Group Work Best Practices

Group work can help engage learners and promote concept application. However, the results of group work sometimes don't meet the standards we'd hoped for as educators or as learners. Here are some best practices for group work that may help yield more effective processes and products: 

Carefully and Thoroughly Introduce the Group Work  

Both in-class and within your syllabus, introduce the value and concept of group work. 
  • Share the rationale: Explain how group work connects to learning outcomes.  Emphasize the value of collaboration and teamwork for career endeavors (Major, 2015).  
  • Explain assessment methods: Share the grading for product and process. Encourage students to self-evaluate the group process as one part of the project’s requirements. 
  • Provide training & support: Make sure learners have the knowledge, skills, tools, and processes to succeed (Major, 2015). Provide training and practice related to group processes and norms such as agenda keeping, setting milestones, and determining communication plans (Brame & Biel, 2015; Major, 2015). 
  • Explore perspectives: Find out why learners may be hesitant and explain why/how the experience can be different from less successful group work experiences.  
Placing learners in small groups of four to six learners provides them with the opportunity to explore different points of view, reflect on past experiences, and form meaningful relationships with their peers. In most cases, small groups encourage positive interdependence and individual accountability (Lou, Abrami, & d’Appollonia, 2001). According to Fornari (n.d.), some core discussion skills that small groups foster are:
  • Asking Questions – Learners are encouraged to explore their interests and ask questions about the subject.
  • Listening – Learners actively listen to and reflect on their peers’ contributions to class discussions.
  • Responding – Learners can reflect on the contributions of their peers and learn to respond appropriately to foster a safe learning environment. Responses can include reflecting back, checking perceptions, and paraphrasing.
  • Explaining – Learners develop proficiency in clarity and fluency of language through group discussion. Learners can also develop a better understanding of tone, organization, and feedback in speaking.
  • Opening and Closing Discussions –Learners are prepared to open a small group discussion by learning to establish rapport and group expectations, determine relevant tasks, and assign roles. Learners also learn to summarize key points of the class period and identify unanswered questions at the period’s end.

Group Types & Activities 

For a list of potential group activities, such as buzz groups, jigsaw activities, and think-pair-share, review our Cooperative or Collaborative Learning guide.  
  • Cooperative Groups or Group Investigations: Small groups of 4-6 learners with diverse abilities and characteristics work together for a short time to collectively learn and accomplish learning goals or tasks. This is the most common group type, and it’s used across a broad swath of classes. 
  • Learning Cycle Groups: Groups of learners with similar needs or interests are brought together for a short time to gain support, time, and practice to facilitate content mastery. This may be used for remediation or to promote personalized learning experiences. 
  • Peer Tutoring Groups: A small group of learners with a cross-section of characteristics is formed to emphasize content taught to the class. This is typical in a lab, field, or clinical activities where educators want to intermix learners with different levels of content exposure or experience. 

Assessment of Group Work 

You may wish to assess team functioning, individual understanding and contribution, team understanding and contribution, and the process overall. Note that related research indicates that the evaluation of individual contributions tends to discourage cooperation. At the same time, team collaboration and communication improves if learners know the performance of all learners will be equally weighted (Abadzi, 1985). Though some might have concerns that cooperative groups can be demotivating to high-achieving learners, research suggests that learning gains for these learners increase when they can assist others through explanation or demonstration of concepts and processes (Abadzi, 1985). 

Possible Tools for Group Work  

CMU offers a variety of educational technologies to assist educators and learners. Likewise, numerous Web 2.0 tools are freely available online to support group work. Examples include:  
  • Microsoft Teams: File sharing, live-streaming capabilities, group chat for presentations, breakouts, or small groups. No scheduling required.
  • WebEx: Live-streaming capabilities, group chat, polling, breakouts or small groups. No scheduling required for Meeting Center.
  • Doodle: Free, online polling tool to determine times a group can meet.  
  • Microsoft OneDrive/Google Drive: Collaborative online documents, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.  
  • Blackboard: Group tools like group formation, group forums, group wikis, group evaluations, group assignment submission, etc.  
  • Web or Mobile Apps: Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, Slack for communication  
  • Conference Calls or 3-Way Calling: Available through some departments & many learners have this capability on their devices and plans, too.  

References

Abadzi, H. (1985). Ability grouping effects on academic achievement and self-esteem: Who performs in the long run as expected. Journal of Educational Research, 79(1), 36-40. 

Brame, C. J., & Biel, R. (2015). Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/

Fornari, A. (n.d.) Effective small group learning [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://medicine.hofstra.edu/pdf/faculty/facdev/facdev_classroom_effectivesmallgrouplearning.pdf

Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., & d’Appollonia, S. (2001). Small group and individual learning with technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 449-521. DOI: 10.3102/00346543071003449

Major, C. (2015). Choosing the best approach for small group work. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/choosing-the-best-approach-for-small-group-work/