Answers to Your Most Pressing Questions About Group Work

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

There are a lot of decisions to make when thinking about how to implement group work, and I’ve noticed that there are a handful of questions that I frequently get from instructors regarding how to best structure group work in their courses.

In general, the group work structure that will work best will depend on your specific context.

Below I provide answers to the most commonly asked questions I receive about group structure, and offer tips to help you determine what will work best for you and your students in your specific context.

What size should groups be?

This answer depends on several factors, including the number of students in the course, the classroom space, the assignment scope, the assessment strategy and learning objectives.

In general, smaller groups (2-4 people) are easier to manage and tend to produce more equitable engagement and contributions from all group members.

However, if the group assignment requires a wide diversity of thought, knowledge or skills, or if it involves a large amount of work to be completed in a relatively short time period, larger groups (5+ people) may produce better results. Also, if you are teaching a large size course, having larger groups may allow for more manageable marking.

If you choose to have larger groups, you can help ensure that all members of the group are engaged and contributing to the overall project by assigning each group member a specific role or task to complete.

Some questions to ask yourself when determining what group size will work best for your context:

  • How complex is the group assignment?
  • How much time am I going to give students to complete the group assignment?
  • Am I planning to mark the group assignment? If so, how much marking will be involved?
  • Is this a more spontaneous assignment (e.g., in the moment), or do I have a lot of time to plan for it?
  • Will larger or smaller groups be more conducive in the classroom space? (e.g., are the chairs and/or tables mobile?)

Should I assign students to groups or let them choose?

As with the first question, the short answer is: it depends. There are three main strategies you can use when forming groups and they each have their own pros and cons.

1) Self-selection: Allowing students to self-select gives them a choice in who they would like to work with. Students tend to form groups with others they know or feel comfortable with, which can be especially important for students with marginalized identities. Self-selection is also an efficient way to facilitate group formation, particularly for spontaneous group work (e.g., discussion following a clicker question, or a think-pair-share). However, self-selection can limit diversity within the group, and students may feel left out if no one invites them into a group or indicates that they would like to work with them.

2) Random assignment: Randomly assigning students into groups provides more structure to the group formation process than self-selection and ensures that all students are part of a group. There are different strategies for random assignment, and it can also be automated using a function in Canvas, allowing for time efficiency and quick dissemination to students. However, problematic situations can occur, such as individuals who have extreme personality clashes being grouped together, or people of marginalized identities being singled out in their group.

3) Intentional assignment: Intentionally assigning students into groups allows you to ensure that groups have sufficient diversity (e.g., background knowledge, experience, perspectives, and skills) and you can also avoid problematic group member combinations. However, the group formation process can take up a lot of time, particularly if you have a large size course.

Some questions to consider when you are determining how to form groups:

  • How large is the course?
  • How much time and effort am I willing/able to invest in the group formation process?
  • How long will students remain in this group?
  • How important is diversity for this group assignment?
  • Are there students who are likely to be left out, clash with certain others in the course, or suffer from being singled out in a group?

Should I change groups or keep them the same throughout the term?

Again, this answer depends on your context. Let’s explore these two options more.

Changing up groups throughout the term allows for students to be able to work with a variety of people and to get to know others in the course. It is also an opportunity to mitigate any problems that might arise with group dynamics.

On the other hand, allowing students to remain in the same group over the entire term provides time and space for group members to build connections, develop trust, and learn to work with one another. This can be particularly important for students of marginalized identities.

Some questions to consider when determining whether or not to change groups throughout the term:

  • What are the expectations and learning goals I have for my students?
  • Are there students in the course who would particularly benefit or suffer from changing groups?
  • Are there students in the course who would particularly benefit or suffer from remaining in the same group throughout the term?

Should group work take place during or outside of class time?

Once again, it depends.

Allowing students to complete group work during class means that you can monitor the progress and dynamics of the group working experience. You can also help groups move forward if they are getting stuck. Additionally, facilitating group work during class is a great way to interact with students, learn more about them, build rapport and serve as a source of support.

But group work can require large amounts of class time. If you are not willing or able to dedicate class time to it, then students could potentially engage in group work outside of class. In this case, students may choose to meet at a location that is more comfortable or convenient for them, and may enjoy having additional time and space to work and engage with their peers.

However, some students may not be able to meet outside of class time due to family, work or other extracurricular responsibilities. Group members may also have long commutes or live far from one another, making meeting prohibitively difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Also, students may struggle to efficiently complete the work or manage difficult group dynamics without direct help and oversight from the instructional team.

Some questions to consider when choosing whether group work should take place within or outside of class time:

  • What are the outside responsibilities of my students (e.g., work, family, extracurricular activities, etc.)?
  • Where do my students live? (Note: groups could be formed based on where students live)
  • How much influence do I want to have in managing group dynamics?
  • To what degree will students need access to me and the instructional team when working together on this assignment?
  • How much class time am I willing to dedicate to group work?

As you can see, there are no hard-and-fast rules for how group work should be structured or what it ought to look like in your classroom environment. Rather, these decisions should be made based on the needs of you and your students, the group work assignment, the learning goals you have for your students, and your classroom space.

Do you want more strategies for implementing group work? Check out my previous article for additional tips: How To Make “Group Work” Work For You 

Here are two other great 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.


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


Previous “Tips for Teaching” articles:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Spam prevention powered by Akismet