Without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time. Use these suggestions to change the refrain of “I hate group work” to “what great group experiences!”
Share your rationale for using group work
Determine what you want to achieve through the small group activity, both academically (e.g., knowledge of a topic) and socially (e.g., listening skills). The activity should relate closely to the course objectives and class content and help students learn, not simply to occupy their time.
- When deciding whether or not to use group work for a specific task, consider these questions:
- What is the objective of the activity?
- How 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 project require true collaboration?
- Is there any reason why the assignment should not be collaborative?
Once you answer those questions, you will want students to recognize how this assignment will benefit their learning (See the TiLT Higher Ed site). Also, explicitly connect the group work to more significant class themes and learning outcomes. 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 tasks by enlisting all team members’ help.
- To create and plan reports to record the team’s progress to the instructor.
Determine the group roles
Ask students to determine before a group project the roles that each student will play. The group members working individually and then collaboratively can create job descriptions that explain what they are doing to contribute to the group. If roles are clearly defined, this will allow for greater accountability and appeal to students’ desire for real-world applications of learning.
Assigning group roles and dividing up responsibilities are critical steps to working effectively as a group. The following list of roles and responsibilities isn’t exhaustive, but it can be a starting place for assigning roles that suit your group’s needs.
Draw on people’s strengths to identify roles, but don’t get saddled with the same task throughout the project. For example, one person can research one section of a project, write another section and review the third section.
Download the Sample Group Work Project Checklist (Docx).
Devote a segment during class for groups to interact, define group norms, and explore potential challenges. Encourage this process through guided questions such as,
- “I would describe my communication style as…”
- “A successful project would be…” or
- “Common pitfalls for our timeline and planning include…”
Request students to share their group norms and roles with you.
One strategy to build deeper interaction in an online course is to move from cooperation to collaboration.
Cooperative activities require students to do things together. Two typical structures for cooperative online activities are:
- Pair-share. Students complete a short assignment, such as summarizing an assigned reading. 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.
- Case analysis. Students individually complete an analysis of a case study you provide. Next, they work together to compare their 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. For additional ideas, use the Writing Activities page or the Remote Assessments pages.
- Debate. Students work in pairs or groups to analyze and share either the pro or the 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 student. Together, they must arrive at 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.
Need more ideas?
Check out the extensive ideas on the University of Illinois-Springfield’s Online Instructional Activities Index page.
Separate 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 sophisticated product than they could as individuals. 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
Communicate common group work challenges and solutions
- Creates roadblocks to getting started or continuing with projects
- Feels frustrating for group members who feel that others aren’t compromising and taking other’s situations into consideration
- Try to be understanding of others’ schedules and responsibilities, which may be different from your own
- Use virtual meeting spaces in a web conferencing platform (e.g., MS Teams, Webex, Zoom)
- Take turns picking the venue and time of the meeting
- Group conflict is natural and often necessary for effective group work
- Sometimes it may escalate and make it difficult for members to focus on the project
- Don’t let personal feelings impact your work in the group. Focus on the work you have to accomplish
- Try to find common ground between two ideas to reach reconciliation
- Address conflicts directly and respectfully
- Some group members don’t or aren’t perceived to be contributing to the group project
- Creates tension in the group
- Feels unfair to group members
- Set clear guidelines and work expectations at the beginning of the group project
- Assign roles and responsibilities so that each person will contribute equally
- Speak directly, but respectfully, to the person who isn’t completing their work
- Some group members may strive for perfection, while others simply want to pass
- Some people begin projects in advance, while others procrastinate
- Creates tension because the group isn’t working toward the same goal
- Early communication is key to ensure everyone agrees on common goals – determine how your team will communicate (e.g., Canvas Inbox, MS Teams)
- Keep goals realistic and understand that your actions affect other group members
- Create a timeline so the group can keep to an agreed-upon plan for completing the project
- Hitting a mental roadblock
- Can be discouraging and lead to procrastination and avoidance
- Review the assignment expectations and goals
- Have a brainstorming session where ideas are discussed. Create a mind map to link common ideas and trains of thought
- If you remain stuck, seek help from your professor during their student office hours
- Some group members agree with others to avoid conflict
- Stifles creativity and constructive evaluation of alternative ideas
- Think critically about ideas presented, offer and assess alternatives, and embrace diverse opinions from group members
- Work through projects analytically using the groups’ combined knowledge and experience
Share tools for success
To help your students get started, share with them the collaboration tools available at Iowa State.
Provide individualized accountability
Dr. Rebecca Cademartiri (Materials Science and Engineering) shares a Canvas Peer Review workaround to ensure students provide quality feedback to each other. To begin, set up two assignments in Canvas.
- The first assignment is worth zero points, requires the Peer Review option selected (see peer review assignment web guide), and assigns peer reviewers automatically (view automatically assign peers web guide).
- The second, no-submission assignment serves to grade peer reviewers. After scanning the reviewers’ feedback on the first assignment (view student peer review comments web guide), utilize the second assignment to enter the grades for all peer reviewers. This approach will help students discover how to give valuable feedback, and reading each other’s writing will vastly improve their work before you even grade it.
To see a demonstration of this, view Cademartiri’s presentation via the CELT Online Learning Community meeting video (start at 1:12:00).
- 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/.
- 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/
- Weimer, M. (2013, April 5). What group dynamics can teach us about classroom learning. Retrieved August 27, 2019, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/what-group-dynamics-can-teach-us-about-classroom-learning/
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