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Research and teaching

What to Expect With Group Work

Problems, Frequency, and Success of Mediation

Journal of College Science Teaching—January/February 2021 (Volume 50, Issue 3)

By Peggy Brickman, Austin Lannen, and Jill Beyette

Instructors who wish to take advantage of the benefits of collaborative group work often hesitate over concerns about conflict or problems that arise between students. There are no estimates of the level of conflict that can be expected even if best practices for collaboration are implemented, and there are few tested suggestions for mediating and resolving students’ conflicts once they are identified. This research study sought to determine the frequency and types of conflict exhibited in large-enrollment introductory biology courses that use classroom group work. We compared the ability of a mid-course questionnaire to identify group problems with a validated conflict identification survey. We also compared the satisfaction and achievement level for those groups that reported conflict with those that did not, and between groups that reported conflict but then either declined or accepted mediation. We found that a single question item provided better identification of conflict than a seven-item survey, and that groups that indicated conflict but choose to decline mediation had similar final satisfaction with groups that never indicated a problem. Groups with conflict that selected mediation had lower performance and group satisfaction—perhaps an indication of more serious problems.


Group work has been shown to enhance undergraduate learning, attitudes, retention, and acceptance of students of culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, 2009; Slavin, 1991; Springer et al., 1999). As a result, group work has become a critical feature in many evidence-based teaching strategies in STEM classrooms including: Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) (Moog & Spencer, 2008), problem-based learning (Dochy et al., 2003), Peer Led Team Learning (Chan & Bauer, 2015), and peer instruction (Crouch & Mazur, 2001). However, both students and faculty have reported challenges with implementing group work that block effective learning (Felder & Brent, 1996; Khosa & Volet, 2013), and many faculty hesitate to use groups because of concern over dealing with student conflict (Payne et al., 2005).

While there are several recommended strategies to monitor and identify problem groups (Jehn & Mannix, 2001; Lejk & Wyvill, 2001) including peer evaluations (Aggarwal & O’Brien, 2008; Brooks & Ammons, 2003; Harkins & Jackson, 1985; Oakley et al., 2004; Strong & Anderson, 1990; Wenzel, 2007), there are few studies that specifically examine the factors that increase the probability that students will not contribute equally to group work, referred to as social loafing (Ingham et al., 1974; Latané et al., 1979). There is a paucity of suggestions for what instructors should do to mediate and resolve group conflicts once they are identified.

Most faculty rely on peer evaluations as a way for students to report problems in formal group work (Borg et al., 2011). However, students make assumptions about their peers that render self-reports such as those used in peer evaluations questionable. For example, when students evaluate their peers they often do not distinguish between students who are unable to complete group tasks due to inadequate knowledge and preparation (struggling students) from students who are choosing not to complete tasks (social loafers) (Freeman & Greenacre, 2011). Students often hesitate to provide honest evaluations due to concerns about how their comments will affect their relationships (Strong & Anderson, 1990; Williams, 1992), resulting in intentionally inflating or reducing contributions (Zhang et al., 2008).

Ultimately, this leaves faculty in the position of reading peer evaluations and either not knowing that group work is not going well, or knowing that there is dysfunction but being unable to identify the real source of the problem. This makes it difficult to figure out a successful strategy to resolve the group issues. The goal of this study was to develop strategies to effectively identify the issues in dysfunctional problem groups, and determine under what conditions selected solutions prove effective. We compared the ability to identify groups that were experiencing conflicts between a previously validated instrument (relationship and process conflict survey: Jehn & Mannix, 2001) and a simple two-item question that identifies the specific reasons why a group was not functioning well. We contacted groups that were identified using the survey instrument and scheduled mediation meetings to resolve the conflicts identified. We track the outcomes of these groups through follow-up emails, responses to a group satisfaction survey (Van der Vegt et al., 2001), and their group performance scores.


Table 1. Demographics of student participants (n = 745).























Table 2. The proportion of problem groups identified using the single question compared to Jehn & Mannix’s six-item survey.

Categories of reported conflict within groups.


This group member does not understand the course material well enough to contribute.


This group member is unpleasant to work with.


This group member is not making substantial effort to complete work.


This group member is not trusted by the rest of the team to make deadlines.


This group member does not seem to be aware of how much work the rest of the team is contributing.


This group member is not engaged or interested in collaboration.


This group member does not allow others to express ideas or make decisions.


This group member has not attended class regularly





Study participants and instructional setting

We investigated group problems in two different (approximately 250 student enrollment) introductory biology courses for nonscience majors taught at a large public university (N = 912 students total). Demographics of student participants are described in Table 1. Students were assigned randomly to groups of four during the first week of the semester. Due to a small percentage of students withdrawing from the class before the midpoint of the semester, 15% of groups fell to three members. A significant portion of the course grades (approximately 40%) were earned through group activities that included: completion of in-class worksheets, outside-class group assignments, and group tests that were distributed equally over five units in the course. At the beginning of the semester, groups engaged in activities meant to establish expectations, set ground rules (e.g., penalties for failure to participate), establish communication channels, and develop methods for acknowledging effort on assignments (Oakley et al., 2004). Many students on this campus must maintain a high GPA for scholarship reasons, so they are strongly grade motivated.

