How To Make “Group Work” Work For You

Photo credit: Paul Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

By Christine Goedhart

Group work is a common component of an active learning classroom and can be a great way to help students learn. However, anyone who has ever tried to facilitate group work in their course knows that results can vary. Group work experiences can go really well, can be a complete disaster, or can fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

There are many factors that influence the outcome of a group work experience, some of which you have control over and some of which you don’t. You might find that implementing group work the same way in two different courses can produce very different results, or that students in the same course (or even in the same group) can have vastly different experiences and responses to the group work.

So when planning for group work, it is helpful to focus on the factors that are in your control. Below are some tips and key considerations within four major elements of group work.

How group work is designed

In general, effective group work design contains structured tasks, activates higher-level thinking and promotes positive group interdependence. In other words, students need to work together to be able to complete the assignment in time allotted.

Here are some tips for designing group work experiences:

  • Assign each group member a specific role (e.g. reporter, recorder, inclusion monitor, facilitator, skeptic, liaison to other groups, etc.). You can also have students rotate so that they are able to experience the different roles.
  • Use a Jigsaw approach to ensure that each member of the group is contributing to the larger group assignment. In a jigsaw, students first work in small “expert” groups to develop knowledge about a given topic, then move into new “jigsaw” groups that contain one member from every “expert” group. Jigsaw groups are assigned an activity that requires the sharing of information from each expert.
  • Scaffold large, complex problems by breaking them into smaller, more doable chunks. This will prevent students from becoming overwhelmed, confused and disengaged. You can also assign smaller chunks of a larger assignment to individual members of the group, particularly if you have larger-sized groups.

How group members interact

Group dynamics can be tricky, as students come into your course with their own unique knowledge, skills and attitudes toward group work. In general, students are more likely to have positive learning and emotional experiences with group work when they feel comfortable, valued and respected by their peers.

Here are some ideas for encouraging positive interactions between group members:

  • While not applicable in all circumstances, consider allowing students to remain in the same group throughout the term. Group members need time to build connections, develop trust, and learn to work with one another. This can be particularly important for students of marginalized identities.
  • Allow for group members to get to know each other and form connections with one another prior to working together. This can be done through the use of icebreaker questions or some other team building exercise, such as finding three things that all group members have in common.
  • Have students collaboratively create ground rules for productive group interactions, either within their specific group or as a larger class. You can ask students to reflect on their past experiences so that the ground rules address any concerns they might have about engaging in group work.

How group work is integrated into the course

Students are more likely to value and cooperate with group work if they can see how it fits within the course or if they understand how it will help them meet the course learning goals.

Following are some ways to integrate group work into the course:

  • Start using group work early in the term, preferably in the first or second week of classes. This will help to establish group work as a normal part of the course structure and culture.
  • Share your rationale for including group work in your course and explicitly outline the learning goals you have for students as they engage in group work. As much as possible, link these learning goals to things that students care about (e.g. skills that are relevant for their future courses or careers).
  • Incorporate group work into graded assignments (e.g. two-stage exams) or within the dissemination of course material (e.g. use a jigsaw approach to cover different topics, concepts, or content).

How group work is assessed

Students tend to be more invested in group work if they are somehow responsible for a product or outcome of the group work assignment. Products can be graded or not graded, depending on the assignment and your learning goals.

Here are some ways to integrate assessment into the group work experience:

  • Collect something at the end of each group work experience. This can be physical (e.g. answers to a worksheet) or mental (e.g. answers shared out to the larger group). You can use random call or solicit volunteers when sharing out to the larger group to keep students accountable for doing the work.
  • Allow students to self reflect on their group work experience and/or peer review one another’s contributions to the group work assignment.
  • Walk around the classroom and interact with the different groups. Students will be more likely to stay on task if they know that you are checking in with them and monitoring their progress.
  • Grade primarily for participation or ability to explain the answer, rather than on correctness. Less emphasis on getting the right answer will allow for more productive discussions between students.

In summary, while group work can be challenging and unpredictable, there are things you can do to help promote a positive group work experience for you and your students. I encourage you to try out some of these tips and see how they work for you.

Here are some additional resources:

Group Work (CBE – Life Sciences Education Evidence-based Teaching Guides):

Hodges, L.C. (2018). Contemporary Issues in Group Learning in Undergraduate Science Classrooms: A Perspective from Student Engagement. CBE – Life Sciences Education. 17:es3, 1-10.

Theobald, E.J., Eddy, S.L., Grunspan, D.Z., Wiggins, B.L., Crowe, A.J. (2017) Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter. PLOS ONE 12(7): e0181336.


Are there any strategies you use that I didn’t mention, or any experiences you’ve had with using group work effectively? Please share them in the comments below or send me an email. I’d love to hear them!

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