Karen De Meyst, Miami University
Jonathan Grenier, Miami University
Although group assignments have many benefits, instructors may encounter a wide variety of problems. Common problems include students not contributing to the project, one student dominating the group, or students having different expectations about group performance and workload (Burke, 2011). In this article, we suggest assigning roles to group members to mitigate these problems, thereby increasing team effectiveness and efficiency.
Assigning Roles to Group Members
Most studies on the use of group roles focus on settings where students have to work together for in-class activities. The literature suggests multiple benefits of this practice for outside-of-class group work. Specifically, studies on in-class group activities find increased participation, less freeriding, increased knowledge acquisition, and reduced student distraction (Cohn, 1999; Coggeshall, 2010; Hirshfield & Chachra, 2015; Schellens et al. 2005; Shimazoe & Aldrich, 2010). To test the effectiveness of this approach for larger, outside-of-class group projects, we implemented it in an accounting course.
Specifically, we tested this approach in an upper-level undergraduate accounting course at Miami University. For this course, students had to complete four group projects. The instructor assigned students to groups of five or six students at the start of the semester, and groups remained the same throughout the semester. In addition, the instructor explained that for each group project, students would have to assign roles among group members. The list of roles included a manager as the leader of the group, a planner responsible for planning meetings and sending reminders, an editing specialist, a technology specialist, a checker responsible for knowing and verifying compliance with the assignment requirements, and two questioners who were required to play the devil's advocate. Given that there were seven roles in total and that all roles had to be fulfilled for each project, if a group had less than seven members in the group, students would have to take on two roles.
Further, students had to take on a different role for each project. In this way, they developed multiple skills. This also reduced the risk that one student would dominate the group (Cottell & Millis, 1992; Rosser, 1998). As students assigned roles among themselves, students could start in roles they found most comfortable and maximize group members' strengths (Andrist, 2015). It was also important to hold students accountable for the roles they fulfilled (TTC, 2018). Thus, students had to communicate to the instructor the roles assigned for each project. Although all group members received the same grade for the group projects, the instructor knew who was responsible if the group failed to meet a requirement. Overall, the instructor emphasized that all group members remained responsible for the submission content and group roles related to the coordination of the work.
To examine the effectiveness of assigning roles to group members, we compared students' survey responses, peer evaluations, and the quality of students' submissions in the section of the course in which this approach was implemented to two other sections of the same course without assigned roles. Overall, the survey measured students' perceptions of group dynamics and team performance. Although perceptions of group dynamics did not seem to be affected by assigning roles, results indicated that perceptions of team performance were higher when students assigned roles. Specifically, students perceived the group as better organized, and team members were better at following through on decisions and action items. These differences were statistically significant.
Students were also asked to describe in the survey what they enjoyed and what they did not enjoy about the group work in the course. Although not asked for it specifically, different students shared their opinions about the requirement to assign group roles. One student who appreciated this intervention formulated it as follows: "It allowed us to distribute work according to our strengths and helps build communications skills". Other students enjoyed that the roles changed from one project to another, noticed more effective communication and cooperation, and argued that it helped them to hold themselves accountable for their decisions as a group.
Interestingly, a few students were less positive. For example, one student argued that the requirement to assign roles in an upper-level undergraduate course felt immature and unnecessary. Another student suggested that it would be better if roles did not have to change for every project so that students could stay with roles they were good at.
Further, students had to complete peer evaluations for each of their group members. The peer evaluation questionnaires contained three items related to team effectiveness. Averages on these items were consistently higher in the section where students had to assign group roles, but not always significantly higher. The instructor also subjectively assessed the quality of the submissions.
Although there did not seem to be any differences between the quality of the content of the group projects, it was clear that students worked better together as groups as (a) formal requirements were better met, (b) there was increased consistency between the different parts of the group work, and (c) the writing was better.
Overall, we found assigning roles to group members can be a good way to improve group work and team effectiveness. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and different adaptations are possible, depending on the specific characteristics and learning objectives of your group project.
Here are some final considerations to keep in mind when implementing this approach:
Before implementing this approach, it is important to reflect on how beneficial this approach could be for your specific course. What are the problems you are currently experiencing? How could this approach increase the effectiveness of your group projects?
Instructors may want to consider their students and the level of their course in the curriculum. Some students may appreciate that assigning group roles helps coordinate the work. In contrast, students with a more independent attitude – especially at higher levels in the curriculum – may experience this additional formal requirement as unnecessary.
It is important to craft your list of roles carefully based on your group projects' specific characteristics and learning objectives. Some roles discussed above may not be relevant for your projects, while you may think of other roles that could make a difference in your course.
Will the instructor assign roles to group members, or should group members assign roles among themselves? While there are benefits to each approach, this decision should depend on the approach that best fits the learning objectives.
Should roles change during the semester, or can students stay with the same role for different projects? Although the requirement to rotate roles, as discussed above, has its own benefits, it may be a good idea to allow students to stay with the same role such that the group optimally benefits from students' strengths.
How will you hold students accountable for the roles fulfilled? Will there be a grade component related to role fulfillment, or will all group members receive the same grade?
What are some problems you are experiencing when assigning group work? How could the practice of assigning group roles mitigate these problems?
What are specific roles that students need to fulfill when completing group projects for your course? Which roles are most important?
How could assigning roles to group members help students meet the learning objectives of your group projects? Which modifications would you have to make for this approach to best fulfill your needs?
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TTC (The Teaching Center Washington University in Saint Louis). (2018). Using roles in group work. https://ctl.wustl.edu/resources/using-roles-in-group-work/
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