Identifying problem groups

A 10-item survey was administered to all students after completing the first two of the five units in the course. The survey included items that requested their group number and workload and the six items on relationship and task conflict from Jehn & Mannix (2001). In addition, they were asked, “Do you currently have a problem working as a team with one or more members in your group?” If students responded positively to this item, they were asked to select from a list of specific problems in the second item that were based on the literature on social loafing (Karau & Williams, 1993). Students who reported a problem group member were contacted to arrange an in-person mediation meeting to discuss their challenges and agree upon solutions. Mediation meetings were structured using the crisis clinics model (Felder & Brent, 2007) that involves students sharing perspectives and prioritizing possible group responses to specified offending behaviors. Mediation strategies enacted at these meetings included: identifying the real issue, ensuring all perspectives were heard and advocating for the weaker side when necessary, and informing students of how similar problems have been previously solved (Wall Jr. et al., 2001). Grades and details from the acknowledgment sections of group assignments were also compiled before the meetings to help inform the discussion. Mediation meetings were audio-recorded upon permission from the group members, transcribed, and categorized according to the primary problem identified and the potential solution decided upon by the group.

Determining the success of group mediation

All students enrolled in the course were asked to complete a team satisfaction survey after the fourth unit of the course (week 12) (Van der Vegt et al., 2001) and group and individual grades were also collected for all students. In addition, each individual member of a group that engaged in the mediation clinics was contacted via e-mail to check on how their group and individual behaviors of students changed after mediation, and what they learned from the mediation process.

Data analyses

We focused on three major time points for our frequency analysis. First, we characterized groups that indicated they were experiencing problems from those who did not on the initial survey. Second, of the groups that indicated problems, we characterized those that declined mediation from those that accepted mediation. Third, we characterized five potential outcomes of the problem groups at the end of the semester: group member dropped the class; group was unchanged; group dissolved, absentee group member failed; and member switched groups. The Sankey Diagram Generator v.1.2 by Acquire Procurement Services (available online) visualized outcomes.

Reported conflict, satisfaction, and grades for the three types of groups (no problems reported, problems reported with, and without subsequent mediation) were non-normally distributed because all had a ceiling effect—i.e., low conflict, high satisfaction, and high grades for most students. Therefore, we selected nonparametric Kruskal tests to identify overall differences (R statistical package) and then used pairwise Wilcox tests with a Bonferroni correction to characterize degree of differences observed between each pair. Levels of reported satisfaction on surveys were compared with mediation session transcripts (when available), survey responses, and e-mails from each group reporting problems. Group satisfaction was characterized based on the proportion of members agreeing or strongly agreeing with the three satisfaction survey items. If students switched groups, but the group was not dissolved, their satisfaction was attributed to the new group. Groups were characterized as unsatisfied if no members agreed, partially satisfied if some—but not all—members agreed, and satisfied if all members agreed to the three group satisfaction items. In instances where less than 50% of the group members responded to the survey, either e-mail communications were used to determine satisfaction or the group was removed from analyses. (This included one group out of 296 groups for Figure 1, and three groups for Figure 3 out of a total of 296 groups.)

Figure 1
The proportion of problem groups identified using the single question compared to Jehn & Mannix’s six-item survey.

The proportion of problem groups identified using the single question compared to Jehn & Mannix’s six-item survey.

Figure 2
Frequency of group problems, mediation, and outcomes.

Frequency of group problems, mediation, and outcomes.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Students reported conflict and resulting satisfaction and performance following mediation. Error bars indicate standard error. + p < 0.05 versus no problem reported. * p < 0.05 versus declined mediation. β p < 0.05 versus underwent mediation.


Out of 296 total groups, 43 groups (15% of groups; 13% of students) contained at least one student who identified problems on the single question: “Do you currently have a problem working as a team with one or more members of your group?” The primary problems reported included social loafing, attendance, and effort (Table 2). Only a few students identified problems such as lack of understanding of content, dominating, or being personally unpleasant. In addition to answering the single item identifying their group’s problem, students also completed the six-item conflict identification survey of Jehn and Mannix so we could compare responses (Figure 1). Students were identified as indicating problems within their group if their responses to the three task and three relational-conflict items averaged ≥3 (agreed or strongly agreed to most items).

Only 21 of the 43 groups identified with the survey agreed to meet for mediation (Figure 2). Three groups (yellow) did not report problems in the initial survey, but developed problems later on. Group members’ perceptions of the outcomes were coded as fully satisfied (green), partially satisfied (gray), or fully unsatisfied (red). Member requested new group was only coded for when the no problems response was reported in the initial survey.

