Facilitate Effective Group & Team Work

Here we discuss why and how to implement group and team learning into your courses, drawing from various articles and sources (included at the end for you to view as further reading). This document discusses two types of group and team work: 1) low-stakes group activities and 2) higher-stakes project teams. Each type has its own role/purpose in the classroom. Overall, group work and teamwork are beneficial to student learning but require careful planning, oversight, and implementation.

Why Use Small Groups and Teams in a Classroom? 

Learning is social and working with others helps create an active rather than passive learning environment. By working with groups and teams, students can practice collaborating, brainstorming, and leading. They can also practice their communication skills and learn to deal with conflict. However, none of this will happen productively without careful planning and oversight by the instructor. 

Distinguishing Between Informal Groups and Formal Teams

You can put students into small and even frequently-changing groups as they engage in “low-stakes” discussions, explorations, and problem-solving. This is different from putting students into “higher-stakes” teams where they work on a longer-term project that requires them to figure out procedures for working together, managing conflict, writing and revising as a group, and distributing work. 

“Low-stakes” refers to activities and assignments that are intended to help students learn but that allow for experimentation, mistakes, and failure by not heavily impacting final course grades. “High-stakes” refers to more formal projects, papers, and assignments that do influence final grades. Typically, lower-stakes activities and assignments are scaffolded earlier in the semester to prepare students to complete later higher-stakes assignments. Below we outline uses for both low-stakes group work and high-stakes team projects.  

Low-Stakes, Shorter-Term, and Informal Group Interactions

Research shows that students learn best when they can interact with others and receive swift and frequent feedback. Group work is one way for students to receive feedback without relying solely on the instructor to give it. Especially in an online context where students might not interact with the whole class as much as they would in fully in-person courses, groups and teams can also help create a sense of community and support for students.

Forming low-stakes teams:

You can form these short-term groups in a variety of ways, depending on your learning goals. For example, students can sign up for groups depending on the questions or problems that interest them, they can be randomly assigned to groups, or the teacher can form groups based on students’ strengths, experiences, or interests. In a face-to-face class, for very informal or impromptu activities such as discussing responses to a prompt or reflection, you can ask students to pair or group with a students(s) next to them.

How to facilitate low-stakes group activities:

Low-stakes group activities work best when they are used to reinforce a specific learning goal. Group activities can help students talk through ideas together, explain what they learn to someone else, or solve problems using skills and knowledge of all members of the group. Design group activities that can engage students with each other to work through hard ideas and tasks. 

Group work can happen synchronously or asynchronously. Some tools and media for facilitating low-stakes group activities in an online context include: 

Synchronous Methods:

Asynchronous Methods:

  • Write and respond to each other via Google Docs
  • Canvas discussion boards
  • Social Media (like Twitter)

Students can do many things together in small groups. Whatever they do, the purpose for the group work should be clear, as should the directions and timeframe for completing the work. Some things you can ask students to do in small groups include:

  • Respond to questions or discussion prompts 
  • Read drafts of other people’s work (can be shorter, earlier pieces of a text, not necessarily a late draft)
  • Compile, share, and compare reading notes
  • Compile, share, and compare experiment results
  • Discuss and analyze a case or example
  • Conduct a genre analysis of readings or sample texts
  • Solve a problem together

For more ideas, see Part 3 of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas on Coaching Students as Learners, Thinkers, and Writers.

When designing low-stakes group activities, especially in online settings, it is useful to provide clear instructions for students. Assign groups ahead of time and, if necessary, create spaces like a Google Doc or Canvas Discussion Group where they will meet. Instructions for the activity should be shared with students in an easily-accessible format; for example, use a GoogleDoc for instructions if students are going to be responding in GoogleDocs. If you are introducing the assignment in a full-class chat, make sure they can access the instructions if they leave that chat to meet with their small group. Be sure to write down your instructions, don’t just give them orally.

Higher-Stakes Formal Team Projects

Team projects and assignments can enrich students’ learning experiences and help share and distribute knowledge and resources. High-stakes team projects can be especially useful in disciplines where students need to be prepared to do collaborative projects and tasks in other courses or in their professions. However, team-based projects are difficult and should only be assigned if there is a clear purpose for completing a project with others, and if students are provided with appropriate structure and scaffolding to help them both engage the task at hand and learn to work collaboratively with others. 

Guiding principles for team based learning:

Team-based projects and activities work best when they are built on the following principles from the Team-Based Learning Collaborative

  • Groups must be properly formed and managed 
  • Team assignments must promote both learning and team development 
  • Students must receive frequent and timely feedback 
  • Students must be accountable for the quality of their individual and group work

How to effectively implement high-stakes teams for projects:

Before you create and assign a high-stakes team project in your course, be aware that:

  • Working and writing in groups is difficult and takes additional instruction and support.
  • Working and writing collaboratively requires careful oversight and training.
  • Students will likely not know how to work collaboratively and will need clear guidance and support structures, which we provide in various links throughout this document.

Before the semester or in first week: 

  • Form Teams. There are a number of methods for forming teams, such as based on their responses to an inventory or team-work questionnaire, based on their work schedules or availability, or based on topics that students are interested in. 
    • More information about these methods can be found in this HCWE handout or this handout created by Ellen Yezierski on forming teams for high-stakes projects.

At the beginning of team projects:

  • Explain your own expectations for team work. This might include talking about team planning strategies or collaboration approaches with students before you ask them to begin their own team projects. Do not assume that students already know how to work as a team. 
  • Make your assessment criteria clear. Remember that you are assigning an individual grade for a group effort, and so it can be helpful to account for the final product as well as the individual contributions. See these ideas for assessing group projects from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center.
  • Assign teams to create their own team charter or procedural memo at the start of the project. In this document, teams set out ground rules for their work that they can refer back to if problems arise. To help students manage their project, you could also give them this agenda for activities to complete at their first team meeting, as well as this activity with reflective prompts and explanations of team roles that students can use when assigning roles for their team members.

Throughout the semester: 

  • Create spaces for check-ins and reflections to help teams stay on track and share any problems or issues they may be facing. Such reflections or status reports can be scaffolded into the semester as graded, lower-stakes assignments. 

At the end of the semester:

  • Assign self- and team-evaluations to give team members the opportunity to reflect on their individual and team work. This can be folded into the project’s grade or serve as another lower-stakes assignment. See these ideas for assessing group projects from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center.

Further Reading/Resources

An Online Instructors Guide: How to Approach Group Work” by Caitrin Blake

“Designing Effective Team Projects for Online Courses” by  Stephanie Smith Budhai 

"Energize Your Online Course with Group Work" by Tamara Babarian and Bill Schiano  

Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John Bean

“Facilitating Online Group Work and Collaboration” by Online Learning Insights

“Group vs Team [Differences, Comparison, Transformation” by ActiveCollab

How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman

“Off to On: Best Practices for Online Team-Based Learning” by Team Based Learning Collaborative

“Online Students Don’t Have to Work Solo” by Mark Lieberman 

“Team-based Learning” by Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

“Team Charters: What are they and what’s their purpose?” by Life Cycle Engineering

Team Writing: a guide for working in groups by Joanna Wolfe

Tips for Participating in Group Work and Projects Online by Drexel University Online 

“What is Team-Based Learning? A quick guide for busy faculty members” from Vancouver Island University