Group Work

Facilitating group work to enhance student learning.

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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.

Advantages
(when done effectively)
Disadvantages
(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.

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
      • Self-assessments
    • 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

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.

Discussion boards

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

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.