Groupwork can be difficult for many students, particularly when the outcome is assessed. These situations involve navigating social interactions, different working styles of group members, and the stress of ensuring the work gets completed. For neurodiverse students, some of these aspects can be extremely difficult to manage, particularly as these aspects can be unpredictable and the “rules” applying these situations are vague, but there are several ways that staff can support students to successfully engage with group work.
Supporting Neurodivergent Students Through Group Work
Before Group Work
- If the student is distressed about the prospect of group work, a reasonable adjustment could be to offer an alternative task, that still enables the learning objectives to be achieved.
- Provide a clear brief for group work, to ensure the activity, process, and outcome are clearly explained using non-figurative language, with some indication of how much time each stage should take.
- Offering to meet briefly with the student before group work sessions can be helpful to determine whether there are particular aspects of group work they are concerned about and to work out some solutions to these issues in advance.
- Some students need a little extra time to process what the group work task requires, so offering some time to explain and answer any questions may be appreciated
During a Scheduled Group Session
Consider assigning group members specific roles within the group to make individual expectations clear
During a session, there may be points where the student feels anxious or stressed - let the student know that it is okay to leave the room, use fiddle toys, or stim if they need too
Many students find the prospect of speaking up in a seminar session anxiety-provoking. Where some discussion or reporting back from the group is required, ensure that students' preferences for this are discussed in advance
Be aware that some neurodiverse students will find different aspects of group work quite draining (i.e. social interaction, eye contact, masking, reading, and writing), so suggest regular breaks, particularly during longer sessions
During Longer Group Sessions
Many group work projects will require students to work outside of scheduled sessions. In groupwork briefs suggest some methods for communication and work up front and ask groups to agree on a method during a first meeting. For instance, teams can be useful for discussing the work and sharing project files
Sometimes group interaction can be difficult to manage and communication can break down. Support neurodiverse students by outlining upfront what to do if this happens and how you can support them to continue with the project or work out an alternative.
Guidance for Students
Group work can be a significant stressor to many neurodivergent students, fostering and encouraging skills within all students about how to work with different people can reduce the stigma and increase inclusivity.
Taking time to give advice and encourage skills in students before they embark on group projects can reduce stress and conflict between all students. Prefacing group work about how to work with others who are different can also increase the inclusivity of all students.
- Encourage Empathy and Understanding: Some students will struggle with tasks other students find easier, it is worth explaining to students that the exercise of group work is supposed to encourage individuals to look at their strengths. Encouraging understanding that different ways of working are okay and it is about finding a middle ground.
- Avoid Assumptions: Encouraging students to be open to other students and not make quick judgments can improve their learning experience.
- Focus on The Positives: Group work often helps students to engage in work that is similar to the real world. Getting students to understand the point of the exercise regarding life after university may help them engage more. Plus, engaging students with the knowledge that they will have to work with people not like them and it is an important time to practice this exercise.
- Allowing Students to Chose Their Group: Giving students the autonomy to choose their groups allows neurodiverse students to choose people who would be supportive and compassionate towards them and ease the anxiety around being placed with unknown members.
- Group Contract: Writing a document or encouraging students to engage in a formal agreement to participate and work together may encourage students to consider the needs of others.
Presentations often cause significant anxiety and stress for neurodiverse students. The marking criteria and expectations often put neurodivergent students at a large disadvantage (for example, awarding marks based on eye contact when this is a known difficulty many neurodivergent students have).
Oral Presentations: University Guidelines
Staff Exemplar: Juliet Raynsford
In response to a workshop session led by Theo Gilbert, Hertfordshire University, Juliet has implemented the strategy around ‘compassionate group work’.
She has used his checklist in her tutorials, specifically with her module ‘Academic Identity and Skills’:
1. Language use for international/colleagues
2. Silences: the group’s just breathing and thinking…
3. Not normalising seeing others talked over.
4. Disrupting cliques and dominating pairs.
5. Bringing others into the discussion: tone and name.
6. Letting people stay out of the discussion – when they need to.
7. Thanking each other. The power of gratitude for bonding teams.
8. Checking your own, as well as others’ body language.
9. Working with non-readers who haven’t prepared for the work/meeting.
“For me, explicitly teaching these skills to students, and role-modelling and promoting them in the classroom have had a profound impact on the quality of inclusion and compassion in the classroom. I find once students understand these 'tools' they are much more tolerant and respectful of their co-students diverse learning needs.
One step I took to embed this within my first-year module was to scrap individual presentations and get students to work in groups of four and produce a compassionate discussion, rather than a formal, academic presentation. This led to students producing work that was much more akin to a podcast discussion - but, for me, the calibre of academic content, genuine meaningful debate and inclusion sky rocketed compared to the dry, anxiety provoking traditional presentation format I had used in previous years (watch his videos - and I would be happy - with their permission - to share some of my first years' work - it's superb - much more inclusive and you cannot tell the difference in academic confidence amongst the group . . . . and, trust me, many of the group, at this stage of their first year, were still finding it super hard to speak in front of their peers).”
Animation is Made by Robyn Ellison