Associate Professor Alison Bianchi: Researching Classroom Success

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Alison BianchiUniversity of Iowa professors frequently use group projects in the classroom. Associate Professor of Sociology Alison Bianchi wants to make sure that such projects are as effective as possible in helping students succeed.

Group projects offer many benefits, including bringing varied perspectives to a shared task. And working in a group setting is almost unavoidable in any professional setting after college. That’s why Bianchi believes in utilizing group work in the classroom—so that she can set students up for success post-graduation. She realizes that people often struggle to be productive in groups, and focuses her research on techniques to keep students on track. Bianchi is the Director of the UI’s Center for the Study of Group Processes. The Center experiments with various methods to increase the effectiveness of group projects.

“My whole goal with group work is to set up a situation where people don’t get left out,” Bianchi said. “I want to create a group structure that creates equal opportunity.”

Bianchi found that many American students are taught to work as an individual, rather than in groups. So, when it comes to working in a team, students struggle to perform to the best of their abilities. Many students are able to excel in personal tasks, but are missing out on the benefits of working in groups, which include gaining new perspectives, a diverse set of backgrounds and opinions, and opportunity for personal growth.

Bianchi focuses on the social inequalities and hierarchies that form within the structure of groups, which put some students at an automatic disadvantage. She says that groups often form a hierarchy almost immediately after being formed.

To help combat some of these issues, Bianchi has done extensive research to determine what strategies are the most successful, in order to provide her fellow teachers with tactical tools and resources to implement in their own classrooms. One of her most effective strategies is to have students verbally express their concerns regarding group work at the beginning of the semester.

“By having students express their concerns, their peers have a better understanding of what is expected of them and of how peers want to be treated,” Bianchi said.

Bianchi uses these strategies in her own sociology classes. She also utilizes role assignments in her groups to avoid the creation of a hierarchy. She assigns her students as either a manager, reporter, or skeptic.

“It is important that each member has a role and a purpose in a group, then halfway through have the students change roles,” Bianchi said. “This ensures each member is held accountable for the larger task at hand.”

Bianchi encourages instructors to continuously check in on groups and evaluate the dynamics at play. She has found that positive reinforcement can make a huge impact on a student who may not be getting their voice heard by other members.

Bianchi hopes that with her research, she can help students succeed in their studies—and give them the tools for success in their careers.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 73 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.