We’ve probably all had bad experiences with group work, perhaps including an overbearing member who commandeered the project, group members who expected to share the rewards without having made a fair contribution, interpersonal
conflict and drama that made it hard to work together, and anxiety about having to work with others when it’s more comfortable to work by oneself or with friends (Nilson, 2016). With all these potential pitfalls to group work,
why do instructors keep assigning group work? And what can be done to make group work better?
Done properly, group work helps students (Cashin, 2011; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014):
- Engage actively with course material by practicing, engaging, and critiquing, rather than passively receiving information as in lecture (Bean, 2011; Cashin, 2011).
- Engage in higher-level cognitive processing, engaging in tasks that involve creating, evaluating, analyzing, and applying, rather than simply remembering, with corresponding increases in their content knowledge and critical
thinking (Bloom et al., 1956; Cashin, 2011; Hattie, 2015; Nilson, 2016).
- Improve metacognition. As any teacher can attest, you are never more aware of what you don’t know as when you try to teach it to others. Working with others can be a lower stakes opportunity for students to metacognate and
identify knowledge gaps (Cashin, 2011; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).
- Create complex, sophisticated work that they couldn’t do alone. Student brainstorming, project planning and implementation, scientific reasoning, writing, and presentation can all be improved by working with their peers (Nilson,
- Develop transferable skills such as active and critical listening, presenting evidence and argumentation to help others understand ideas and plan projects, giving feedback that is both critical and supportive, and developing
“orderly task-oriented procedures” (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014, p. 194; Cashin, 2011).
- Develop interpersonal connections including professional relationships that may be beneficial in the future and social relationships that increase students’ sense of belonging on campus (Bean, 2011; Nilson, 2016). This sense
of belonging is especially important for underrepresented minorities, first-generation college students, and international students.
This article presents recommendations for instructors to make group work more effective and beneficial to all students. There is also a section below especially for students (see page XX), which includes useful tips to get the
most out of group work.
Recommendations for Instructors
1. Creating effective groups
How big should groups be? If groups are expected to work extensively outside of class, groups of 3–4 work well to ease scheduling difficulties (Nilson, 2016). For group activities that take place primarily
or exclusively within class, groups of 5–7 students allow for different opinions and skills while reducing social loafing (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011). For discussions in which a diversity in ideas and opinions is desirable,
larger groups of 10–13 can work effectively (Bean, 2011).
Should I assign students to groups? In most cases, yes (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011; Nilson, 2016). Assigning students to groups reduces off-topic chatter, splits up cliques, and increases diversity within
groups by mixing together domestic and international students, those with different majors, students of different genders and ethnicities, and so on (Nilson, 2016; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Random groups are OK, especially
in larger classes where it’s not feasible to create groups based on student characteristics. For quick interactions, it’s often sufficient to ask students to “turn to a neighbor” without creating formal groups at all (Nilson,
2016). Personally, I like to create intentional groups that are homogeneous in procrastination tendency but heterogeneous in introversion/extraversion. This cuts down on early submitters’ frustration at working with late-completers,
and vice versa. Putting introverts and extraverts together helps students learn to interact with and benefit from those who have different personalities than themselves.
Should I rearrange groups or keep them consistent? Obviously, for a long-term project you need consistent groups. But even for shorter-term group work, consistent groups are helpful so the students can
harken back to conversations from previous weeks, develop strong group norms and positive interpersonal connections, etc. (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011).
2. Establishing clear shared expectations
How can I start groups off on the right foot? By using feed-forward, you can clarify your expectations and help groups set their own expectations and positive norms immediately, and help
them self-regulate throughout their time together (Brank & Wylie, 2013; Cashin, 2011). In feed-forward, you alert students ahead of time of the likely stumbling blocks throughout the assignment or project. Rubrics are one form of feed-forward, as a strong rubric should make students aware of your expectations and how to meet them (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011). As you create your rubric for a group task, consider whether you are more
interested in the “product” that students create (e.g., quality of their presentation or paper) or the “process” they go through to create it (e.g., clear communication, doing their fair share, making every effort to resolve
problems). Then, be sure your rubric reflects what you really care about (Nilson, 2016).
What expectations should we set ahead of time? In large classes or when groups will shuffle frequently, I provide class guidelines for group work for everyone to review before group work begins (Bean,
2011; Cashin, 2011). In smaller classes, especially when groups will work together for an extended time, it’s helpful to have groups create their own guidelines (Brank & Wylie, 2013; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). In
any case, students need to know the expectations regarding:
- Group meeting locations and times.
