Many students, particularly if they are new to college, do not like group assignments and projects. They might say they “work better by themselves” and may be wary of irresponsible members of their group dragging down their grade. Or, they may feel group projects take too much time and slow down the progression of the class.  

Despite these reservations, research has demonstrated that students working in small groups learn more and demonstrate better knowledge retention than students taught in other instructional formats. Working in groups provides students with a sense of shared purpose that can increase their morale and motivation. Group work can be incorporated into almost any course, regardless of size, discipline, or level. 

Have clear goals and purpose

  • Information on the importance of developing skills in group work and how this benefits the students in the topics presented in the course.
  • Examples of how this type of group work will be used in the discipline outside of the classroom.
  • How the assignment or project benefits from multiple perspectives or dividing the work among more than one person.

Choose the right assignment

  • Would the workload of the project or activity require more than one person to finish it properly?
  • Is this something where multiple perspectives create a greater whole?
  • Does this draw on knowledge and skills that are spread out among the students?
  • Will the group process used in the activity or project give students a tangible benefit to learning in and engagement with the course?

Help students learn the skills of working in groups

  • Give a short pre-survey to your class about their previous work in groups to gauge areas where they might need help: ask about what they liked best and least about group work, dynamics of groups they have worked in, time management, communication skills or other areas important in the assignment you are designing.
  • Allow time in class for students in groups to get to know each other. This can be as simple as brief introductions for an in-class active learning activity to a short interim or draft assignment as a prelude to a longer project that spans several weeks in a course.
  • Based on the activity you are designing and the skills that would be involved in working as a group, assemble some links to web resources that students can draw on for more information, such as sites that explain how to delegate and share responsibilities, conflict resolution, or planning a project and time management.
  • Have a plan for clarifying questions or possible problems that may emerge with an assignment or project. Are there ways you can ask questions or get draft material to spot areas where students are having difficulty understanding the assignment or having difficulty with group dynamics that might impact the work later?

Designing the assignment or project

  • Break the assignment down into steps or stages to help students become familiar with the process of planning the project as a group.
  • Suggest roles for participants in each group to encourage building expertise and expertise and to illustrate ways to divide responsibility for the work.
  • Use interim drafts for longer projects to help students manage their time and goals and spot early problems with group projects.
  • Limit their resources (such as giving them material to work with or certain subsets of information) to encourage more close cooperation.
  • Encourage diversity in groups to spread experience and skill levels and to get students to work with colleagues in the course who they may not know.

Promote individual responsibility

  • Build “slack days” into the course. Allow a pre-arranged number of days when individuals have to “step away” from group work to focus on other classes or campus events. Individual students claim “slack days” in advance, informing both the members of their group and the instructor. Encourage students to work out how the group members will deal with conflicting dates if more than one student in a group wants to claim the same dates.
  • Combine a group grade with an individual grade for independent write-ups, journal entries, and reflections.
  • Have students assess their fellow group members.
  • If you are having students assume roles in group class activities and projects, have them change roles in different parts of the class or project so that one student isn’t always “stuck” doing one task for the group.

Gather feedback

  • For in-class activities, have students jot down thoughts at the end of class on a sheet of paper or large notecard for a short formative assessment.
  • At the end of a larger project, or at key points when you have them submit drafts, ask the students for an “assignment wrapper”—a short reflection on the assignment or short answers to a series of questions.

Further Reading & Resources:

 Group Work Strategies for Any Course from Faculty Focus

 Group Work: How to Use Groups Effectively from The Journal of Effective Teaching 

 Online Students Don't Have to Work Solo from Inside Higher Ed

 Students Riding on Coattails during Group Work? Five Simple Ideas to Try from Faculty Focus