We employed the following two strategies during mediation: Remove the poorly performing member from the group and attempt to find a group that will take them; or impose new rules on attendance, punctuality, taking turns with different aspects of assignments, etc. Following mediation, all students were contacted to determine their overall satisfaction with their group experience. Many of the groups decided to solve the problem on their own so we compared the reported satisfaction in three categories: those that never reported problems (n = 253 groups); those that reported problems but declined mediation (n = 21 groups); and those that reported problems and underwent mediation (n = 22 groups). Groups that reported problems had higher average task (p < 0.001, Kruskall-Wallace) and relationship conflict (p < 0.001 Kruskall-Wallace) scores overall than groups that did not report problems.

Mean relationship and task conflict, satisfaction, and group grade were averaged across the three groups: no reported problem, problem but declined mediation, and problem that underwent mediation. We observed significant difference in the conflict reported and the level of satisfaction at the end of the course from all groups that reported problems compared to those who did not (p < 0.05, Kruskal-Wallace) (Figure 3). Almost 50% of groups reporting problems declined mediation. Groups that declined mediation did not report a lower level of satisfaction compared to groups who never reported problems (p = 0.989, Pairwise-Wilcox Test) and their grades were not lower at the end of the semester. However, groups that underwent mediation were significantly less satisfied than groups that never reported problems (p < 0.05, Pairwise-Wilcox Test). They also had lower course grades at the end of the semester (p < 0.05 Pairwise-Wilcox Test). We also found no significant difference in task conflict (p = 0.38), relationship conflict (p ≥ 0.22), and satisfaction (p = 0.05) when we compared groups with different gender compositions (all female, all male, and 50%:50%, 25%:75%, and 75%:25% male/female ratios).


Instructors have previously reported dysfunctional group behavior in collaborative learning (Davies, 2009; Kreijns et al., 2003; Svinicki & Schallert, 2016). In our study, we found that 13% of student groups reported conflict. Our single question asking to indicate the presence of a problem group member was more effective than the Task and Relationship Conflict items from Jehn and Mannix (2001). In 72% of all groups who reported problems, only a single student in a group of three or four students indicated a problem. Students are reticent to report problems in their groups (Williams, 1992), and we acknowledge that we may be underestimating the presence of problem groups. However, in our study, only three groups came forward to report conflict who had not reported problems on the conflict identification survey.

All the instructors in our study had adopted approaches designed to intentionally promote and support effective group behaviors and discourage detrimental, maladaptive activities such as free-riding and social loafing (Davies, 2009; Kreijns et al., 2003). Even with these efforts, students’ major reports of problems still involved social loafing issues such as lack of effort and attendance rather than lack of knowledge or relationship conflicts. We may be underestimating the reported problems. Even with incentives, we did not achieve uniform survey completion, and a large portion of our problem groups contained students who failed to complete the survey and withdrew from the course.

We also examined differences between groups that accepted or declined conflict management mediation meetings (Tekleab et al., 2009). Half of the groups that indicated problems declined mediation. However, we found no difference in their final levels of satisfaction with those that never reported problems. These groups did receive an e-mail from their instructor revealing that an issue had been reported and requesting a meeting. This may have sparked adequate discussion and resolution of their problems. Groups that accepted mediation, however, reported lower levels of satisfaction at the end of the course and received significantly lower group grades. These groups clearly did not feel that they could resolve the issue on their own: Their problems may have been more intractable, their members uncertain of their ability to resolve the problem, or involved lower scores that they considered more problematic. Although we examined group grades, we did not have a large enough sample size for statistical tests to measure the effect of individual course performance differences between students in groups reporting problems. Future work should examine the internal conflict management discussions (Tekleab et al., 2009) used by groups who declined mediation. More thorough study of classroom behaviors of those groups who accepted mediation could also provide strategies and case studies that other groups could use to address problems as they arise.


Instructors can identify problem groups early on by administering the Jehn & Mannix survey followed by the single question: Do you currently have a problem working as a team? Instructors should be aware that only a fraction of students may be forthright enough to identify a problem, so they should incentivize completing the survey and make efforts to contact groups for meetings even if only one member of the group reports a problem. Instructors should offer, but not insist, on groups undergoing mediation. The threat alone seems to be adequate for most groups to discuss and resolve the issue. Adopt a positive focus during mediation that clarifies the problem, includes each perspective, and provides suggestions for resolving disputes. ■


This material is based upon work supported in part by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1659423. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This study was approved by IRB STUDY00006399. The authors would also like to thank the students who volunteered to allow us to collect data.

Peggy Brickman ( is a professor in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. Austin Lannen is an undergraduate at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Jill Beyette is an academic professional in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.


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