- Individual contributions, including effective speaking and listening.
- Response time to emails, texts, and group chats.
- Interactions that are honest and respectful.
- Quality of work.
- Attendance and contributions at group meetings.
- Efforts to work out problems as a group before going to the instructor.
- Voluntarily or involuntarily leaving the group.
3. Ensuring students arrive prepared for group work
What should students do before class? Assign students to complete a task with some tangible product before they arrive to class (Cashin, 2011; Connor-Greene, 2005; West, 2018) or have some other means
of ensuring they are fully prepared (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011). By asking students to “Write down three questions this article raises for you” instead of simply, “Read this article,” you can encourage active preparation
and accountability for arriving ready to work.
What should students do during class? It’s helpful to get all students thinking about the same thing before you send them to work in groups. There are lots of ways you can capture students’ attention and
get them all on the same track: show a TED Talk or an interesting photograph, ask a framing question, present a controversial statement, ask them to generate examples from their own lives, have them compare and contrast two
related concepts, etc. Then give students a chance to gather their thoughts individually before they get into their groups, perhaps through a two-minute free-write, drawing a diagram, or writing down a guess that they can show
to their group mates to stimulate conversation. This is especially important for introverts and quieter students, who may need extra time to think before they discuss as a group (Cashin, 2011). As students get into groups to
work and as they wrap up for the day, remind them of the expectations as set forth in rubric and class guidance documents (Cashin, 2011; West, 2018).
For specific tips for strengthening small-group or whole-class discussions, see Cashin (2011) and West (2018). The team-based learning framework provides detailed recommendations on group-based application activities (see, for
instance, Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011).
4. Assigning effective tasks for group work
Students often view group work as “busy work” or a chance for the professor to slack off while they do all the work. To dispel that notion, make it clear what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they should do it.
How is the task related to the learning sequence? Put another way, what is the purpose of this group work? Are you trying to get the students prepared for lecture material? Focusing their attention on
key points of an argument? Generating ideas to be explored in written work? Understanding challenging readings? Discuss the purpose of group work early and often so students can see why it is valuable and how it will help them
achieve the course objectives (Bean, 2011).
What exactly is the task, anyway? Clearly defined tasks help students manage their time and attention and increase performance (Bean, 2011; Nilson, 2016). This is true both for large projects completed
over several weeks and brief standalone activities within a single class meeting.
Provide an explicit time frame for whatever you’re asking groups to do. “Take five minutes to discuss…” and “Take one minute to discuss…” convey that you are seeking different depths of conversation. When in doubt, err
on the side of too little time, as you can always extend as needed. When students have too much time on their hands, they tend to get off topic, view group work as a waste of time, and start pulling out their smartphones (Bean,
2011; Nilson, 2016).
Make the task and desired final product very clear (Nilson, 2016). Consider two instructors assigning a brief discussion topic. The first instructor says, “Take five minutes to discuss Piaget’s theory of psychosocial development.”
The second instructor says, “Take five minutes to identify three criticisms of Piaget’s theory of psychosocial development, and formulate an argument on whether this theory should still be taught. Be prepared to present your
argument to the class.” Naturally, students who receive the second prompt will likely be more on-task, generate more specific responses, and will be more ready to share their discussion points with the class (Bean, 2011).
Make the task appropriately challenging. If you’re giving groups the same task that you would give individual students, it’s too easy (Nilson, 2016) and students will perceive that it’s busy work and a waste of their time.
If you have four students in a group, try giving them something that’s four times more challenging than what you would give a single student.
What should the instructor do while groups work? As groups work in class, I take attendance and eavesdrop to evaluate individual group members’ contributions (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). I also keep
all groups in one room whenever possible even though it can get loud (Bean, 2011). Whenever possible, I make a point of visiting with each group at least once to do any of the following:
- Rebalance contributions if there is a student dominating the group or a student not making any contributions,
- Get a group back on task if they start talking about unrelated topics,
- Stimulate further discussion or play devil’s advocate if a group has not fully explored an idea or reaches consensus too quickly,
- Praise particularly insightful points or questions,
- Encourage deeper discussion, or
- Check in to assess understanding.
I also encourage groups to flag me down if they have questions. That said, I rarely answer questions straightforwardly, instead redirecting questions to the group (e.g., “What’s another way you might approach this problem?” or
“What would Theorist X think about this argument?”) to convey that I believe in students’ ability to solve most of their own problems.
