Functional groups are not just lucky

It is tempting for dysfunctional group members to think that they would have had an effective group “if only” they had not been stuck with person A, B, or C. Groups are formed different ways, but I often assign groups using a combined randomization / balance process that attempts to ensure that the academic strengths and weaknesses of the various groups are somewhat evenly balanced. Functional groups, therefore, are not just the groups that get all the “smart” students. Functional groups work on the group relationship, and it pays off.

Groups can have a discussion at the outset about ground rules. How often do you agree to check your email? Do you commit to attending class on all of the groupwork time slots, at least? Will you have “afternoon tea” at the campus pub on a weekly basis to touch base and report on status? How will you deal with suggestions in the group setting? Can everyone set their egos aside and treat suggestions as constructive and not criticism?

If someone seems to be loafing, it can be that they just don’t know how to contribute and are intimidated by the others in the group meetings or discussion forum. Functional groups tackle this with strategies: draw them in with a specific assignment. Work with them in pairs and keep an eye on them, rather than sending them off on an individual chore. Have them critique and edit things done by others. If all of those efforts are fruitless and a conclusion of deliberate loafing is inevitable, a functional group can avoid being distracted by the problem by formalizing the group’s disappointment with a written request for explanation and change of behaviour.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.