Facilitating Group Work

Instructor's Guide: Facilitating Group Work

Without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time. When done correctly, group projects can facilitate the development of communication, time management, collaboration, and conflict resolution skills that are vital in the professional world (Caruso & Woolley, 2008; Mannix & Neale, 2005). Use these suggestions to change the refrain of “I hate group work” to “what a great group experience!” 

When to Use Group Work

After months of social distancing and remote learning, it’s easy to see the need for engagement and interaction in the classroom. But not every project is complex enough to warrant the extra effort by students and instructors. 

When deciding whether to use group work for specific activities, identify the course objective for the activity, then respond to the questions in the table below. 

Will that objective be furthered by asking students to work in groups?    
Is the activity challenging or complex enough that it requires group work?   
Will the activity require true collaboration?    
Are there enough students in each group to fulfill all needed roles? Are you able to dedicate class time or student office hours to reinforcing students’ communication, coordination, and conflict resolution skills?   

If the answer to any of these questions is “no” then consider adjusting the activity parameters or leaving it as an individual project. 

You may need to adjust the learning objectives as you consider what you want to achieve through the small group activity, both academically (e.g., knowledge of a topic) and socially (e.g., listening skills). A clear relationship between the activity and the learning objectives ensures the project will help students learn, not simply occupy their time. 

Learning objective examples: 

  • To form, maintain and collaborate as a team on the following project(s). 
  • To establish effective group work guidelines (e.g., communication, brainstorming, discussions, academic integrity) for the team. 
  • To design equitable work plans to do the assigned activities by enlisting all team members’ help. 
  • To create and plan reports to record the team’s progress to the instructor.  

Communicating Expectations

Once you have refined the learning objectives and established your expectations for the project, it is important to communicate to students how this activity will benefit their learning (See the TiLT Higher Ed site). 

Communicating these benefits allow for transparency in the classroom. This transparency begins with the learning objectives and transitions to clearly communicating the project expectations and outcomes for the students. In providing clear instructions for the tasks and the criteria for the activity at-hand, the student is more likely to be able to problem solve and overcome any challenges they may experience (Yong, 2017).  

Make sure you are providing as many details as possible. Address whether there are any tools that can or cannot be used in the activity, or if you have any recommendations for which tool may be best suited for the work at-hand. Ensure the language of the project isn’t ambiguous so the group is not left to interpret expectations. Avoid words like “simplify,” “make,” “address,” and others without clearly stating how you expect each of these things to be done.  

Upon project or activity completion, continue the transparency and wrap-up the discussion on expectations. This can be done by asking your students how the activity or project connected to previous material that had been discussed in classes. Helping your students see the connection between the purpose of the current assignment and past material allows for a powerful learning experience (Mulnix, 2018). 

  • Bailey, E. G., et.al. (2020). Female in-class participation and performance increase with more female peers and/or a female instructor in a life sciences course. CBE – Life Sciences Education19(3). https://www.lifescied.org/action/cookieAbsent 
  • Barkley, E.F., Cross, K.P., & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques. Jossey-Bass. 
  • Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Retrieved October 7, 2019, from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/.
  • Burke, A. (2011). Group work: How to use groups effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87-95. 
  • Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center (2012). Using group projects effectively. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/index.html Caruso, H.M., & Wooley, A.W. (2008). Harnessing the power of emergent interdependence to promote diverse team collaboration. Diversity and Groups. 11, 245-266. 
  • Huang, L. (2018, September 20). Students riding on coattails during group work? Five simple ideas to try. Retrieved October 14, 2019, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/students-riding-coattails-group-work-five-simple-ideas-try/
  • MulnixA.B. (2018). The power of transparency in your teaching. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/power-transparency-teaching/ 
  • Weimer, M. (2013, April 5). What group dynamics can teach us about classroom learning. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/what-group-dynamics-can-teach-us-about-classroom-learning/
  • Yong, D. (2017). How transparency improves learning. Retrieved from http://maateachingtidbits.blogspot.com/2017/10/how-transparency-improves-learning.html 

Facilitating group work, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University, is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Facilitating group work, is a derivative of How to succeed on university assignments developed by the Student Success Office at the University of Waterloo (retrieved on March 12, 2021) from https://uwaterloo.ca/student-success/resources/university-assignments, and Implementing Group Work in the Classroom developed by the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo (retrieved on March 12, 2021) from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/alternatives-lecturing/group-work/implementing-group-work-classroom