Speaking in Academic Contexts

Working in groups


Speaking in academic contexts is becoming increasingly important as teaching methods change to involve more group work, joint projects and group marks. Home students see problems if Students in Higher Education are not seen to be pulling their weight in collaborative work. Many students comment that they find working in groups difficult because they can never think of intelligent things to say, they can never contribute new ideas to the group.

It is important to point out, though, that contributing new ideas is only one aspect of successful group work and if everyone continued to contribute new ideas, the group would not be successful. Therefore, being aware of the other important roles in the group is valuable.

A successful group needs a good person in the chair, a person who can come up with good new ideas, someone who can see the practical uses of these ideas, someone who can spot the bad ideas, someone who can summarise the present state of the discussion, someone who can change the direction of the group, someone who can question the other group members and get explanations, and a range of different experiences etc.

Belbin's (1981, 1993) discussion of successful teams in business can be helpful. He analysed successful teams in business and came to the conclusion that successful teams contained the following roles:

  1. Implementer (IMP)
    Implementers are hard working, practical people. They make ideas and plans work in practice. They see what needs to be done and what will probably work in the future and they do it. They are well organised and efficient in carrying out the plans of the group.
  2. Co-ordinator (CO)
    Co-ordinators are the organisers of the teams. They control the way in which a team reaches its objectives. They are very good at making the best use of the resources of the team. They clearly see what each group member can contribute and ensure that the best use is made of each team member's potential. They encourage people to talk when they have something valuable to contribute. They are interested in all the views of the team but they see where the strengths and weaknesses of the teams lie and so easily make up their minds. They persuade people to agree.
  3. Shaper (SH)
    Shapers take the lead in shaping the way in which the team effort is applied. They focus the attention of the team on the setting of objectives and priorities and make sure that no time is wasted. They are therefore impatient with those who obstruct the progress of the group. They want to impose some shape or pattern on the group discussion and on the outcome of the group activities. They are often seen as forceful and authoritative when they challenge the views of others.
  4. Plant (PL)
    Plants are the creative members of the group. They introduce new ideas and strategies to the discussion, especially regarding important issues. They may not be clear on minor points and may not follow the argument well. They are sometimes poor at explaining and clarifying their ideas to others and may get frustrated when this happens.
  5. Resource Investigator (RI)
    Resource investigators explore and report on new ideas, developments and resources from inside or outside the group. They create external contacts that may be useful to the team and conduct negotiations. They talk a lot and open up the discussion. They respond to challenges but they may get bored easily.
  6. Monitor-Evaluator (ME)
    Monitor-evaluators are logical thinkers. They analyse problems and evaluate ideas and suggestions. They enjoy comparing different points of view and therefore help the team to make balanced decisions. They offer alternative suggestions and can give good reasons for these alternatives, but they can be too critical.
  7. Teamworker (TW)
    Teamworkers are good at listening and give support to the other members of the group. For example, they may support good suggestions, help members to support their ideas, improve communication between members and help the group to work well together in general. They find it difficult to lead from the front. They are not very good at defending their own opinions and can be easily influenced by others.
  8. Completer-Finisher (CF)
    Completer-Finishers ensure that the team is protected from mistakes. They pay attention to suggestions that do not work and make sure that the team does not omit something important. They actively search for aspects of work that need more attention than usual. They also maintain a sense of urgency within the team and make sure that the team does not fall behind schedule and finishes on time. They like things done properly and worry over detail and therefore prevent careless mistakes.
  9. Specialist (SP)
    Specialists have the important specialist knowledge. They are single-minded and dedicated. They provide the knowledge and skills which are in short supply. However they can only contribute in a narrow way, may spend too much time on technical matters and might not see the overall picture.

These roles can be divided into three main groups:

  • those roles concerned with action - Shaper, Implementer, and Completer Finisher
  • those more related to people - Co-ordinator, Teamworker and Resource Investigator
  • and the roles that involve use of the brain - Plant, Monitor Evaluator and Specialist.

Belbin (1981, 1993).

Read the descriptions of the roles and try to find one that fits you well. If you want to assess yourself more formally, try the questionnaire in the book (Belbin, 1981, pp. 147-151) or try the on-line test at http://www.belbin.com (but it is not free!).

This shows the importance of the different roles in a successful group. Try to find out what your strengths are and develop them. Do not think you have to, or can, do everything, but realise that, whatever your role, you have strengths that are important in a team.