

"The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people."   - Woodrow Wilson

The format of the Philosophy class I teach, as well as the content, is based on the testing of ideas by using the principles of critical thinking. Students in this class not only partake in the give and take of discussions about ideas. They not only learn to read the great philosophers and to debate the major issues of mankind. They also get involved in the experience of testing a theory about classroom teaching and learning techniques. Any class can be based on one of three learning styles:

    1. Competitive -- a win-lose struggle.
    2. Work independently, each individual at their own pace.
    3. Work collaboratively in small groups, ensuring that all members master the assigned material.

The basic format of the Philosophy class is based on the team learning concept (choice number 3 above) as developed by David and Roger Johnson at the Cooperative Learning Center of the University of Minnesota, and espoused by Dr. William Glasser, a famous education theorist, in his book Control Theory in the Classroom. Philosophy students are asked to form a team of at least four people in this class, and to pursue group goals as they are assigned in class.

"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up... And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken."   --Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

The team approach is not a new idea ("All for one and one for all." Alexandre Dumas, The three Muskateers). There are certain advantages of the team approach of which you should be conscious:

  1. Students can gain a sense of belonging by working together.

  2. Belonging provides the initial motivation for students to work, and as they achieve academic success, those who had not worked previously begin to sense that knowledge is power and then want to work harder.

  3. The stronger students find it need fulfilling to help the weaker ones because they want the power and friendship that go with a high-performing team.

  4. The weaker students find it is need fulfilling to contribute as much as they can to the team effort because now whatever they can contribute helps the team. When they worked alone, a little effort got them nowhere.

  5. Students need not depend only on the instructor. They can (and are urged to) depend a great deal on themselves, their own creativ-ity and other members of their team.

  6. Learning teams can provide the structure that will help students to get past the superficiality that plagues most academic classes. This approach affords the chance for more than just a few top students to learn enough in depth to experience the vital connection that knowledge is power.

  7. The "sink or swim together" situation teaches each individual in the group that their efforts are required and indispensable for group success. (There can be no "free riders.")

  8. Development of critical thinking competencies. "United States' students frequently believe that a learning task is completed when they have an answer in every blank in a worksheet. Sustained effort to comprehend material deeply seems to be rare. The Japanese, on the other hand, view academic success as a matter of disciplined, enduring effort aimed at achieving satori, or the sudden flash of enlightenment that comes after long, intensive, but successful effort. The achievement of satori is much more likely after a discussion in cooperative learning groups than after working alone, competitively, or individualistically to complete an assignment" (Johnson & Johnson 1990, 35).

  9. Development of group skills, and successful experiences in a group environment, enhance the psychological health of students. Psychological studies show that "cooperativeness is positively related to a number of indices of psychological health, namely: emotional maturity, well-adjusted social relations, strong personal identity, and basic trust in and optimism about people" (Johnson & Johnson 1990, 37).

  10. Experiences as part of a group tend to facilitate the ability of the individual to understand how a situation appears to other people. This is called "social perspective taking" and allows the individual to judge possible reactions to their actions and attitudes. The opposite of perspective taking is egocentrism.

"I will pay more for the ability to deal with people than any other ability under the sun."   - John D. Rockefeller

As your team develops and becomes effective, four roles should be taken on by various members of the group. You may want to try these out in the Penny Toss Simulation (an exercise in Philosophy class):

1. ENCOURAGER OF PARTICIPATION. In a friendly way, as this team member, you will encourage all members of the group to participate in the discussion, sharing their ideas and feelings. You will "keep the ball rolling." (sample statement: "Bob, what do you think?" or "Raul, do you see anything else we could say?")
      The ENCOURAGER can be compared to the navigator on a ship who ensures that all group members share ideas and that no put-downs occur.

2. PRAISER. As this team player you will compliment group members who do their assigned work and contribute to the learning of the team. This role is much more important than it may seem. (sample statement: (after input from teammate) "GOOD! That's exactly the sort of argument we need.")
      The PRAISER can be compared to the quarter-master on a ship who compliments team members who do their assigned work and contribute to the learning of the teammates.

