Collaborative Learning: Groups and Teams

Collaborative learning, whether peer-to-peer or in larger groups, allows students to engage actively together in the course’s work while also developing teamwork skills that have real-world applications. 81% of Fortune 500 companies are building at least partially team- based organizations, and at least 77% use temporary project teams to perform core work. (Lawler, Mohrman, & Benson, 2001).

Effective and Meaningful Group or Team Assignments

While some differentiate between groups (whose members work independently and then come together to combine their work) and teams (whose members work together and have a team goal), group and team assignments share many characteristics.

Group Assignments and Learning Objectives

Before considering using any group assignment, be clear on its objective. What is the clear purpose of the assignment, and how does it align to the overall course learning objectives? How will using groups help students achieve the objective? How will you communicate the importance of group work to your students? How will you address resistance to group learning? What real-world value will this group work have?

Example learning objectives (adapted from Linder, 2016).

  • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to consider the contributions of others.
  • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to contribute questions or concerns in a respectful way.
  • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to develop a common goal.
  • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to apply the problem-based learning cycle (identify facts, generate hypotheses, identify knowledge deficiencies, apply new knowledge, abstraction, evaluation) to a unique situation (see Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

Additional skills group assignments can help students develop include:

  • Teamwork skills (working within team dynamics, leadership).
  • Analytical and cognitive skills (analyzing task requirements, questioning, critically interpreting material, evaluating the work of others).
  • Collaborative skills (conflict management and resolution, accepting intellectual criticism, flexibility, negotiation and compromise).
  • Organizational and time management skills.

Student Self-Assessment Exercise

When discussing the value of group work with your students, you may wish to have them reflect on their experiences and how they perform in groups:

In my past experience working in a group, I liked __________________________________. I didn’t like ________________________________.

What am I like when I’m in a group? Complete the following sentences:

  • In groups I tend to…
  • In groups I tend to avoid…
  • I like groups where…
    I don’t like groups where…
  • In this group I would like to be…
  • How I’d like this group to be for me…

(Adapted from G. Gibbs (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 20.)

Types of Group Assignments

  • Small assignments (one time or short-term)
    • A discussion that involves coming to consensus on a problem or question.
    • Collaboratively annotating a course reading and co-writing a summary.
    • Co-creating a blog or wiki that generates and shares new knowledge around a course content area (research & writing)
  • Large assignments (long-term, multiple tasks over several weeks)
    • Creating a multimedia artifact that has a series of tasks and processes for development (videos, podcasts, digital graphics, performance);
    • Co-writing a major report or presentation that requires processes of research and writing
Sample Assignments

Sample Scaffolding Assignments, adapted from Linder and Hayes, 2018.

Collaborative Project Scaffolding How it Works Intended Collaboration Effects
Two Truths and a Lie Activity In small-group discussion, each member shares three personal “facts,” two of which are true and one a lie. Group members post their guesses about which facts are actually lies. After a fixed interval, members self-disclose which was a lie. Builds social connections, demonstrates accountability, models the use of interim milestones in longer projects, and begins to establish psychological safety.
Valuing Constructive Conflict Teams share examples of conflicts from past experiences with group work, perhaps from childhood, professional, or college experiences. Teams discuss which conflicts have yielded positive outcomes and then compare and contrast constructive and destructive conflict. Builds group potency, establishes boundaries for acceptable communication, creates group value of diversity, identifies benefits of constructive conflict, and creates shared and nuanced vocabulary about conflict.
Reflecting on Strengths and Challenges of Group Work Before the project begins, group members brainstorm a collaborative document expressing strengths and challenges of group work, noting specific challenges for online collaborations. Teams generate a list of strengths and concerns and then collectively prioritize them based on degree of severity. Builds task cohesion, increases psychological safety, establishes the value of proactively avoiding problems, builds awareness of role responsibility, and establishes group values about which behaviors are most undesirable for the team.
Preventing and Addressing Team Problems Building on the prioritized list of concerns, teams discuss strategies for preventing problems and dealing with them if they do arise. Teams produce a strategy document that helps teams agree on a plan for preventing concerning situations and responding to concerns as they arise. Reduces apprehension, builds team and task cohesion, increases psychological safety, creates a shared understanding of team dynamics, and builds team interdependence.
Advice for Future Groups At the conclusion of the project, teams can create a letter or video message for students in future teams providing advice for approaching collaborative work productively. These artifacts can be used for future teams to orient students to collaborative work. Provides authentic student-to-student feedback on collaborative work, introduces nuances specific to the context of the class itself, and normalizes collaborative work as a valuable educational practice.

Structuring Group Learning

Collaborative projects (Linder & Hayes, 2018)

Planning Stage

Before you begin designing collaborative projects, be aware and consider some challenges to organizing collaborations. Make sure the assignment has a clear purpose and concrete (measurable) learning objectives before requiring collaborative work.

Scheduling – Students need to be able to find a common pattern of work regardless of class modality. Set a clear schedule for the assignment and set aside time for students to work in groups. It can be hard for students with outside responsibilities or busy schedules to find time outside of class to meet. This can be an even bigger challenge in asynchronous classes; for those, consider a quick survey for students to indicate when they work on class assignments and use that to make groups (that is, don’t pair up the person who has to do classwork on Tuesday nights with someone who has to do classwork on Sundays.)

