It has been three years since I received a phone call asking for a reference for a recent graduate and stumbled over the question of how the student had done in-group work. As I thought about our interactions in and out of the classroom, I was sure she was a strong writer, had a firm grasp of AP Style, and was a good citizen, but I had no idea how she handled collaborative or group work. I had been teaching to the individual.

While individualized instruction is effective in the classroom, it limits the student’s learning experience. Clark Bouton & Russell Garth recognized that students also need the opportunity to learn through conversations and questions with others. In considering collaborative learning groups, William Rau and Barbara Sherman Hayl offered evidence that students found them effective. I knew I wanted to add an element of group work to my fall syllabus, so I considered the desired learning outcomes and the possible outcomes. I recognized that collaboration in the classroom can be loathed as non-productive, frustrating, and unfair. But there is no way around collaboration in the workplace.

I considered all the ways I had worked in formal and informal groups during my career as a journalist. While working as an editor at the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas, I was introduced to Gallup’s Strengths management program. Paul Allen found that Gallup’s StrengthsFinder is used by an estimated 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Gallup’s assessment tool is designed to help people understand what they naturally do well and develop those strengths, rather than focus on improving areas of weakness. One of the benefits of Strengths is that it promotes self-awareness and an understanding of how a person is perceived by others. I saw how it fostered a more collaborative newsroom and promoted enhanced conversation among reporters and editors.

Using Strengths in Class

Rather than just have students self-select into groups, I decided to use class group work as an opportunity to introduce students to the idea of Strengths, or expand their understanding of how Strengths can be used. TCU’s Leadership Center provides assessments and strengths training opportunities. Many students are introduced
to Strengths through their participation in student organizations. I’ve found that out of a class of 15 students, at least one-third have previously been assessed. Two class periods are set aside. The first is after they have completed an online assessment. The class is led by a Strengths coach from the TCU Leadership Center, who explains Gallup’s four domains—executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking—of leadership and how the various talents fall into them.

This first class period is about self-awareness as students consider their Strengths and how they manifest. There are typically a few “ah-ha” moments during the talent discussion as students discuss their commonalities and differences. Often there is a young woman in the group who has “command” in her top five and someone makes a remark about bossiness. This is a wonderful time to stress the positives of a take-charge attitude and help students move away from the idea that strength in females is a negative attribute. It’s also a time when some students see traits they took for granted, such as being strategic, as a positive.

The second class is when the students select their groups with an awareness of how various Strengths can help a group be more successful. I want to emphasize that the students create the work groups. In the three semesters that I have done this, I have only had one group that struggled. This group’s dominant domain was relationship building and while they got along well, they didn’t get the assignment done properly. I wasn’t surprised that this happened.

As the groups were forming, the Strengths coach from the Leadership Center predicted that this could be a problem. This semester, I watched as students went around the room, discussing their Strengths with each other and forming groups that included at least three, if not all four of the domains. I have watched and listened as they work constructively on their assignments in class.

My approach to group work also includes accountability. Students are told from the outset that I will assign a grade to the project, but that their final grade will be determined through my observation of them and by evaluations done by their teammates. I have found that students tend to be honest and tough on their peers. But, on a scale of 1–4, with one being the lowest, I rarely see twos and I’ve never seen a one. Having students use Strengths gives them the opportunity to learn how to communicate more effectively with one another and function as a cohesive group.

Works Cited

Allen, Paul. “Gallup, Meet Utah. Utah, Meet Gallup.” Paul Allen blog, 9 May 2015, Accessed 7 November 2016.

Bouton, Clark, and Russell Y. Garth. “Students in learning groups: Active learning through conversation.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 1983, no. 14, 1983, pp. 73–82.

Rau, William, and Barbara Sherman Heyl. “Humanizing the College Classroom: Collaborative Learning and Social Organization among Students.” Teaching Sociology, vol. 18, no. 2, 1990, pp. 141–155. Stable URL:

Jean Marie BrownThis article was written by Jean Marie Brown, Department of Journalism for the Spring 2017 Issue of Insights.