Setting the Stage for Success in Group Work

Group of students meeting with Professor Joel Geske

There are steps you can take as the instructor of the course to help set the stage for student success when assigning group work. Consider integrating these tips below when you format the activities for your course.

Logistics of Creating Groups

Regardless of which tools you anticipate using for group work, the best place to start is by creating the groups in Canvas. 

This process can be used to generate a CSV file with all the students and their group designations, which can then be used to create groups in the other apps. Click the app links in the Collaboration Strategies box above and see “Using groups for collaboration” within the Instructor Resources. 

Assign Group Roles

At the start of a group project, assign or ask students to self-select the roles each student will play. Clearly defined roles will allow for greater accountability and appeal to students’ desire for real-world applications of learning. 

Assigning group roles and dividing responsibilities are critical steps to working effectively as a group. The following list of roles and responsibilities isn’t exhaustive, but can be a starting place for assigning roles within the group. 

Build a Sense of Community

Start with an ice breaker, move towards cooperation and then to collaboration.

Course Objective Activity

  1. Present course objectives to students and ask them to rank the objectives by importance to their lives and explain why.
  2. Ask students to write down their personal learning goals for the course and compare them to the course objectives. How do the students’ personal learning goals and the predetermined course objectives compare or contrast with each other?
  3. Ask students to share their responses with their partner or group.
  4. Collect students’ responses and debrief as a whole class. Discuss areas of common ground and areas where the goals don’t coincide.


Once the group roles have been established, work towards building a community for cooperation and collaboration. Devote a segment during class for groups to interact, define group norms, and explore potential challenges. Cooperative activities require students to engage in learning together. Typical structures for cooperative activities are:

  • Pair-share: Students complete a short assignment, such as summarizing an assigned reading or a guided questions such as:
    • “I would describe my communication style as…”
    • “A successful project would be…”
    • “Common pitfalls for our timeline and planning include…”

Then, they share their work with a partner to identify commonalities and differences in their work.

  • Peer critique:Students exchange work on a short assignment with a partner and critique each other’s work. You can provide a rubric that, for example, requires students to identify three effective elements of their partner’s work and three elements that they could improve.


Once students have had experience cooperating with partners, you can introduce activities that require collaboration. Collaborative activities require students to share ideas, co-create work, and reach consensus. Collaborative activities can be for pairs or groups of three to five students. Examples include:

  • Case analysis.Students individually complete an analysis of a case study you provide. Next, they work together to compare work and arrive at a group analysis that synthesizes all of their perspectives. Students can receive partial credit for their individual work, with the remaining grade based on the group’s work.
  • Collaborative writing/presentation. Assign groups to write a paper or develop a presentation together. 
  • Debate. Students work in pairs or groups to analyze and share either the pro or con of a given situation or issue. Then pairs are required to respond to the opposing viewpoint.
  • Modified pair-share. Students complete a short assignment and share their work with another student. Together, they must reach a consensus on their work to deliver a joint product. In addition to submitting their shared work, students can comment on their experience of agreeing.
Group Contract? You may consider capturing all of this in a group contract. Review the University of Waterloo’s Making Group Contracts resource to do so.

Provide Periodic Checkpoints

Divide projects into multiple “checkpoints” to present opportunities for individual learning and reflection before having students submit in their final project(s). 

Start the term with a low stakes project to motivate students’ engagement in group work and encourage their progress. By pooling their resources and dealing with differences of opinion that arise, groups of students can develop a more refined end result compared to the what they may have completed as an individual.. This is in line with making projects sufficiently complex so that students must draw on each other’s knowledge and skills. 

Consider having the groups set up a 7-10 minute check-in during your student office hours to discuss challenges and opportunities. 

Create Individualized Accountability

Even when a group project is completed and submitted successfully, having the individual student demonstrate mastery of the concept the activity was for is important. This helps to prevent the “free-rider” phenomenon. Students are considerably more likely to actively participate in the group project if they know their individual mastery of a topic will also be evaluated. 

To create individual accountability, some instructors combine a group project with an individual quiz on the relevant material. Others base part of the total project grade on a group product (e.g., report, presentation, design, paper) and part on an individual submission. The individual portion might consist of a summary of the group’s decision-making process, a synthesis of lessons learned, a description of the individual student’s contributions to the group, etc.

Share Available Tools

To help your students get started, share with them any relevant instructional tools available at Iowa State. Several categories are included below. See CELT’s Instructional Tools page for a full listing of ISU-approved tools within Canvas. 

Collaboration Strategies

Enhance the ability of student teams to collaborate effectively, increasing access and efficiency by using instructional technology. 

Academic Integrity in Group Work

Clarify expectations surrounding group and collaborative work throughout your course.