Working in Groups
Having students work in groups provides several benefits for both students and instructors, especially in large classes.
Group work allows instructors to pose challenging questions that group members solve collectively. It promotes interaction among students and essentially turns large classes into smaller sections in the same room. This approach has proved especially beneficial to women, first-generation students and underrepresented minority students.
Group work can be as simple as having two or three students discuss a question before providing an answer to the class, or as complex as creating team-based capstone projects in which students gain crucial experience in the broad elements of a discipline and learn to coordinate large projects with colleagues. Here are some things to keep in mind regardless of your approach.
Resources on Groups and Teams
The most effective group assignments promote both learning and team development. According to Michaelsen, most problems with learning groups stem from inappropriate group assignments. Here are some ways to address that.
- Pros. Easy to implement. No problem if attendance is variable.
- Cons. Class time needed to form groups. Students not used to working together.
- Randomly formed standing groups
- Pros. Students can develop teamwork skills. Low-effort way to construct groups ahead of time. Students can continue to work out of class.
- Cons. Groups may not be well-balanced. Students must find each other if the class is large.
Explicitly planned groups
- Pros. Students develop teamwork skills and can continue to work out of class. Assigned groups can distribute high- and low-performing students or students with different strengths and backgrounds.
- Cons. Time-consuming to construct. Instructor must gather information for sorting (try catme.org). Students must find each other if the class is large.
Designing productive group activities and assignments
- Ensure that the assignment truly requires group interaction. Give open-ended problems on complex ideas that require “best solutions” with supporting arguments. That way, discussion among group members leads naturally to completing a task.
- Require a product. This may be something that is turned in, contributes directly to an assignment, or is reported out (via response systems and discussion).
- Monitor complex projects carefully. Complex group projects such as a lengthy paper can limit discussion and reduce group cohesiveness. Team members generally divide the work and complete pieces individually. A simple format is often better, even if students must report on complex decisions. If you use a complex project, though, make sure you have clear guidelines and frequent reporting.
- Be sure there are clear links to the learning sequence and assessments, and make those visible to your students.
- Organize projects around meaningful topics.
Assessing performance and holding students accountable
- Promote a high level of accountability for team members while also rewarding good team performance. Use a combination of individual assessments (e.g., quizzes or assignments that promote preparation for class) and team assessments (group product grades or points).
- For standing teams, use peer review ratingsto encourage individual and group engagement.
Many of the guidelines for collaborating online mirror those for collaborating in in-person classes. This starts with clear explanations of the purpose and goals of the work students will do. They should understand why you are asking them to work in groups or teams and what they will get out of that work. You should also provide guidance for students on how to succeed in groups.
The remote nature of online work creates its own opportunities and challenges, though.
Online groups should be big enough to provide interaction but small enough that students feel that their individual contributions matter. For online discussions, groups of up to seven or eight students often work best. Create multiple discussion boards for a class if you need to. For online projects, Heather McCain and John Bricklemyer, Project Management, have found that groups of three to four people are ideal. For semester-long projects, they recommend keeping the same groups so that students can gain confidence in their teammates and maintain continuity in their work.
Communication and technology
This is especially important online. Think through how team members will interact with one another and what types of communication will work best. Canvas allows you to create discussions for an entire class or within defined groups. It offers several variations, so make sure you choose the best approach for your class. You might also consider Microsoft Teams, especially if you need groups to share resources or create projects. The messaging capability of Teams is also helpful for staying in touch with students, monitoring groups for possible problems, and allowing group members to exchange ideas quickly. Whatever means of communication you use, provide frequent feedback to students.
Check-ins and peer review
Check in with students often so that you get a sense of how well the teams are working and how well the projects or discussions are progressing. Also provide regular opportunities for peer review so students have an opportunity to reflect on their team's work, and so that you can spot potential problems early and can help wayward teams get back on track.
Structure of assignments
McCain and Bricklemyer recommend that instructors emphasize the collaborative component of an assignment and provide a clear sense of how the collaboration will benefit students. At the same time, make sure that students understand how their individual efforts will be recognized and graded. Scaffold the work so that students receive frequent feedback and have opportunities to learn from early mistakes.
Online discussions can provide rich interaction among students, but they can easily falter if students don't understand the purpose of the discussions or aren't held accountable for posting. That makes scheduling and communication especially important. A common approach is to require an initial post earlier in a week and then one or two others later in a week. Make sure students know how to post on a discussion board and when to post each week. Create clear guidelines and a rubric so that students know how you will assess their work.
Some additional things to consider:
Define your week
For instance, make Monday the first day of each week in an online class and have final posts due on Sunday. That often works well for graduate students who are working full time or who have other obligations during the week. Don't assume, though. Every class is different, so talk with students about the best timing for discussion board posts and other online work It can be especially helpful to email students at the beginning of each week to remind them of the work they will be doing and when assignments will be due.
Students often struggle to engage in an actual discussion online. Roles can help with that by providing a particular point of view to use in their posts. Make sure to rotate roles, though. Another section of this page goes into more detail on group roles.
