Recommendation 4.4: Group Work
Facilitate group work and collaborative problem solving, defined roles, and by prioritizing interaction, not dependence.
Synopsis from Self-Review
Groups are a very effective way for students to learn, but there are also many challenges managing groups and teams for both the instructor and students. There are many useful strategies and tools to manage student groups and facilitate productive group interactions.
How to Put Into Practice
Group work can be intimidating and frustrating for students, whether it’s done face-to-face or online. Challenges include managing multiple schedules, interpersonal dynamics, and project logistics. The isolation that can come with online learning makes effective group work even more valuable as a space and structure for peer-to-peer interaction.
Student learning is enhanced when it is interactive and social, rather than competitive or isolated. Moreover, students working in groups learn important “soft” skills of communication and collaboration valued in the workplace.
There are many strategies and tools to help make group work more productive. The resources below are organized to first outline core design practices for group work and then to provide a taste of different types of group work you might consider integrating into your course.
Practices for Structuring Group Work
Set clear expectations and learning objectives
- Communicate the learning objectives of a group task or project and how they fit into the big picture of your course learning outcomes. Students are more likely to learn from the experience and feel accountable to their group if they know how the collaboration will contribute to their success in the course (both learning-wise and grade-wise).
- Develop transparent criteria for what makes a high-quality group “product.”
Identify tasks or projects that are “group-worthy”
- Not all tasks or projects necessarily benefit from group work. While a legitimate use of group projects is to reduce the grading load in a large course, it is still crucial to design projects to accomplish something that students cannot do more effectively alone. Collaboration should add clear value to the process and the product of group work.
- For informal group learning activities unrelated to formal group projects, adapt a framework developed by Professor Morton Gernsbacher (Psychology) to prioritize interaction not dependence. In this framework, group activity is focused on creating interaction, without forcing students to be dependent on another in order to complete the activity.
Configure groups intentionally
- Research suggests that instructor-configured groups result in more equitable learning experiences than student-selected groups, which are more likely to reproduce inequities along gender and other lines that occur in social spaces beyond the class.
- For long-term projects where it is critical for students to be at peace with their fellow group members, you can introduce an element of student choice if you survey students around shared interests, working habits, and their level of motivation for group work and take this input into account when configuring groups (e.g., grouping together people who share similar attitudes towards group work; who share interests in a particular topic or method).
- Carnegie Mellon University offers further ideas for creating this type of group preference survey and more tips on how to compose groups.
Define roles and tasks
- Defining roles and having students self-select or be assigned to those roles creates structure and accountability and discourages some participants from letting others do all the work. Defined group roles and tasks also reinforces learning objectives centered on collaboration since it means that each person will contribute something different.
- It may take groups some time to develop the necessary trust and become productive (see Tuckman’s Storming, Norming, Performing). Once groups become productive, you may want to change their makeup so they experience different students’ insights. Change can be difficult, so weigh options carefully.
- Review lists of potential group roles from Carnegie Mellon and University of Central Florida to help you decide what roles make sense in your context.
Build in individual and group accountability
- For graded group projects, have students submit a group agreement (a group charter or team contract). This might include a group resume or skills inventory, a planned schedule of meetings, assignment of roles/tasks, record of contact information, and norms for interaction
- Carnegie Mellon offers a well-organized selection of templates for group project documents that you can adapt.
- Provide templates for group project documents on your Canvas site.
- Establish a clear timeline, schedule, and sequence of activities with specific deadlines.
- Prepare students to collaborate meaningfully. For example:
- Offer a lower-stakes, warm-up type activity so that students can become accustomed to collaboration.
- Require a graded, individual preparatory assignment due before collaborative work begins (e.g., each student is assigned a part of the topic, and they must turn in a short research paper on that subtopic before the group meets to work together.) to reduce the problem of students contributing unequally to the group project. (L&S Remote Toolkit)
- Monitor the activity, help students stay on task when necessary, encourage non-participants when necessary, and assess both individual and group participation.
- Monitoring can be done via regular written check-ins or reflections that students complete regarding their perceptions of group dynamics and their individual participation. These can be graded on completion.
Communicate your role as a resource for groups
- Communicate your openness to talk with individuals about problems they are observing in their group.
- Explain the back-up plan if a group member withdraws from the course or otherwise becomes unable to participate.
- Offer to talk to groups in your office hours and explain what types of conversations you would welcome.
Consider more strategies to set groups up for success
- Conversational Strategies: Provide a reference list of conversational roles or models of conversational strategies that can help students frame productive comments. Assign roles to individual students for each discussion, then ask students to guess which roles their peers were assigned. (L&S Remote Teaching Toolkit). For example:
- Share the Four Player Model of team conversations to help people reflect on their own tendencies when working in groups. This resource from Boston University’s School of Public Health provides handouts and suggested activities using the Four Player Model, which breaks down team conversations into four central moves: Initiate (set the direction), Follow (actively support a direction or idea), Oppose (question the direction), and Observe (watch what is happening).
