Helping students work in groups remotely

Sunrise over Labrador Pond

By Alicia Russell, CELT

Group activities help students develop a variety of skills that can prepare them for future jobs, improve their learning, and enhance their chances of success during their college careers. Working in groups can also help students appreciate the unique skills and knowledge they bring to the assignment, and recognize those of their peers. In remote classes, group work can also help students feel more engaged and connected to their peers. The following suggestions will help you get started designing group work for remote learning.

1. Articulate your goals and do some planning up front 

Before you decide to use group work, write down your goals for it, including both the academic objectives you want the students to achieve and the social skills you want them to develop. For example see CMU’s Eberly Centers’ benefits of group work.  Once you’ve clarified your goals for group work, start planning the process of group work:

  • Determine which part of the course is best suited for group work. Is there a specific project or activity that would be enhanced by having students work in groups? Will these be single activities or extended collaborations over time? Remember it’s important to ensure avenues for clear communication among students, especially when they are working remotely.  
  • Decide how groups will be formed and how roles will be defined. Guidelines that students develop together can help govern how they work together, determine roles, manage conflict, and address microaggressions. These are not rules, but rather guidelines for creating a civil and respectful team environment. See Ground Rules for Working Groups and Group Work Design Guidelines  
  • Identify the tools and information students will need to complete the group work.  
  • Outline how students will be assessed. See CMU’s Eberly Centers advice for ideas about Assessing Group Projects 
  • Determine the technology you will need Tufts offers technologies to help instructors to organize and conduct group work to enhance student interaction. These tools are specifically designed with group features. Most offer multiple ways to form groups. 
    • Use Groups in Canvas to coordinate learning activities such as assignments, discussions, and quizzes for groups of students; especially useful for a large class. 
    • Use Zoom for creating breakout rooms. 
    • Poll Everywhere can help streamline group teaching models such as peer instruction or team-based learning. 
    • Piazza can enable agile group interaction and forums among students, which can be useful for small group teaching, lab/recitation, and project-based learning. 
    • Wikis allow for collaborative writing and documentation of group work. 

2. Communicate your expectations to your students.  

Clearly communicating in a remote environment is critical to the success of any activity.  For group work, be sure you provide specific instructions to your students including the following: 

  • the purpose of the assigned group work 
  • the structure of the assignment & how students will be expected to collaborate with their group members 
  • where and how to access the information and tools students will need to complete the group work  
  • due dates/deadlines  
  • how students will be evaluated (i.e., what will be graded?, are their rubrics or other guides to the grade determinations?)   

3. Design the group to create an inclusive space that each member can contribute to.  

To be successful all students need to feel as though they are welcomed within the group work-space, and be able to access the knowledge and tools to successfully complete it.  Students may be struggling with a variety of challenges, many of which can be exacerbated by remote learning. These might include, missing face-to-face interaction with peers and faculty, struggles with technology, lack of quiet spaces to work, lack of motivation, difficulty focusing in synchronous spaces, time zone conflicts, confusion about assignments, cognitive overload, homework overload, juggling multiple class times, computer fatigue, juggling multiple responsibilities and health issues. See Fostering Inclusion and Equity in Remote Teaching for more. 

Scaffold the development of the groups ability to work together.  Before putting students in groups, consider having  students fill out a survey that asks for their time zones, technology availability, health concerns, and any constraints to participating in groups.   Start by allow students to brainstorm what they can bring to the group to help the group make decisions based on the unique talents and skill sets that each member has to offer. One of the things that helps teams function smoothly are agreements upon a basic set of norms having to do with goals, work norms, the role of the facilitator, etc.  Prompt students to reflect on their own expectations and goals, and make some decisions about how you would like your team to run to create those norms for their individual group. 

4. Implementing Group Work 

Once you have identified the technology you will use and how you will break students into groups, set the tone of the project through clearly communicating these expectations to your students and prompting their own frequent and clear communication with each other.  For example, consider using a first group session to help students build community and establish ground rules. For their first assignment, have the groups complete a low-stakes project. This will help uncover difficulties with technology, group dynamics, and other issues. 

Remember to check in with students frequently to find out how they are doing. Finally, be flexible! 

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