Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Creating Positive Group Work Experiences to Increase Student Persistence

03 Sep 2018 8:06 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Alice Szczepaniak (Boston University)

Robyn Johnson (Boston University)

Naamah Azoulay Jarnot (University of Southern Maine)

Changiz Mohiyeddini (Northeastern University)

Sohila Mohiyeddini (California University of Management & Sciences)

Haley Carson  (Northeastern University)

Despite over 75 years of research on student persistence (Jones & Braxton, 2010), there have been few substantial gains in student persistence in recent years (Tinto, 2007). Persistence measures those students who continue to be enrolled in the university (McGrath & Burd, 2012). Low persistence rates can have a widespread impact:

  • ·       On a national level, college degree attainment has been linked to economic growth. Graduates from four-year colleges pay an average of 91% more in taxes each year than those with just high school degrees (Ma, Pender, & Welch, 2016).
  • ·       At an institutional level, student retention is used as a key performance indicator for the institution (Crosling, Heagney, & Thomas, 2009). Freshman persistence and graduation rates are among the metrics that define the quality of an academic institution (Culver, 2008).
  • ·       On an individual level, persistence is necessary for a college student to realize the social and economic benefits associated with higher education (Wolniak, Mayhew, & Engberg, 2012).

According to higher education theorist Vince Tinto’s model of college student departure, dropout from college is the result of the students’s experiences in the academic and social systems of the college. The higher the degree of integration of the student into the college’s social and academic system, the greater the student’s commitment to the specific institution and to the goal of college completion (Tinto, 1975). Terenzini and Wright (1987) found that students’ levels of academic and social integration in one year had a positive influence on their level of academic and social integration in the next year. More recently, Strauss and Volkwein (2004) established that social activities, classroom experiences, and friendships are key predictors of institutional commitment.

Based on this background information, we reasoned that student experiences that allow for both academic and social integration would increase student persistence. Thus, the objective of our study was to investigate whether positive group work experiences (Mohiyeddini, Johnson, Azoulay Jarnot, & Mohiyeddini, in preparation; Mohiyeddini, Azoulay, & Bauer, 2015) will increase students’ intention to persist.

The Study

Students were recruited at three different college campuses in London. To be included in the study, the students had to have current membership in a small mixed-gender group work of three to four students for at least one semester. While the classes were on different subjects, for each class the aim of group work was to produce a collaborative report and/or a presentation as a graded course requirement. Students participating in the study completed an initial questionnaire that included demographic and socioeconomic information, as well as a baseline measure of their intention to persist. Approximately five months after the first measurement, these students were asked to complete a follow-up questionnaire on their current intention to persist and their experiences with their group work. 232 students completed the study.

To measure group work experiences we used the Positive Group Work Inventory (PGWI) (Mohiyeddini et al., in preparation). The PGWI is made up of 24 items that measure six central factors of group work experiences:

  • 1.     Perceived respect
        “We comment on each other’s performance with an appropriate tone”
  • 2.     Perceived fairness
        “The workload and responsibilities were fairly distributed among us”
  • 3.     Effective commitment
        “My group members were committed to our group work”
  • 4.     Perceived transparency
        “The rules for our collaboration were clear”
  • 5.     Perceived support
        “Other group members gave me the support that I needed to complete my part”
  • 6.     Perceived inclusion
        “I had the feeling that I belonged to my group”

We measured the students’ intention to persist twice, once at the beginning of the study and again at the end of study (approximately 5 months later) with two items following Ajzen’s recommendations (1991):

  • 1.     “I intend to complete my degree at my current university”
  • 2.     “I intend to continue with my education at my current university”

Our Findings

After controlling for variables such as age, gender, and the student’s baseline intention to persist, we found that perceived respect (β = .125, p = .010) and perceived inclusion (β = .147, p = .002) were predictive of students’ intention to persist. The more students perceived respect and inclusion in their group work experience, the higher their intention to persist and complete their degree at their current academic institution. The predictive value of perceived inclusion suggests that if groups could foster a better sense of inclusion among members, that intention to persist could have an even larger impact on individual’s intention to persist, though the groups in this particular study did not do a particularly good job of fostering that kind of inclusive environment.

Our findings are in line with recent theories and research on the impact of perceived respect on teams. Perceived respect reflects that the individual feels valued by the team (Branscombe, Spears, Ellemers, & Doosje, 2002; Huo & Binning, 2008; Smith, Tyler, & Huo, 2003; Tyler & Blader, 2003). Individuals who feel respected by other team members experience higher levels of identification with the team (Sleebos, Ellemers, & de Gilder, 2007) and put more effort into achieving team goals (Tyler & Blader, 2003).

In a related vein, social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) highlights that social identification processes, during which individuals tend to think of themselves in terms of their belonging to and inclusion in a social group or collective, have a crucial impact on individuals’ collaborative behaviors. Following social identity theory, our results extend these findings and may suggest that perceived inclusion in a team supports the sense of being a part of an academic institution as a larger community and therefore strengthens a student’s intention to complete their education at that institution.


Although the current investigation advanced research on student persistence and positive group work experiences of students in several ways, there were also a number of limitations to our study. First, the study was based on self-reported data, which are affected by reappraisal of past events due to present (critical) circumstances, by impairment of memory over time, and by non-disclosure and reporting biases. Second, the questionnaire used in this study was presented in a consistent order and was not counterbalanced, which might have influenced the results and prompted order effects. Furthermore, considering the sample size, a non-random sampling method, lack of control group, and the recruitment of very few colleges, the generalizability of the findings is limited.

What to Do with this Information

Despite these limitations, our study expands our understanding of student persistence and highlights the potential impact of positive group work experiences on students. Fostering positive group work experiences could be an effective tool to improve the persistence intention of students. This can be done through:

       Workshops for faculty and staff that explain key conditions of a positive group work experience and provide tools and a framework for facilitating respect and inclusion in their class.

       Courses for students, such as first year seminars, that focus on teaching positive group work skills, particularly respect and inclusion.


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