Ideas for Great Group Work

Fellows participants

Many students, particularly if they are new to college, don’t like group assignments and projects.  They might say they “work better by themselves” and 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.  This blog post by a student—5 Reasons I Hate Group Projects—or the results of this survey of just one class might sound familiar to many faculty assigning in-class group work and longer-term projects in their courses.

We all recognize that learning how to work effectively in groups is an essential skill that will be used by students in practically every career in the private sector or academia.  But, with the hesitancy of students towards group work and how it might impact their grade, how do we make group in-class work, assignments, or long-term projects beneficial and even exciting to students?

The methods and ideas in this blog post have been compiled from Duke faculty faculty who we have consulted with as part of our work in the CIT or have participated in one of our programs, such as the Fellows.  Also included are ideas from colleagues at other universities with whom we have talked at conferences and other venues about group work practices in their own classrooms.

Have clear goals and purpose

Students want to know why they are being assigned certain kinds of work – how it fits into the larger goals of the class and the overall assessment of their performance in the course.  Make sure you explain your goals for assigning in-class group work or projects in the course.  Your syllabus might include:

  • 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.

Some faculty give students the option to come to a consensus on the specifics of how group work will count in the course, within certain parameters.  This can help students feel they have some control over their own learning process and and can put less emphasis on grades and more on the importance of learning the skills of working in groups.

Choose the right assignment

Some in-class activities, short assignments or projects are not suitable for working in groups.  To ensure student success, choose the right class activity or assignment for groups.

  • 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

Students in your course may have never been asked to work in groups before.  If they have worked in groups in previous courses, they may have had bad experiences that color their reaction to group work in your course.  They may have never had the resources and support to make group assignments and projects a compelling experience for them in a class.

One of the most important things you can do as an instructor is to consider all of the skills that go into working in groups and to design your activities and assignments with an eye towards developing those skills.

In a group assignment, students may be asked to break down a project into steps, plan strategy, plan their time, and coordinate efforts in the context of a group of people they may have never met before.  (This site has a fuller list of all of the skills involved in successfully navigating any kind of group activity or project.)

Consider these ideas to help your students learn group work skills in your course.

  • 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 a 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

The actual design of the class activity or project can help the students transition into group work processes and gain confidence with the skills involved in group dynamics.  When designing your assignment, consider these ideas.

  • 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

Students always worry about how the performance of other students in a group project might impact their grade.  A way to allay those fears is to build individual responsibility into both the course grade and the logistics of group work.

  • 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.  Teammates is an online application that can automate this process.
  • 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

To improve your group class activities and assignments, gather reflective feedback from students on what is and isn’t working.  You can also share good feedback with future classes to help them understand the value of the activities they’re working on in groups.

  • For in-class activities, have students jot down thoughts at the end of class on a sheet of paper or large notecard for a “one minute paper”.
  • 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 resources

Information for faculty

Working in Groups: A Note to Faculty and a Quick Guide for Students (Harvard Center for Teaching and Learning)

Best practices for designing group projects (Eberly Center, Carnegie Mellon)

5 tips for improving group projects (Colorado State TILT)

Planning group projects (University of Washington Center for Instructional Development and Research)

Team working skills (University of Kent Careers and Employability Service)
From a university employment site; includes group work scenarios that students have been asked about or to do during employment interviews and ideas for assessing strengths in group work settings.

Barkley, E.F., Cross, K.P., and Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Thompson, L.L. (2004). Making the team: A guide for managers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Information for students

10 tips for working effectively in groups (Vancouver Island University Learning Matters)

5 tips for surviving group projects (Uttica College Nursing student blog)

Teamwork skills: being an effective group member (University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence)

5 ways to survive a group project in college (HBCU Lifestyle)

Group project tips for online courses (Drexel Online)

10 Tips for Working in Student Teams (My College Success Story)

Group Writing (Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill)

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: How to Manage Group Projects (USC Libraries Research Guide)

Group Writing (Texas A&M University Writing Center)

Randy Riddle

Author: Randy Riddle

Randy Riddle is a Senior Consultant in Duke Learning Innovation and consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices. His professional interests include active learning, “flipped” classroom methods, inclusive classroom strategies, and integration of e-learning tools, social networking, video and multimedia, and data visualization into the daily work of teaching.