Teamwork skills are increasingly required in the Vietnamese workplace, particularly in English language contexts. However, the literature from intra/intercultural communication, education and English language teaching provides conflicting evidence as to Vietnamese group work skills and preferences. The present study therefore investigates collaborative and non-collaborative interaction patterns among Vietnamese students in group work in English, and seeks to explain the underlying values of their behaviour, in the context of a popular Vietnamese perception found in the mass media and the limited literature that the Vietnamese do not participate successfully in group collaboration tasks.
Three sources of data are triangulated: 1. Video-recordings of 13 groups (51 participants) undertaking a collaborative group task (in English) are analysed to identify the collaborative and non-collaborative aspects of their interactions, using a theoretical framework developed from the literature review of collaborative learning, teamwork communication and interaction analysis. 2. The participants’ perspectives obtained from 42 individual stimulated retrospective interviews (in Vietnamese) provide additional interpretation of utterances and dynamics in the group task. 3. The participants’ perspectives obtained from four focus group interviews (in Vietnamese) with 22 participants, together with the retrospective interviews (#2 above) are used to investigate the underlying values and perceptions that influence students’ behaviour and dis/satisfaction with group work.
Analysis of the group task data in triangulation with comments from the retrospective interviews shows that the students’ collaborative interactions are not only higher in frequency, but also more diverse in strategies and forms than their non-collaborative interactions. The higher frequency of non-mitigated dispreferred acts such as disagreement, and the fact that directness does not necessarily correlate with non-collaboration, challenge the cultural stereotype that Vietnam is a high-context culture which tends to favour saving face rather than direct communication.
The data from the two types of interviews reveal the underlying cultural and educational perceptions and values behind students’ dissatisfaction and negative perceptions of group work, despite their apparently collaborative behaviour. Firstly, students’ continued justification of their own ideas in competition with those of others in the retrospective interviews reveals a perception of individual ownership of ideas that underlies the dissatisfaction when one’s own ideas are not selected or are contested. Secondly, the widely unquestioned assumption that social organisation and people’s competence are hierarchical, and the preference for hierarchical decision-making, are found to be related to students’ competition to establish their ranking and position among group members, as well as their dissatisfaction when their perceived superiority is not realised in the interactions. While the study challenges the stereotype of a preference for indirect communication among Vietnamese, it reinforces the stereotype of hierarchical social relations. The perception of hierarchy is also found to be related to the preference for the unity of ideas, rather than an appreciation of the diverse contributions to the task at hand. Thirdly, concern with task completion at the expense of the discussion process helps explain the impatience and dissatisfaction among some members. Frustration at not getting one’s way is associated with a preference for task division and individual work rather than co-construction of ideas in discussion. The comparison of the three sources of data also points to the gap between students’ attitudes, preferences and their practice.
There is no clear relationship found between the level of English competence and students’ collaboration in the group task. However, discrepancy in English competence is a contributing factor influencing students’ satisfaction with the group work. While some students use their higher English proficiency to help others communicate their ideas, some take advantage of their competence to dominate the group. The discrepancy in language competence is sometimes used as a means to compete for ranking in the hierarchy, and is related to some students’ dissatisfaction with the group process.
By identifying perceptions and behaviour that foster or hinder collaborative interactions and students’ satisfaction with group work, the study also lays a foundation for future pedagogical interventions. In Vietnamese settings involving English as a Foreign Language, the fact that those who are fluent in English can be non-collaborative in interaction points to the need for a more comprehensive approach in teaching and testing communicative competence. The gap between students’ attitudes of what makes the group work and their actual behaviour means that a more systematic approach to teamwork, including the understanding of the underlying values and perceptions is necessary.