Build in incremental deliverables – These allow missed work or unresponsive students to be identified early. Procrastination can snowball into missed deadlines and degraded group morale.

Consider access – Tools such as email, discussion boards, screen recorders, virtual poster boards, and web-conferencing can assist building communication channels for students. However, these tools need to be learned, to be compatible across various types of devices, and require stable Internet access.

Address communication gaps and misunderstanding – Groups may have dominant or inflexible members who challenge the cohesiveness and equal work of the group. Language, culture, and use of humor or other cultural referents may also interfere with understanding or create alienating group experiences. Assigning specific roles for each person in the group will help mediate some of these issues.

Review check-ins and progress reports – What should they contain? Will you give them rubrics?

Help groups plan – Depending on the assignment, they will need to decide on things like the following: topic selection, communication channel, meeting schedule, troubleshooting plan, specific tasks & roles, progress reports, medium of final product. This guide for students may help them organize, plan, and assess their work as a group.

Be present – Create instructor presence and support by meeting with each groups

Forming and Assigning Groups

Group size – This depends on the assignment: small projects or in-class, synchronous groups may benefit from smaller groups (3-4); bigger projects may benefit from bigger groups (5-7).

Options for forming groups

  • Random assign (instructor) –For in-person classes, have students count off by 4-5s. Canvas Groups or Zoom breakout rooms can also help you randomly assign students to a group.
  • Intentional assign (instructor) – Using known strengths and the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives of your students, create balanced groups ahead of time. It will be useful to survey students first to determine a good mix, and to set aside time to orient students to their groups and allow them to get to know one another.
  • Self-select (students) – Better for short-term, in-class group work or with more mature students. Let students form their own groups where students can work with others who are interested in the same topic, have mutual goals, or have compatible timetables.
Decide or Assign Specific Roles

Review different roles and rotate them (for large projects and from session to session) so that students are able to practice different collaborative skills.

Six Common Group Roles (Barkley, Major & Cross, 2014) – revised and adapted

Facilitator – Moderates all team discussions, keeping the group on task for each assignment and ensuring that everybody assumes their share of the work. Facilitators strive to make sure that all group members have the opportunity to learn, to participate, and to earn the respect of the other group members.

Recorder – Records any assigned team activities. Recorders take notes summarizing discussion, keep all necessary records (including data sheets such as attendance and homework check-offs), and complete worksheets or written assignments for submission to the instructor.

Reporter – Serves as group spokesperson and orally summarizes the group’s activities or conclusions. Reporters also assist the recorder with the preparation of reports and worksheets.
Timekeeper – Keeps the group aware of time constraints, works with the facilitator to keep the group on task, and can also assume the role of any missing group member. The timekeeper is also responsible for any set-up of communication channels, and the scheduling of regular, consistent meetings or deadlines.

Critic/Skeptic –Evaluates all work for any gaps or confusing content. The critic or skeptic serves as the principal reviewer of all content developed by the group, conducts evaluation (and may create a rubric or use a rubric assigned by the instructor) of all assignments or reports before they are submitted. Checks that all criteria of the assignment has been met and raises questions or concerns about any missing or incomplete work.

Wildcard – Assumes any group member’s role or fills in however needed.

During Longer-Term Group Projects

Have students develop a contract for longer-term group projects

Sample contracts:

Require students to provide status updates during the project, perhaps through a short survey.

Assessing Collaborative Work
  • Require regular progress reports from each individual student and from the group as a whole (formative & summative)
  • Individual assessment (reflection paper, individual progress reports)
  • Group assessment (final product, meeting of staggered deadlines, evidence of collaboration)
    Peer Evaluation (confidential rating form, reflection on work performed -who did what?)
  • Self-Evaluation (reflection on performance, areas for improvement, strengths of collaborative performance. What did I contribute? What more could I have done to improve the process and final artifact?)
  • Rubrics from Carnegie Mellon
  • Hobson, et al., 2014, rubrics pp. 6, 8
  • Guides on Assessing Group Work from the University of South Wales.
  • Steps from RIT.
  • Ideas for Effective Group work from the University of South Wales

Authenticity – group work often feels contrived and artificial to students. Build in connections to real-world practices related to your course content that requires students to build collaborative skills.

Resources and References

Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H. & K.P. Cross. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass.

Gibbs, G. (1994). Learning in Teams: A Student Manual. Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 9.

Hobson, C. J., Strupeck, D., Griffin, A., Szostek, J., & Rominger, A. S. (2014). Teaching MBA Students Teamwork and Team Leadership Skills: An Empirical Evaluation of a Classroom Educational Program. American Journal of Business Education, 7(3), 191–212.

Linder, K. (2017). The Blended Course Design Workbook: A Practical Guide. Stylus.

Linder, K. & Hayes, C. M. (2018). High-Impact Practices in Online Education: Research and Best Practices. Stylus.

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight A.B. & Fink, L.D. (2004.) Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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