Facilitating group work to enhance student learning.
The importance of group work
Group work refers to learning experiences in which students work together on the same task. Group work can help build a positive and engaging learning community through peer learning and teaching.
Promoting peer interactions can positively affect learning experiences by preparing students for work beyond the classroom. According to Constructivism, when students work together to solve problems, they construct knowledge together, rather than passively absorbing information. Students learn more effectively working cooperatively in diverse groups as opposed to working exclusively in a heterogeneous class, working in competition with other students, or working alone (Hattie, 2008). Some benefits include:
- Collaborating to break apart and solve complex tasks
- Deepening understandings and clarifying misconceptions with peer support
- Improving 21st century skills such as:
- self-regulation and self-reflection
- communication and time management
- project management and conflict resolution
Advantages and disadvantages
While working collaboratively has the potential to improve student outcomes, it requires the instructor to carefully organize, guide and maintain a positive and productive work environment. Despite the substantial benefits group work offers, there are also disadvantages, especially if not implemented effectively.
(when done effectively)
(when done ineffectively)
|More can be accomplished than working alone||Time wasted waiting on others|
|Less work than working alone||More work than working alone|
|Share knowledge and skills||Unequal support of ideas|
|Equal exchange of information||Conflict over roles and responsibilities|
|Team commitment and social support is motivating||Unequal participation is demotivating|
|Supportive and productive collaboration||Lack of productivity and miscommunication |
For group work to be successful, you need to thoughtfully plan and organize how it will benefit your students. Group work must be designed to enhance student skills and abilities towards achieving learning outcomes.
Designing successful group work
The suggestions below will help you design a successful collaborative learning experience for your students. Prior to incorporating group work, take the time to consider strategies that can help avoid potential challenges. Remember to teach effective group work just as you teach content knowledge.
- Consider having students create group contracts for high-stakes assignments and complex projects. These are also beneficial when the same group will be working together over an extended period.
- Provide students with guidelines or templates to ensure that they address aspects of collaboration that may alleviate future concerns, such as potential problems with effective solutions.
- Plan appropriate group composition, size and activity duration. Smaller groups of 3-5 students tend to be more efficient.
- Promote positive interdependence where each member of the group feels a sense of respect, accountability and inclusivity. Ask each group to define their expectations, goals, roles and responsibilities.
- Establish effective group structures and communication in which students share their knowledge and skills, motivate themselves and others, and respect multiple perspectives or opinions.
- Give resources and strategies for project development, team building and conflict resolution.
Creating group work projects
Assigning tasks that foster genuine teamwork and simulate real-life scenarios can help to prepare students for professional situations that will require collaboration. To design an engaging and community-oriented classroom, it is necessary to create opportunities for students to work together in your course. Students can accomplish this through:
- authentic assessments that foster autonomy and demonstrate learning
- discussions that foster critical thinking, equity and inclusivity
- investigations to analyzing problems and identifying solutions
- activities that incorporate active learning
- brainstorming to practice divergent thinking and innovation
The following examples provide you opportunities and ideas to integrate group work successfully into your course.
Design projects that allow groups to demonstrate their learning in a variety of methods and modalities. Authentic assessments allow groups and individuals to show what they have learned and how they can transfer this knowledge and apply their new understandings to specific concepts. Construct group work intentionally and align it to the course’s learning outcomes. Here are some examples of group oriented authentic assessments:
Discussions are a great way to build collaboration into your course. Discussions allow students to practice higher order thinking skills in a variety of ways and can help students achieve many types of learning outcomes. Having a structure in place will help ensure that discussions are meaningful, effective and engaging. The benefits of discussions include:
- Deepening understanding
- Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- Learning to navigate difficult conversations
- Strengthening oral communication and active listening
- Applying newly learned concepts and skills to authentic contexts
In small groups, students choose a topic of interest, organize the division of labor, select research methods and plan a final product. Students work collaboratively to think critically about their topic, synthesize their research, and present it to the class. Group investigations give students the opportunity to practice and develop essential skills necessary for the real world.
Students work together in small groups to deepen their understanding and clarify misunderstandings. In study groups, students practice sharing their knowledge and applying their learning with support from their peers.
Strategies to design successful group projects.
How to build effective collaboration in your course.
Considerations for how to create small group activities.
Video that helps you move group work to an online environment.
