Seminal research from Vygotsky, Bandura, and other learning scientists has demonstrated that learners change their thinking as a result of direction interaction with others. Having students work in groups is one way to achieve this. Group work goes by many names, including cooperative learning, collaborative learning, peer-led team learning, and peer instruction. There are many reasons why group work improves learning - here are just a few:

  • People learn by explaining things because they not only have to generate a correct answer but they have to justify it with a reason. 
  • Interaction with others provides and opportunity for feedback. In group work, this feedback is not only coming from the instructor (who is a very limited commodity in the classroom!) and it is coming from other learners, who are more likely to remember what it is like to not understand the material.
  • When more people are involved in a discussion,  more diverse perspectives and expertise can be brought to bear in answering a question or addressing a problem.
  • Interactions afford opportunities to develop teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills.

Group work allows for students to engage in more complex, interesting, and challenging projects that individual students would have difficulty completing on their own. Having students create group rather than individual products also reduces the grading workload for instructors. 

How it works

Group work is more likely to be successful when:

  • The task is designed for positive interdependence, meaning that all students in the group need to work together to complete it. No single student should be able to complete the task, and the aspects of the task should come together in a way that requires interaction among group members.
  • There is both individual and group accountability.
  • The groups are taught how to work together as a team.

Group size. The ideal group size is 3-4 students, however a number of practical issues need to be considered when deciding group size. For example:

  • If groups will work together mostly in class, what number of students can reasonably interact given the class layout? 
  • How large is the course? Slightly larger group sizes (e.g., five students, or two teams of three students who comprise a final group of six) may be necessary in large courses (>200 students).
  • How many people are needed to accomplish the task? Could three students reasonably do it? If so, set the group size to three, or add elements to the task such that four members are needed to do the work.
  • What expertise is needed? For example, is the project cross-disciplinary, requiring input of students knowledgable about biology, computer science, math, and statistics? If so, each group should contain at least one member with knowledge in the relevant area (e.g., courses completed, majors, prior research experience, etc.).

Creating groups. Instructors can choose to have students organize themselves into groups, or assign students to groups. Points to consider when creating groups:

  • In large courses, it may be easier to let students self-organize based on where they prefer to sit in class, when their classes meet or when they generally have free time to get together, or other factors. 
  • Having students count off (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) is an equitable way to assign students to groups. Even in classes of ~100, students can count off and organize into groups fairly quickly to work on a problem or task. 
  • Students often prefer to choose their own groups. It can be helpful to remind students that their friends may have similar skills, knowledge, and pespectives, and that forming groups with classmates who bring different skills, knowledge, and perspectives may help them create a better product. 
  • If students vary in their levels of preparation, it may be helpful to create groups that represent this variation. This can be accomplished in a low tech way by asking students to list on an index card the science, math, writing, or other relevant courses they have taken, or other experiences they have had that might help them be successful on a project. Then students can be sorted into groups that represent the range of experience.
  • The Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME) tool offers a free, technology-enabled way to sort students into groups and support and assess them in their group work (e.g., training students to work in groups, self- and peer-evaluations of teamwork, etc.).

Teaching how to work in groups. Just as students benefit from content-related instruction, students benefit from instruction on how to work effectively as a team. Here are several strategies for helping students learn to work effectively as a group:

  • Help groups set expectations, interact positively, and resolve conflicts. For example, have group members disclose their constructive and destructive group behaviors to one another, and agree what to do when group members demonstrative their destructive behaviors (e.g., how will group members let one another know if they are dominating the discussion or free loading, and what will be the consequence?). Group contracts can be another way to formalize expectations, including how conflicts will be mitigated or resolved. Here are examples from UC Irvine and University of Arizona
  • Consider designating roles so that every group member is responsible for some aspect of the work. For example, group members can be assigned the following roles and rotate through the roles over the course of the semester:
    • Recorder: Documents the group's work
    • Facilitator: Makes sure the work and discussion stays on track
    • Reporter: Reports out about the group's work to the class
    • Critic: Is tasked with questioning and critiquing in order to improve the work 
  • Build in opportunities for reflection and feedback. Encourage students to think about how they and their peers are contributing to the group's work and functioning. This can help identify areas of strength and success in the group, and areas that need improvement before a crisis point is reached. This can also prepare students to speak about group experiences when they go on the job market.
    • For specific peer- and self-assessment tools for group activities, see this article from Wenzel (2007)
    • CATME has built-in peer- and self-evaluation tools.