A range of formal and informal learning and study groups operate in any University context. This resource focuses on formal learning groups, which are generally established to complete a specific task in one class session or over many weeks. Tasks might include a laboratory experiment, musical performance or the compilation of an environmental impact report.

Formal learning groups can be used to achieve a range of teaching and learning goals related to:

  1. group process i.e. how a group works together
  2. group product i.e. what a group produces

Why use group work?

Well designed and conducted group work can enhance learning and student performance. Perhaps more important from the student's point of view, it can also help students to develop a range of communication and planning skills that are attractive to employers.

Group work can potentially develop the following skills transferable to the workplace:

  • The ability to listen to others and evaluate different points of view.
  • The development of cooperation and planning skills.
  • The development of leadership and shared leadership skills.
  • The ability to work on large and/or complex projects.
  • The ability to work with individuals from a range of cultures and backgrounds.

When to use group work?

Group work should be considered when one or more of the following criteria are met:

  • Group work will clearly assist students to meet learning objectives.
  • The task requires cooperation for successful completion i.e. the task can only be carried out by a group – such as when students work as a management team, or are required to assign roles to group members.
  • The task is too large or complex for one person.
  • Resource limitations require group work - such as in the case of limited equipment or a limited number of 'real' clients.

Challenges of group work

While group assessment can have many intellectual and social benefits, it is also one of the most challenging and contentious forms of assessment. Typical challenges include:

  • Students may not be clear about the benefits of group work and group assessment. While some students may consider the group assessment they participate in as effective preparation for employment, others are yet to be convinced. Students entering higher education often have highly developed independent study habits and are strongly orientated towards their own personal achievement. These students may perceive little value for their own learning in group activities, or may be frustrated by the need to negotiate. Students can also perceive group work as a management tool used by academic staff primarily to reduce their assessment load and of little or no benefit to students.
  • Students are often ill equipped to be able to engage in successful group work. As a result, instances of group dysfunction or conflict are common in formal learning groups.
  • Conflicts often emerge as a result of feelings about unequal contribution to the group effort.
  • Different cultural approaches to learning and participation can be interpreted as non-participation by some group members and the lecturer.
  • From a lecturer's point of view, group work assessment can take as much time, or more time, than individual assessment.

Introducing and supporting group work

  • Students may not possess the skills required to engage in successful group work. It is likely that they will need to be inducted into the different stages of group work. This is particularly the case with students in their first year of study, but may be true of students at all levels.
  • Adequate project time should be given to group formation, negotiation of expectations and roles, times and frequencies of meetings. Icebreakers that encourage students to identify each other's strengths or other characteristics are useful to assist this process.
  • Group size and composition should be appropriate to the task and the abilities of the group.
  • Students may wish to use a variety of communication techniques, including on-line or social networking tools.
  • Teams will need to decide whether to choose a leader or decide not to have a leader and delegate tasks.
  • Students need to be made aware of the possibility of conflict. There needs to be a clear procedure as to who can assist if there is a group problem and what students can do. Groups may need to have some training in conflict management and decision making to enable them to deal with these problems.

Designing the task

  • Group work must clearly assist students to achieve key course learning objectives. Not all tasks are suitable as group tasks. As a general rule, tasks that clearly require co-operation for successful completion are more likely to be successful.
  • Tasks should be designed to enable all students to contribute effectively, perhaps through undertaking different roles or subtasks. Care must be taken to ensure that each member of the group is assigned an equivalent task.
  • Some students may find it difficult to participate in a group for a variety of reasons (e.g. cultural constraints, disability). It is necessary to consider how such students might be accommodated.
  • The period set for the task needs to take into account enough time for the group to establish group process and meet.

Collaboration ideas

Create something new:Practice evaluation and feedback:Conduct an investigation:Have small group discussions to:
  • Compositions
  • Infographics
  • Test questions
  • Presentations
  • Peer review
  • Brainstorm ideas
  • Practice problems
  • Group tests (must reach consensus)
  • Topic presentations
  • Collaborative research
  • Social bookmarking
  • Case studies
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Work towards larger group goal
  • Offer more opportunities to contribute
  • Provide more feedback and dialogue
  • Jigsaw Learning Technique expert group; then an expert in each group to teach each other

Assign Roles to Increase the Effectiveness of Group Work

Assigning roles to group members may help mitigate common problems with group dynamics including students not contributing to the project, one student dominating the group, or students having different expectations about group performance and workload (Burke, 2011).