Assessing group work
In addition to evaluating the group’s output, determine how groups functioned, how individuals contributed to the group itself, as well evaluate both the process and product. This is not always easy, but these general principles can guide you:
- Options for assessment
- Instructor assessment of group
- Instructor assessment of individual group members
- Individual assignments
- Quizzes or individual write ups
- Student assessment of group or group members
- Student assessment of self
- Provide criteria for assessment
- Assess process as well as product
- Give group feedback and individual feedback when possible
- Monitor each group’s progress and address issues that may arise
Video series for structuring online groups.
Learn how to assess group work equitably.
Overview of the various methods to grade group work successfully and fairly.
Collaboration in online learning
Collaborative online learning activities allow students to support each other by asking critical questions and clarifying misunderstandings. It is through this collaboration that students can learn to listen thoughtfully and value the contributions of their peers. Using appropriate and intuitive technology tools helps create an engaging and supportive learning community. The following are a variety of tools available to connect you with your students and to help your students collaborate with their peers.
UB Learns: Collaboration
Share ideas individually and collaboratively.
Assign students to groups within the UB Learns course.
See below for detailed information.
Can set assignments for group submissions.
Design and tell a story about your educational experience.
Collaborate to design a page on a specific course topic or concept.
Additional collaboration tools
Communication tools can support both student and instructor presence whether your class is synchronous or asynchronous.
Designed specifically for teachers to use as a controlled chat space for classes.
Store, share and edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations and surveys (among other features). It is ideal for working collaboratively in real time.
Text and chat in real time (individuals or groups).
Create, communicate and collaborate in real time.
Virtual interactive bulletin board.
Record instruction videos.
Create a unique hashtag that students can use to talk about class, share links, etc.
Store, share and edit university-related documents in UB Box.
Video conferencing software for synchronous classes and office hours.
Video conferencing software for synchronous classes and office hours.
UB faculty shares how you can successfully enhance your course with technology.
Third party digital tools you can integrate into your course to strengthen collaboration.
More third-party digital collaboration tools that increase student collaboration.
Discussions are usually an important component of a course regardless of the modality. Online discussions can be conducted in two primary ways:
- Synchronously: All students participate in the discussion at the same time, in the same virtual space.
- Asynchronously: All students participate in the discussion on their own time, but according to a schedule.
In an online course, discussion boards can be a primary point of connection for collaboration among students. They can serve a variety of purposes, including as a place for students to:
- submit assignments for other students to review and give feedback
- ask questions that can be read and answered by peers, the TA and/or the instructor
- communicate with their peers formally or informally
- create posts and responses that can be counted towards participation or homework grades
- discuss a topic with a small group or with the whole class
- collaborate on group assignments
Tips for using discussion boards
- Establish criteria and expectations, both general and specific. Include grading, if applicable.
- Strategically monitor and interact with the discussion board. Guide and prompt students as needed.
Determine the complexity of the discussion questions (Bloom's Taxonomy). Use meaningful, open-ended questions and prompts.
Create opportunities for autonomy and incorporate UDL principles. Give students choices such as the question they answer or the delivery method they complete (ex: written or video response).
Uses of discussion boards
- Asking questions
- Answering questions
- Comprehension of content
- Ice Breakers
- Jigsaw activity
- Peer feedback
- Sharing ideas and resources
- Small groups and conversations
Building a discussion board in UB Learns
A guide to building a discussion board in UB Learns.
A guide to creating a discussion forum in UB Learns.
A handout that gives an overview of the best practices to consider when designing a discussion board for your course.
Ways to create significant discussions in your course.
How to set criteria and expectations for discussions.
Integrate student collaboration into your course design
- Step 1: Review your course for student collaboration. Consider these guiding questions:
- Are there opportunities for the instructor to engage with students?
- Are there class activities that foster communication between students?
- Are there various modalities for students to communicate and collaborate?
- Step 2: Identify areas where you could further integrate student collaboration into your course design.
- Step 3: Begin to build or revise a student collaboration activity or project.
Learn how to plan, facilitate and assess classroom discussions.
How to prepare students to engage with and support peers who may share different views and perspectives.
Research article that reviews the changing cultural landscape of higher education classrooms.
Strategies to navigate difficult discussions in the classroom.
Blog that shares the challenges and successes of group work.
Better resources for classroom management.
Set clear expectations for class interactions.
Build and support a learning community.
Create opportunities for collaboration.
Provide opportunities to learn and share from a diverse range of resources.
For further information about group work, see the following readings.
- Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers (1st ed.). Routledge.
- Loes, C., Culver, K., & Trolian, T. (2018). How collaborative learning enhances students’ openness to diversity. The Journal of Higher Education (Columbus), 89(6), 935–960. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2018.1442638