3. SUMMARIZER/RECORD-KEEPER. In this role you will restate the ideas and feelings expressed in the discussion whenever it is appropriate. In addition, you will keep notes, write up assignments which are due, and make entries in the readings log. (sample statement: "Okay, let me see if I understand what you're saying..." or "What I hear you saying is....." --> don't forget to write it down.)
      The SUMMARIZER can be compared to a meteorologist on a ship who periodically summarizes the team's progress, decisions and rationale for decisions made.

4. CHECKER. You track assignments. You make sure everyone knows what is due. You begin team huddles by stating what has to be accomplished. You make sure everyone understands the general principles and rules of assignments. You answer the question "What are we supposed to be doing?"
      The CHECKER can be compared to the captain of a ship who ensures that all group members understand and agree with the sailing decisio-ns made.

The best teams discuss how they are doing. One aspect of this may be actually assigning roles to each member of your group. Discuss it and decide what you will do.

Stages of Group Development

Studies of group dynamics indicate that a group goes through stages, just like a child growing up. The following are the stages through which a group can be expected to pass:


Group members feel eager, have positive expectations, yet are a bit anxious about what is happening and their role. The group's work is characterized by energy focused on defining their goals and tasks.


Groups members become dissatisfied with their dependence on authority, the discrepancy between their expectations and reality. They may experience feelings of frustration or anger, and have negative reactions to formal leaders. They may also feel incompetent or confused. The group's work will reflect increasing skill development, but will be disrupted by negative feelings.


Group members become less dissatisfied, resolving differences in perceptions, and experiencing less animosity toward leaders and group members. Respect, harmony, and trust will develop. The group will become cohesive, resulting in feelings of pleasure, accomplishment, and self-esteem.


Group members feel confident, work well together, communicate openly, feel positive about the group, and focus their energies on the task.


Group members have strong positive feelings about what they have accomplished, yet feel concerned about the nearness of the end. They experience feelings of loss or sadness, and may deny their feelings by joking.

Effective Group Skills

The effective group has three basic activities:

      1. Accomplishing its goals;
      2. Maintaining itself (discussing the process itself);
      3. Improving it's effectiveness.

1. The group's goals must be clearly understood, and each member must be committed to them.

2. Group members must clearly communicate their feelings and ideas to each other.

3. All members should participate in the group, feel responsible for making it work, and take on the role of leader as needed.

4. Decision-making procedures should be flexible, and appropriate.

5. Conflicts, controversy, opposing ideas and opinions should be encouraged. Such openness promotes both group involvement and discussion of how the group is doing.

In order to give you a contrast, the following description of an ineffective group is given:

Group goals are imposed, and competitively structured. Communication tends to be one-way. Everyone suppresses their feelings. Leadership is assigned, not shared. Influence and power are in the hands of the leader and his/her friends (determined by position). Decisions are made by the highest authority. Controversy is ignore, denied, avoided, and/or suppressed. Members are controlled by force, rigid conformity is promoted.

Essential Elements of Effective Teams

  1. Positive interdependence. Based on mutual benefit, a common fate, mutual obligation, mutual investment, members have a shared identity, and an expectation of joint celebration.

  2. Individual accountability. "Social loafing" should not be allowed.

  3. Face-to-face interaction. Group needs to be small (five or less) and the members outspoken.

  4. Collaborative skills. These can be learned. Require practice.

  5. Group processing. Involves achieving the group's goals and maintaining an effective group by constant attention to the working relationships among the members.


Glasser, William. Control Theory in the Classroom. 1986.

Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson and Edythe Johnson Holubec. Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Co., 1984

Johnson, David W., and Frank P. Johnson. Joining together: Group theory and group skills, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Slavin, Robert E. Using Student Team Learning. 1980.

Slavin, Robert E. Cooperative Learning. 1982

Thiroux, Emily. The Critical Edge: Thinking and Researching In a Virtual Society. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

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Colby Glass, MLIS