Collaborative learning has the potential to be a powerful teaching tool, engaging students in classroom community and deepening learning through social interactions. There are many approaches to teaching that involve breaking up a classroom into pairs or small groups for peer interactions (see Encouraging Students to Learn from Each Other for examples). However, longer term group projects require careful design for a successful student learning experience. This page outlines four stages to consider as you integrate group work into your class.
Stage 1: Deciding whether to use group work
There are many benefits to group work, but it also adds complexity, so your first consideration should address whether to incorporate group work at all. Often, instructors include group assignments because they help students build professional skills such as teamwork and communication, tackle more complex projects through collaborative efforts, and deepen their knowledge of relevant concepts through social learning. Group assignments can also lighten the load for instructors through having fewer projects to support and grade and creating a structure for students to receive peer feedback.
Because group work adds layers of complexity to an assignment, designing effective group projects requires careful planning on the part of the instructor. When making your decision, the most important thing to determine is how the students will benefit from working in a group on this assignment. Once you can articulate that for yourself you can begin the planning process to create the structures to support students in successful collaboration within their groups. The follow questions may be helpful to guide your decision around whether or not to use a group project:
- Will student learning be enhanced by different points of view or discussions?
- Will students each assume responsibility for different components of the work or take on different roles?
- Could students learn disciplinary skills or modes of interaction through group work?
- Are skills relating to working in groups important to your course?
- Will you be able to devote the class time students need to establish and work with their groups?
Finally, don’t forget to be transparent with students about the answers to the questions above. It is helpful to communicate to students the objectives of the group project (i.e., what knowledge and skills will students gain), how they align with the central course goals, and the benefits of working within a group on this project.
Stage 2: Forming groups
One of the most common questions around group work is, “How should the group composition be decided?” Should students choose their own groups? Should they be randomized? Here are a few points of consideration when forming groups.
- Letting students self select. Having students self select can allow students to feel more comfortable in their groups, leading to easier group dynamics. However, self-selection can cause problems. For example, shy students who don’t know anyone in the class may feel isolated or uncomfortable trying to find a group, and stronger students will tend to group together, which is less ideal. Self selection can also result in students who are similarly resourced working with each other, resulting in groups that are more or less advantaged, particularly around student students with marginalized identities. Groups function well when students have the opportunity to teach each other and offer various perspectives and strengths. One way to avoid overly homogenous self-selected groups is to have students form groups based on pre-selected topics (for example, students can choose the topic that most appeals to them). Allowing some choice can improve students’ motivation, but keep in mind that it may not to lead to ideal group composition (see “Criteria for group formation” below).
- Random vs. strategically assigned groups. Random assignment is quick and easy, but it can be worthwhile to go through the process of a more strategic assignment of groups. Group success depends on group dynamics, different student strengths, aspects of identity and background that students bring to their groups, and even logistical constraints (e.g., scheduling availability) among group members. Taking the time to gather information from students ahead of time can guide the formation of groups that have a better chance of working well together.
- Criteria for group formation. Oakley (2004) recommends the following criteria for group formation:
- Aim for groups of 3-4 people
- Maximize heterogeneity of academic strength/experience/skill
- Ensure students’ schedules/availability outside of class are compatible
- Avoid isolating students of traditionally minoritized/marginalized identities, particularly during the first two years of a curriculum
- Consider potential group roles. Formalized roles for group members can be an important factor in group success. The section below addresses how to build role assignment into the process of establishing groups. See e.g. Assigning Roles to Increase the Effectiveness of Group Work
Stage 3: Attending to how a group works together
Once the members of a group are determined, the group doesn’t automatically become an effective, communicative team. Ideally, group work falls somewhere in between the continuum from “divide and conquer” to “everyone does the same thing, together.” You can support groups in this process by helping students understand how successful groups work and building in structure around setting expectations and roles, and by providing them with resources to support the formation of their groups.