Use questions to guide discussions
Broad, open-ended questions work best, as do questions that ask students to bring in personal experiences, make connections to previous course material, or require them to bring in examples from outside sources. The questions should relate to readings or other class material, allowing students to share ideas and make connections. Encourage them to bring their own questions into the discussion forum. That can further discussion by allowing classmates to provide explanations or point colleagues to helpful resources.
Use individual writing to jump-start discussions
This might be a reflection over readings or a journal entry that requires synthesis of ideas. Doug Ward, Journalism and Mass Communications, has students complete 3-2-1 assignments over readings to help them focus their thoughts. These assignments ask students to provide 3 main points from the readings, 2 questions they have about the material, and 1 thing they would like to follow up on. He encourages students to draw on those brief writings (they are limited to one page) for online discussions. The 3-2-1 assignments are easy to work through and often provide insights into student thinking. They also help identify areas that students are struggling with or that need clarification.
Make your presence known
Decide in advance how much you will be involved in online discussions and let students know your plan. Responding to every discussion post would be too time-consuming and would undermine the autonomy you want students to gain. You should generally have some presence in a discussion board, though, so that students know you are paying attention and so that you can guide wayward discussions or bring in additional questions.
Set rules of engagement
You want online discussions to be vibrant but considerate, so establishing guidelines is important. Another section on this page provides sample language to draw on.
We often push our students into group work without providing guidance on how effective teams operate and what makes an effective team member. Helping them understand a few principles will reduce complaints and improve work quality.
Matt Ohland, a Purdue professor who led development of the group creation tool CATME, has students work through several steps, including a series of videos, in-class discussions about how good teams work, guidelines students need to follow, and ways to overcome problems. They also agree to follow a Code of Cooperation, which stresses communication, cooperation, responsibility, efficiency and creativity.
Ohland also explains to students how a student-centered class works, how that approach helps them learn, and what they need to do to make it successful. In a student-centered class, an instructor guides rather than leads the learning process, and students help guide learning, apply concepts rather than just hear about them, reflect on their work and provide feedback to peers (Understanding the U.S. Classroom Learning Environment, 2009).
Students must also understand the system they will use to rate peers, Ohland says, and he spends time going over that system in class. It includes measures on how students are contributing to a team, how they are interacting with teammates, how each member works to keep the team on track, how to evaluate the work quality of teammates, and how to evaluate teammates’ knowledge, skills and abilities.
Here are a few other things to share with students about successful teamwork and team projects:
Establish clear goals
Each group member must know what the group is trying to accomplish and how it plans to reach its goals. Clear goals keep team members in synch and save time and frustration from having to redo various aspects of a project.
Make clear assignments
All team members must understand what elements they will contribute and when that work is due. This cuts down on duplication of efforts and helps the team complete work by a collective deadline.
Get to know team members
Humanize yourself and others. Learn who your teammates are and what interests and motivates them. You don’t have to become great friends, but understanding what makes someone tick can smooth the cooperative effort.
Group members need to know what others are doing, and need to keep one another updated about progress, obstacles, and changes. Regular face-to-face meetings provide a means for sharing drafts, asking questions, and solving problems. Electronic communication is good for short updates and questions.
Do the work and do it well
One of the biggest complaints students have of group work is that a few individuals do all the work and others just tag along. Nobody likes a slacker or a complainer. So once you know what is expected of you, complete that work to the best of your ability. If you run into problems, let others know. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Treat team members with respect
Your words and actions matter. Use respectful language. Keep your anger in check. Show up to meetings on time. Turn in your part of the project on time. Ask for others’ input and allow everyone to speak at meetings.
Make your final product consistent
All too often, a project from a group of six students looks like six individual projects pasted together. That helps no one. Designate an editor and make sure the project has a consistent voice and a consistent style. Also learn to provide good feedback to your peers.
Learn to give and receive candid, constructive feedback
This is one of the most important skills you can learn. We all need feedback on our work. When you work with teammates, talk about project work in terms of “we,” as in: “Can we make this section clearer?” or “Can we do additional research to fill in gaps in this section?” That can take the sting out of feedback and signal a joint effort.
Learn to compromise
You are no doubt used to individual assignments in which an instructor is the only audience and you are the only one who makes decisions. A group project requires all team members to be satisfied with the product. So learn to compromise. Your approach may not be the best approach for the group. By all means make your case, but find common ground wherever possible.
This is an overlooked skill, but it will make all aspects of a project go more smoothly.
Using group work effectively requires more than just putting students together randomly.
Matthew Ohland, a Purdue professor who led development of a team creation tool called CATME and has studied the dynamics of teams for more than two decades, uses an illustration of an iceberg to represent visible and invisible characteristics of identity. Gender, race, age, physical attributes and language are among those most noticeable to others. Below the surface are things like thought processes, sexual orientation, life experience, beliefs and perspectives. Awareness of those characteristics helps team members recognize the many facets of diversity and the complexity of individual and team interaction. A few crucial components of effective teams stands out, though, Ohland says.
If you want students to work together outside class, their schedules must be similar enough that they can find time to meet. “Of all the things you can choose about team formation, schedule is by far the most important,” Ohland says.
