Signs that a group is “going well’
All participant are actively engaged
No participant “checks out.” With a group of 4 (our recommended size) it’s common for participants to respond differently to various activities. Of course you are not aiming for full excitement, all the time. You want your participants to stay on track.
Energy and Flow
There are not many pauses, the ones that occur are not overly long. Group continuously flows without needs to be prompted or pushed. If there is a participant that sometimes assumes the role of the leader he does not intervene to keep the group moving.
Signs that group is struggling
Differentiate struggling with the activity content and struggling as a collaborative group. The goal of the collaborative sessions is not to finish tasks but to develop collaborative skills and good habits for group activity.
Participants are disengaged
Activities will interest different participants to different degrees, and participants that are somewhat unengaged during some assignments is not necessarily a long term problem. Look for signs that participants that are actively disengaged. This is a potential problem during observations when a single participants disengages. In this scenario a participant “slips thru the cracks” and remains quiet during most of the session. Unless activity effort is undertaken by either the facilitators or the in-group leader, this participant will simply allow to be omitted / ignored for long periods of time.
There is a number of possible causes of this scenario. One is that the participants is naturally reserved or shy and doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in the group, or rather is more comfortable staying silent (disconnected) than my actively participating. Another is that the activity failed to stimulate
Characterized by longer, awkward pauses. Conversation is hard to pick up, the natural tempo slows to a crawl. In extreme cases all collaborative activity ceases, and intervention is required. This end case should be avoided. It’s easier to steer the group when the session starts taking a turn for the worse. With limited time recovery is time consuming and often not feasible.
Uncivil exchanges between participant
Short, snippy exchanges between participants. Often one sides, with one participant shutting down someone else. Characterized by an unconstructive criticism, often a personal attack. This is a problem that grow to be a significant if uncorrected. It increases a certain toxicity in the group. When those exchanged are targeted towards already sensitive participants, it may cause them to become even less actively engaged in the future. They can be differentiated from playful banter by the hostile or generally unpleasant tone, when they include an expletive.
Symptoms that seem like a problem but are not
Getting off topic (as a group)
Since the objective of the session is not accomplishing the goals of the activity but rather fostering a positive collaborative environment, getting off topic of the activity at hand is not a problem provided that:
The group remains cohesive as in the entire group remains engaged in the off topic activity/ conversation.
An activity / discussion that the group engaged in instead of the provided activity is appropriate for an academic environment.
Depersonalization of content
Keeping in mind that participants are going likely going to be somewhat uncomfortable, depersonalization of content allows to limit some of the potential resistance that participants might show to the content. This is especially important during the first few sessions where participants are still getting accustomed to their groups and fellow participants.
Depersonalization of content depends on removing any need for participants to share their feelings, thought or opinions on subjects that could be considered personal. Instead activities should focus on puzzles, problem-solving and discussion based problem solving.
Things to avoid
Complex rules and instructions
With the sessions being around 30-45 minutes long it not very efficient to use activities that require long preparation. Ideally, you want participants to start the activity within 5 minutes of starting the session. Any organizational notes should be kept to a minimum. If the group gets off topic at the very beginning of the session it’s going to be an uphill battle to get them “rallied” to get the activity accomplished within the limited session time.
This limitation will be less of an issue if the sessions are longer. Additionally, repeating activities like board games need to have their rules explained only once, so investing times early on would be a good return throughout the seminar.
Objective (concrete, abstract, reaching a consensus)
The objective is one of the ways we can distinguish different activities and adjust activities to the preferences of the participants.
Action (discussion, problem modelings, game)
This describes the tasks that participants will take to either accomplish the objective or progress thru the activity until the time allotted runs out.
Tone (serious, philosophical, light hearted)
Tone plays a smaller role in differentiating activities. The differences in tone rely on identifying personality characteristic of the participants that are less obvious and more nebulous.
Problem solving activities
Categories we used for classifying around activities are not meant to be rigid. This classification is just a tool for better aligning the session activities to the preferences of the participants.