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Group Work Roles for Modern Learners

by Lori Gracey
group work roles

When I was teaching a thousand years ago, I remember attending a professional development workshop on using cooperative learning techniques with students. During the workshop, the presenter emphasized the need for assigning roles to each student so that he/she could contribute to the group work. There were only four or five job roles mentioned at the time, including things like leader, materials manager, time keeper, and note taker. I agreed with the concept of assigning group tasks, but my students didn’t seem too excited about them. It seemed like the materials manager, for example, often didn’t have much to do in the group other than at the beginning and end of class. And no one ever wanted to be the note taker — how boring!

Fast forward to today. As I work with educators doing group work in cooperative learning situations, I am still convinced of the benefit of each person having specific jobs to do that contribute to everyone’s learning and the success of the team. But I believe that the jobs themselves have changed based on the way we now work. So I would like to propose a new set of group work roles as follows. These will work with students as well as with adult learners. I’ve included a brief job description and possible problems that might crop up.

The Coordinator

Duties: The coordinator, formerly the leader role, is the person who manages the work (but not the workers!). He/She ensures that the goals to be accomplished are clear, delegates responsibility based on each person’s abilities and interests, and checks on everyone’s progress. This means that the coordinator must really know the members of the team, which may require doing some team building activities before starting to work.

Possible problems: If not careful, the coordinator may be perceived as bossy or lazy. So care must be taken that he/she does an equal part of the work and allows others the freedom to work as they wish as long as the goals are being met. It is important to remind the coordinator that he/she is not the boss, just someone who helps others do their very best.

The Divergent

Duties: The divergent is the group member charged with constantly thinking outside the box while looking for more effective ways to accomplish the goals. He/She must use creativity while brainstorming new solutions to the given problem, different ways of presenting the final product, and ideas for helping the team to work better together. All aspects of the group work are within his/her responsibility.

Possible problems: If not careful, the divergent can spend a lot of time in la-la land and not be grounded in the reality of what can and must be accomplished. Time can sometimes be his/her enemy, as can a lack of communication with the rest of the group. It is helpful if the coordinator checks in routinely with the divergent to see what he/she is currently working on.

Resource Specialist

Duties: Similar to the long-ago materials manager, the resource specialist’s job is to gather and curate all of the materials, whether physical or digital, that the group will need to accomplish the goals. This may include anything from getting markers and chart paper to doing research for the project. Once gathered, the materials must be collated and organized in a way that makes it easy for the rest of the team to find and use what they need. And the research process does not end until the completed product is turned in, which means that a good resource specialist is busy throughout the entire project, gathering data on each phase of the work from beginning inquiry to determining what form the final product might be in.

This is the only group role, by the way, that is encouraged to visit with other teams and see what they are doing. This is not so that others’ work can be copied, but so that all of the groups can learn from each other.

Possible Problems: This position may be perceived as a “boring” one by students. After all, who wants to spend all of their time doing research? By stressing the curation and organization of resources to ensure that all possibilities are covered and that the team members can easily find what they need when they need it, the teacher can ensure that the importance of this role is understood by everyone. The resource specialist must work with every member of the group, which can also sometimes lead to off-task behavior.

Tech Support

Duties: If the assignment has a technology component to it, then one member of the group should provide tech support as needed. While we may believe that all students are inherently gifted with technical knowledge, that is not really the case. The tech support person is there to help solve any problems that may come up with a device, an app, or a website. In addition, this position may also assume the recordkeeping duties by creating a Google Doc or other collaborative workspace that can be shared with the group. Having this role frees the teacher or workshop leader from having to stop facilitating and worry about “fixing” things.

Possible problems: Because this person is a techie, he/she will want very much to DO all of the technical work. But that is not the function of this position. Encourage him/her to take a “hands-off” approach to supporting the others in the group and letting them solve problems under his/her tutelage. Think “call support center” help instead of “me doing this for you” assistance.

The Finisher

Duties: The finisher has excellent attention to detail and is perfect at checking the final product. He/She ensures that the stated goals have been achieved and searches out errors, polishing and perfecting. This position does not mitigate the need for all other group members to check their own work, nor should its duties happen only at the end of the project. A good finisher is constantly checking in with the other members of the group to see if they need help.

Possible problems: Meticulous and detailed, the Finisher may be perceived as a nit-picker. So it’s important for this person to explain why changes need to be made.

Recommendations for Use

While students with certain talents may naturally fall into one particular role most readily, I do believe that it is important that roles be rotated throughout the year, allowing everyone to develop skills in each of these area. Whether this is done through a rotation schedule or by random drawing doesn’t matter as long as everyone knows that the jobs will change. This will require a certain delicacy on the teacher’s part in motivating those learners who are not comfortable with a particular role to be successful at it. And training in what the duties of each role look like is definitely required before the teams begin meeting. This training may even include role playing in how the coordinator, for example, can help to keep the divergent on track.

It may also be helpful to bring all of the individuals filling a particular role together at various times throughout the year so that they can share ideas on how they are working in that job and learn from each other. The teacher or workshop leader will need to scaffold these discussions with pre-determined questions for them to answer.

What do you think about these new group work roles? How do you assign roles for your students or adult learners?


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