- Creating and assigning roles. Group members may take on different roles that will allow them to make unique contributions by drawing from their backgrounds, experiences, and skills. It is important for you and/or the students to clarify, in writing, the responsibilities associated with each role. Examples of roles include coordinator (keeps everyone on task; makes sure everyone is involved), recorder (takes notes and prepares final work to turn in), and checker (make sure everyone understands the work produced by the group; double checks work before it is turned in). Students might rotate through these roles or add/replace roles depending on the nature of the work.
- Establishing group expectations. Group members should identify, in collaboration, a set of expectations that they all agree to honor. Again, this should be in writing, and can be signed by the group members. Group expectations might include agreements around communication, timeliness/attendance, scheduling, respect, equitable participation, and how to handle with uncooperative group members. It is also important to incorporate some team building: give them a fun prompt that will help them get to know one another on a more personal level, or have them create a team name. For more, see Example instructions for students working in groups.
- Explicit instruction on group work. Particularly for more novice students, it can be useful to provide clear instruction on how to be an effective group member. This might include highlighting the importance of creating and honoring the group expectations, pitfalls of the divide-and-conquer method, and how to handle problematic group members. Oakley et al. (2004) offer case studies that students can use to engage with this issue.
- Check in on group functioning. To avoid situations where the group realizes too late that they aren’t functioning well, build in intervals where students can reflect on their group dynamics. For example, you can have students respond to questions such as, “What has each member done to help the group?” and “What could each member do from this point forward to make the group even better?” These times are also important opportunities for the instructor to identify groups that may have larger concerns. If members of a group are experiencing microaggressions or the group is otherwise dysfunctional, it may be worth considering early process check-ins that provide an opportunity to split or rearrange a subset of the class groups. Depending on the situation and context for group work, groups might be dissolved and reformed. See “Assess process as well as product” and “Create checkpoints along the way” below.
Stage 4: Grading / Feedback for Group work
Once you have clarity on your goals for using group work, you can develop feedback and grading criteria that help students achieve these outcomes. However, successful group work also depends on all members of the group communicating and collaborating with each other. Therefore, it is important design opportunities for feedback on the group’s interactions in addition to the content of the work and to consider how to allocate grades that promote both individual accountability and the interdependence on working as a collaborative whole.
- Assess process as well as product – Effective group work requires attending to the function of the group as a whole beyond the products or work that the group creates. An instructor can provide feedback on these processes, even if they are not included in a formal grade. Holistic feedback about the group process can be gathered from self-reflections and peer evaluations that support feedback from the instructor. Self-reflections can prompt the student to evaluate their own process as well as the functioning of the group as a whole.
- Create checkpoints for work progress along the way – For semester long projects, it is also important to provide checkpoints and feedback along the way to make sure the groups are on track to successfully complete the project. Self and peer feedback can help promote collaboration and cooperation, as well as increase the feedback each group receives beyond what a single instructor (or limited number of TAs) can provide. Depending on the nature of the project, checkpoints can be set up to provide feedback on project topic, thesis statement, preliminary source or reference list, initial conclusions or directions, and even final products. Students can also provide feedback to other groups, allowing each student to learn from multiple projects and each group to receive a variety of feedback.
- Consider equity issues when allocating a grade – A key concern among faculty is how to allocate grades for each individual within a group project. Important questions to consider include:
- How much do I want to weigh the process, individual components, and the final product?
- Do I want to assign grades to individual students and/or to the group as a whole for different components of the work?
- How much (if any) will I weigh self or peer feedback in the grade?
- When making these decisions there are important equity concerns, including the fact that, like everyone else, students carry unconscious biases when evaluating the work and contributions of their peers. Moreover, the instructor often has a limited view of an individual student’s contributions to a group project and inequities within the group can place an undue burden on individual group members or limit their ability to contribute to the outcome. Because of this, independent project components and reflections can be useful in aligning grades to an individual student’s work & learning.