- Outline ways to contribute to group conversations that go beyond coming up with new ideas, such as in this “Contributions That Count” resource from Princeton University. While this resource speaks broadly to class participation, it describes many moves that depend on thoughtful listening and other less-obvious dimensions of successful teamwork.
- Peer Feedback on Teamwork: Help students learn to be better team members by having group members give each other anonymized feedback partway through the semester (e.g., What is one thing you’d like X to continue doing? What is one thing you’d like them to do differently?). Review and summarize this feedback to ensure its constructive nature. Invite students to engage in self-reflection on these questions as well. To ensure high-quality feedback, model and discuss what specific and effective feedback looks like. Give a grade for the thoughtfulness (and alignment with course community policies) with which students evaluate.
Explore different models and types of group work
- Team Problem-Solving: Split the class into teams of 4-6 students. For the day’s topic, develop a meaningful application problem with multiple-choice answers, for which each possible wrong answer allows you to highlight a common pitfall or problem of analysis. Assign the application problem to all teams in the class, then have each team report their answer simultaneously. Post all of the answers with team names for everyone to see, then facilitate interactions where teams defend their answers and ask other teams why they chose a different answer. Throughout, encourage the class to identify important analytical points. At the end, sum up the takeaways from the discussion/debate. (See the Team-Based Learning Collaborative for more.)
- Project- and Team-Based Learning Frameworks: Consider broadly circulated frameworks for facilitating group learning, such as Project-Based Learning (overview from the Active Teaching Lab) and Team-Based Learning. The Team-Based Learning Collaborative has developed a pedagogical structure that holds students responsible for their own preparation while engaging them as teams in meaningful problem solving. Teachers in medical schools, science classrooms, and the social sciences and humanities have used Team-Based Learning effectively in classes ranging from 15 to 100+ students.
- Peer Review: Peer review is an effective way to reap the benefits of group work without committing to a full-blown group project; it can also be a step within a group project to get feedback from another group. Use the features of Canvas to enable Peer Review: How to create Peer Review in Canvas (see strategies from the Active Teaching Lab on Peer Review) See Recommendation 6.5: Expectations & Feedback for additional resources on peer review.
Tools for facilitating group work can be roughly broken down into: virtual meeting rooms; tools for collaborative writing and document creation (Google Docs); and tools for group work built into Canvas (Canvas Groups and Canvas Collaborations).
- Canvas-based virtual meeting rooms: Setting up virtual meeting rooms housed in Canvas for long-term student groups is valuable because it eases the logistics of meeting (no one has to plan to share a meeting link in advance). Review how to create sessions in Zoom within Canvas.
- Zoom in Canvas (Learn@UW): An introduction to using Zoom as the web conferencing platform within a Canvas course, with links to support resources and training.
- A video tour of Zoom in Canvas: This video walks through questions such as: How do I turn on Zoom in my Canvas course?; What is my “personal room”?; How do I create class sessions and what do the setting options actually mean?
- If you are new to Zoom or are using it outside of Canvas, start with UW-Madison Zoom: Getting Started.
- For group work in a synchronous class session, use breakout groups in Zoom.
- Collaborative writing and document creation: Google Suite (Google Drive, Docs, Presentations, Sheets, and more) is commonly used for creating and sharing documents with a group and for doing collaborative work. NOTE: The Google Suite is not accessible to students studying in China.
- Share with students how to create and share Google Docs (outside of Canvas).
- Sharing a Google Doc Template for Students in Classrooms is a guide to using Google Docs to create templates for students to populate with their own work. You can be creative in how you set up the template: see an example of a Group Problem Solving Grid Doc activity.
- Canvas tools for group work: Facilitating group work in Canvas (from CEETE, College of Engineering) provides a useful overview of tools embedded in Canvas that can aid group work. These include:
What is this?
Group work and active learning can be collaborative projects, presentations, real-world case studies, discussions, papers, and more.
Why is this important?
Social learning, or group learning, is the most important way for students to gain experience and skills in collaboration, critical thinking, self-reflection, and the co-creation of knowledge. Learners benefit from frequent, meaningful opportunities to engage with each other.
Where is this?
Canvas provides a place for groups to organize their work in the Group tool and Discussions. You can also use the Google Workspace (Drive, Docs, Sheets, Presentations), and other collaborative technologies.
Success Factor 4: Student-Student Interaction
The course is designed to include regular and substantive interaction among students. A fully-realized educational experience provides students with ample opportunity to actively engage and collaborate with their peers.