5. Building students’ skills throughout the course
Who should be the group leader? Randomizing or rotating roles within a group can reduce bias (e.g., the recorder is usually a woman; the spokesperson is rarely an international student) and help students
to build a broader variety of skills (Nilson, 2016). You can lighten the mood by assigning groups based on silly criteria: “The spokesperson is whoever has the shortest pinky finger, the recorder is whoever most recently watched
a horror movie,” etc. It’s easy to randomize the recorder even in large classes; simply tell them to pass the paper around their group so each answer is written by a different person.
How can I build skills over time? Consider giving students individual feedback throughout the semester or project based on the criteria from the rubric. After an in-class work period, give feedback on
the contributions you noticed each student making. For longer term projects, consider conducting repeated peer evaluations with feedback to each group member (more information below). Self-reflections can be especially helpful
because students have insight into their own affect, cognitions, and behaviors that you can’t see (Nilson, 2016).
6. Facilitating effective feedback to students
How can I give feedback to my students? Summative feedback says how the student has done, such as at the end of the project or course. Although summative feedback provides an informative evaluation of
student performance, it may not produce any behavioral change or learning benefit to students. Formative feedback, in contrast, says how the student is doing while it can still make a difference (Taras, 2005). This can be either
a red flag or a kudos, but the goal is to let students know what they can expect if they keep doing what they’ve been doing. Formative feedback also makes the grading rubric more salient throughout so that students can adjust
to meet expectations.
How can students give feedback to each other? Peer evaluations are helpful for knowing what has occurred in a group beyond what the instructor can see in class, and can help you evaluate the process of
group work, not just the product (Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 349–351; Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011; Nilson, 2016; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Repeated peer evaluations can be especially helpful (Brutus, Donia, &
Ronen, 2012) because they combine summative and formative feedback. For instance, if a group is working together over a 16-week semester, you could have students complete peer evaluations for all group members in Weeks 4, 8,
12, and 16, and give students their average ratings after each wave. You could average ratings across these four waves, weight later ratings more heavily than earlier ratings, or use only the ratings from Week 16 after encouraging
groups to negotiate and work out any problems identified in previous waves (A. Hiatt, personal communication, April 12, 2019).
Should peer feedback be anonymous? I recommend keeping peer feedback confidential but not anonymous. If a student makes an allegation about misconduct in their group, I want to be able to follow up with
both parties involved. I also find that students are more professional in their comments and are more likely to explain their ratings if their names are on the feedback they provide (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011).
Recommendations for Students
If you are a student who will be working in a group for an assignment, project, or discussion, congratulations! You have a fantastic opportunity to learn course material at a deep level, build your marketable skills, make social
and professional connections, and create something that you couldn’t do alone. It won’t always be easy, but it will be more beneficial and even fun if you:
- Choose your group wisely (if you are allowed to choose). Rather than simply choosing your friends, consider: Who in the class is reliable, responsible, and hardworking? Who will push the group toward
deeper thought rather than just agreeing with what others say? Who will bring a different voice or skillset to the conversation? Who works at a similar pace as you, to cut down on frustration from others who want to complete
work much earlier or later?
- Learn your instructor’s expectations. Carefully read all materials provided to you. Find out everything you can about both the product your group is expected to create and the process by which your
group is expected to work. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand. If a rubric isn’t provided, ask for one.
- Set positive group expectations and norms. When your group first meets, suggest taking 10 minutes to discuss and set expectations about contributions and duties of each group member, timelines for
completing work, how you will challenge each other and disagree in a respectful way, when and how you will communicate outside of class, and how you will work out problems that may arise.
- Use class time wisely and plan out-of-class meetings carefully. Try to keep off-topic chatter to a minimum to be as productive as possible during in-class work periods. If out-of-class work is needed,
take a few minutes at the end of class to find a time that works for everyone. Then designate someone to send a reminder to all group members so no one misses the meeting.
- Document your meetings and contributions. Track when you meet outside of class, what you do during those meetings, and what your individual contributions are. This can make meetings more efficient,
help you plan your time wisely, and clarify who is (and isn’t) pulling their weight. If you do get stuck with someone not doing their fair share, this documentation can be helpful to make a case that your outcome (e.g.,
grade) shouldn’t be tied to theirs.
Group work is challenging, but that’s not a bad thing. It encourages high-level cognitive processing, builds transferable skills and interpersonal connections, helps students identify gaps in their knowledge, and helps students
produce academic products that they could not create alone. Whether you’re an instructor or a student, I encourage you to see what group work can do for you.
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