 It is important to craft your list of roles carefully based on your group projects' specific characteristics and learning objectives. Some role ideas include:

  • a manager as the leader of the group,
  • a planner responsible for planning meetings and sending reminders,
  • an editing specialist,
  • a technology specialist, or
  • a checker responsible for knowing and verifying compliance with the assignment requirements.

Some of these roles may not be relevant for your projects, while you may think of other roles that could make a difference in your course. If you have more roles than group members, some members may take on multiple, complementary roles.

Consider the level of your course in the curriculum. Some students may appreciate that assigning group roles helps coordinate the work. In contrast, students with a more independent attitude – especially at higher levels in the curriculum – may feel that this additional formal requirement as unnecessary. Will you assign roles to group members, or should group members assign roles among themselves? While there are benefits to each approach, this decision should depend on the approach that best fits the learning objectives. You will also want to decide how you will hold students accountable for fulfilling their roles. You may also want to include questions about role fulfillment in peer and self evaluations and reflections on the group work experience. 

What are some problems you are experiencing when assigning group work? Reach out to Global Online for help creating and evaluating a solution for your specific course needs. 

Designing the assessment

  • The way in which students approach group work is largely determined by the way in which they are to be assessed. Group work assessment needs to be well designed in order to capture the benefits of group work and avoid some of the pitfalls. There are four important questions that a lecturer needs to consider when designing group work assessment:
    1. What is to be assessed? – A decision needs to be made about whether to assess the product, the process or both. Assessing the product provides a way to measure the acquisition and development of specialist skills and knowledge. Assessing group process provides an opportunity to monitor and reward the implementation and development of group work skills.
    2. What criteria and who will determine the criteria? - Criteria for the assessment of group work can be determined by staff, students or through consultation between the two. Some people believe that groups are most successful when students are involved in establishing their own criteria for assessment through consultation with teaching staff.
    3. Who will apply assessment criteria and determine marks? – Will the lecturer be the assessor, will the student, or will both parties play some role in assessment?
    4. How will marks be distributed? - Will each individual get their own mark or will there be a group mark?
  • University education is based on an assumption that final grades reflect individual student achievement. As a result, group marks can present difficulties for both instructors and students. Three possible models of group assessment are discussed below:
    1. Assess students on the basis of individual assignments – Individual marks allow outstanding performance to be rewarded and free-loading to be penalized. However, this approach may undermine student motivation for collaboration in group work.
    2. Allocate group marks which count equally to individual students' grades – Uniform marks encourage collaboration by removing any rationale for competition. On the other hand some students may get good marks as a result of the effort of their team members, or more capable students might have gained better marks if it wasn't for team members.
    3. Allocate individual marks that take into account the contribution of each team member – This third approach is increasingly used to resolve difficulties with the models discussed above. Information on contribution can be provided in a variety of ways e.g. use of oral tests, individual summaries of contribution and achievements and the use of peer assessment to evaluate the contribution of self and other members. It is also possible for the group to submit one assessment item. A proportion of the mark is allocated to this combined assessment item and equally shared by the group members, and a proportion of the mark is allocated for an individual's contribution to team effort and planning. Note that if peer and self-assessment are used it is important that students receive adequate training in these methods to ensure fair-minded assessment.

Your Canvas Toolbox for creating and managing group assignments


*James, R., McInnis, C., & Marcia, D. (2002). Advice for students unfamiliar with assessment practices in Australia higher education. Assessing learning in Australian universities: Ideas, strategies and resources for quality in student assessment. Retrieved from http://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/1770702/IntStudents.pdf 

Burke, A. (2011). Group work: How to use groups effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87-95.

Chau, K. (1992). Educating for Effective Group Work Practice in Multicultural Environments of the 1990s. Journal of Multi-cultural Social Work, 1(4), pp. 1-16.

Collis, B. (1999). WWW-based environments for collaborative group work. Education and Information Technologies, 3(3/4), pp. 231-246.

De Vita, G. (2005). Fostering inter-cultural learning through multi-cultural group work. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: improving learning for all (pp. 75-83). Oxon: Routledge.

Race, P. (2001). Assessment Series No9: A Briefing on Self, Peer and Group Assessment. York: LTSN Generic Centre, Learning and Teaching Support Network.

*Spiller, D. (2010). Assessment Matters: Group Work Assessment. Teaching Development. The University of Waikato.

The University of Auckland, Graduate Profile, Approved by Senate 3 March, 2003.

*University Teaching Development Centre. (2004). Improving Teaching and Learning Group Work and Group Assessment. Victoria University of Wellington.

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