This is often race and gender, but it can be any characteristic that makes someone in a group feel isolated. For instance, putting one woman on a team of men generally makes it difficult for the woman to have her voice heard, Ohland said. Putting a black student on a team in which everyone else is white can have the same effect, as can putting an international student on a team of American students. At Purdue, Ohland said, he goes as far as keeping freshmen together on teams in first-year engineering classes, separating them from transfer students who are sophomores or juniors.
This is as important as team creation, Ohland says, so that instructors gain a sense of teams' interpersonal dynamics and quality of work. Is someone feeling excluded or undervalued? Is one person trying to dominate? Are personalities clashing? Are a couple of people doing the bulk of the work? Is a lazy team member irritating others or creating barriers to getting work done? Whatever the problem, Ohland said, an instructor must act quickly. Sometimes that means pulling a problem team member aside and providing a blunt assessment. Sometimes it means having a conversation with the full team about the best ways to work together.
Don’t force differentiation in evaluation scores
Forcing students to give each team member a different sore creates false differentiations that frustrate students and lead to less-useful evaluations, Ohland says.
Learn what ratings mean
For instance, if team members give one another perfect scores, it could mean they are working well together and they want you to leave them alone. It could mean that students didn’t take the time to fill out the evaluations properly or it could mean that students felt uncomfortable ranking their peers. In that last scenario, Ohland sits down with team members and explains why it is important to provide meaningful feedback. If they don’t, individuals lack opportunities to improve and the team lacks the opportunity to improve.
Keep the same teams (usually)
Changing teams during a semester can create problems, he said, because high-functioning teams don’t want to disband and teams that are making progress need more time to work through kinks. On the dysfunctional teams want to change, he said. The best approach is to find those dysfunctional teams and help them get on track. The one exception to that guideline, he said, is when learning to form teams effectively is part of a class’s goals. In that case, an instructor should form teams more than once so that students get practice.
Evaluate teams frequently
He recommends having peer evaluations every two weeks. Research shows that evaluations should coincide with a “major deliverable,” he said. That makes students accountable and increases the stakes of evaluations so that students take them seriously.
Create the right team size
In some cases, that may mean three or four. In others, six, eight or 10 or even more. For instance, a team of three in a lecture hall is ideal because students can have easy conversations. A group of four in the same setting will lead to one member of the team excluded from conversations.
KU instructors can use CATME at no charge by creating an account using their KU email address.
Assigning roles in group discussions often improves interaction and student focus. Roles help students think beyond a single aspect of a topic or problem and essentially give them permission to take a contrarian viewpoint. Roles aren't always needed, and you usually wouldn't want to use them in extended group projects. Roles, though, can help initiate and sustain discussions in class and in online forums.
Here are some roles that instructors have found helpful. These are hardly the only roles you might use. Don't be afraid to experiment with different roles and ask students to provide input on which work best.
Gets the discussion going and helps it stay on track. May have other duties, like reporting out after a discussion.
Brings in contrary views and challenges assumptions.
Helps connect current topic to previous discussions, concepts or ideas the class has engaged in.
Keeps a record of ideas and arguments, sharing those with other groups later on.
Checks in with other groups and reports back on concepts or ideas being discussed. This is especially useful when an online class has multiple discussion groups.
Focuses on listening closely to arguments and raising questions for clarification or elaboration. This role is often part of the leader's work.
Notes points of agreement when groups report to the class and clarifies or elaborates on those points.
Provides specific examples from readings or class material, along with examples of application.
Any discussion can go awry, so it is important to give students guidelines. That holds true both in the classroom and online, where students often post on discussion boards and don't get visual cues from peers.
Here is advice Doug Ward, Journalism and Mass Communications, gives to students in a section of his syllabus that focuses on online discussions:
As with all discussions, please be considerate of others. Appreciate others’ differences and differences of opinion. Don’t berate others’ thoughts or comments. By all means, challenge assumptions and interpretations, but do so in a collegial manner. Great ideas often evolve from disagreement, but no one is served by put-downs and snarky commentary. We all have different levels of knowledge depending on the topic, so be helpful and use common sense. Also keep in mind that written comments can come across in unintended ways. Again, be considerate.
This policy from a site called The Conversation is an excellent guide to interacting online.
I want our conversations to be free-flowing, and I don’t anticipate any problems. I reserve the right to take down comments that use vulgar language, that are hurtful or show disrespect to others. I also want you to share things you find that are relevant to the class or that you just think your colleagues will find interesting. Use the Random channel in Teams for those types of posts and leave the other sections for their specified uses.
A research-based tool called CATME provides a powerful means for instructors to create and monitor groups and teams.
The Center for Teaching Excellence pays for university access to CATME, so it is available free to all instructors. Just create an account using your KU email address.
The CATME approach starts with a survey you send to your students. The system provides a template for the survey, but you may use any questions you find helpful. Once students complete the survey, CATME uses an algorithm to create diverse groups for a class.
CATME includes a tool for students to review the contributions of others in their group. It also provides guidance on teamwork skills. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or problems setting up an account.