Students discuss work in a group

Facilitating Group Work

Brief Overview

Brief Overview

When students engage in group work, they develop interpersonal and critical thinking skills while practicing accountability behaviors that are vital to their success both in college and beyond graduation.

Almost any type of assignment can be converted into a collaborative learning activity—from discussion of an assigned text during a class session to a lab experiment—but for this section, let's focus on how to facilitate an effective group project assignment in an undergraduate class.

For all of their advantages, group projects also have pitfalls: if the logistics are not handled well, an unfair distribution of labor can occur. The reason students groan when you tell them that they are going to be working on projects in teams is often because they have bad memories of being left by their peers to do the work, while everyone in the team was assigned the same grade. So, how do you establish a working environment in which students receive the benefits of group work without most of the drawbacks?



Video of Working in Groups



Logistics are the planning elements that you build into the assignment. These elements include assigning heterogeneous groups, helping students establish and practice team roles, developing thorough instructions and rubrics, and providing periodic feedback throughout the duration of the project. It usually takes at least one class period to place students into their teams, help them begin practicing their roles, and teach them how to report their findings. Some instructors avoid assigning group work because they feel that preparing students to participate in groups is too time consuming and takes away from "core content." However, the benefits of group work—including deeper comprehension of course subject matter—are worth investing in, because once students understand the parameters of an group assignment, they are much more likely to succeed in your class.


Assigning Students into Groups

Ideally, most project teams should include between 3-6 participants, thus allowing students to divide up major tasks equally and offering them the opportunity to learn from at least two perspectives other than their own. When it comes to the selection process, research indicates that students learn more if they are placed into heterogeneous groups (Curşeu and Pluut). When students work in homogeneous groups, they are likely to confirm each other's biases and often choose the least creative solutions to problems.

At the beginning of the semester, you can use a diagnostic tool to help you identify markers that will make it easier to select heterogeneous groups. In the example below, note that the students provide information on where they grew up, what majors they are pursuing, and what extracurricular activities they enjoy. Using the rubrics, it becomes relatively easy to separate out students by parameters such as city, country, major, and interests.

English XXXX, Diagnostic, Spring 2018

Note: this information will only be seen by the instructor, will be used to establish working teams, and will be shred at the end of the semester.

Name You Wish to be Called:
Program and Major:
Year in Program:     SO     JR     SR     Other:
Where did you grow up?

What are your career goals?

What extracurricular activities do you enjoy?

What do you know about SUBJECT X? What SUBJECT TEXTS have you read?

Why are you taking ENGL XXXX and how does it relate to your goals?


Team Roles

There are four key tasks that every team needs to fulfill during a group project:

  1. Managing time and keeping the team on track.
  2. Taking notes of the team's discoveries.
  3. Finding and sharing research and knowledge to support the team's work.
  4. Communicating the team's discoveries.

Each of the team roles listed below relates directly to one of these objectives.

  • Manager: The Manager's role is to keep the team on task by watching the time and setting the pace for team activities.
  • Recorder: The Recorder's role is to take notes for the team and to distribute a clear record of the team's conclusions to each member within 24 hours of the team meeting.
  • Researcher/Interviewer: The Researcher/Interviewer's role is to provide the team with relevant information and, where helpful, to interview experts in the subject matter.
  • Spokesperson: The Spokesperson's role is to communicate the team's findings to the class when called upon. During class sessions or meetings with the instructor, the Spokesperson and the Recorder should sit next to each other so that the Spokesperson has access to the team's notes.

If you wish to have 5- or 6-person teams, additional roles include Reflector, the person who observes the team's dynamic and provides internal feedback to the Manager, and Liaison, the person who works with other teams' Liaisons to share insights and tips.

Roles are put in place to help a team function well, but every team member is expected to participate in discussion, idea generation, and collaborative authorship. Team roles factor into a person's participation in the team, but they do not excuse anyone from actively engaging in the team's work. This caution is especially directed at the Recorder, whose note taking can potentially interfere with participation and whose recording can sometimes be mistaken for the authority to craft the entirety of the team's response.

Each role presents a particular set of challenges for participants. Individuals who are shy might not think that the role of Manager is for them, however, once they have a chance to practice the role, they may find that they have excellent managing potential. Other individuals who dislike taking notes may find that they are able to develop new skills in summarization and synthesis that will help them in their coursework. To be sure that labor is balanced equally, teams can rotate roles throughout the project. In order to give students a chance to practice their roles and develop a working dynamic, you can have them engage in short problem-based learning tasks during class.


Instruction Sheets and Rubrics

In order to work effectively, a team must understand their project goal and the steps necessary to achieve that goal. A well-developed assignment sheet that sets out periodic due dates along the way to project completion helps the team to plan and helps you to provide frequent feedback on the team's functioning. You might also indicate those tasks that are best handled by the entire group, and those tasks that can be done individually and reported back to the group. Of course, you can also allow students to figure these things out for themselves—it all depends on their level of experience. Adding a rubric to the instruction sheet enables the team to make sure that they are meeting your expectations through every part of the process.


Storming and Group Norms

When teams first begin to collaborate, they typically go through a "honeymoon" phase in which everyone appears to be equally invested in the project. However, as time goes on, a period of "storming" is to be expected. Perhaps the team members disagree about a particular idea or process, or one of the members misses a couple of meetings. Because storming is such a typical part of the group work process, you can help your students weather the storm by asking them to collaboratively establish group norms up front. Group norms are a list of behaviors that the team agrees upon and can include how they will treat each other during meetings, what consequences there might be for repeated absences, and situations when they think the professor needs to be brought in as a mediator. Having students go through the group norms process and approving their norms at the beginning of the project will save everyone time and help diffuse trouble should a storming situation occur.


Real World Applications

As you devise a group project for you students, consider making the end goal have a real world application. When students know that their project will be seen by an audience or may be used by someone to solve a problem, they are much more likely to become invested in the process. For instance, in a marketing class, a group project might involve coordinating an ad campaign for a local charity, or in an English education class, a group project could be developing an infographic for new teachers about how to read a picture book aloud.

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Quick Tips

  1. Provide frequent feedback. Asking teams to check in periodically is extremely helpful in ensuring that students do their best work. Asking for a project proposal or having a progress update meeting towards the middle of the semester helps keep the team focused.
  2. Use TAs or Interns to help monitor teams. If your course has an assigned TA, they can help you provide feedback to the teams. In large lecture sections where you wish to institute a group project or have students work in small groups during class, you can also invite former students to serve as "team coaches." Every WMU department offers an internship course numbered 4970. This class can be taken for 1-4 credit hours and can allow your team coaches to earn college credit while serving as resources for your project teams.
  3. Provide teams with examples of successful projects. When students know what an excellent assignment looks like, they are more likely to test their comfort zones and raise their expectations. Offering a variety of examples of successful past projects can spark students' curiosity and drive.
  4. Dedicate in-class time to some group work activities. Now that students are accustomed to working via Webex, setting up team meetings is a bit easier, however, it is still important to remember that they are trying to align multiple schedules. Being flexible and allowing project teams to meet during one or more class periods will alleviate some of that strain.
  5. Institute a self-evaluation mechanism. Although you are the person who will assess students' performance, you can also ask students to reflect on their own work for the team. These self-assessments encourage students to think carefully about their own contributions to the group and can help you to gauge how well students worked collaboratively.

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Entire journals are dedicated to the study and promotion of collaborative work, and most academic disciplines have published monographs and articles on effective group work within their areas. However, these general resources are extremely helpful:

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  • Curşeu, Petru L., and Helen Pluut. "Student Groups as Learning Entities: The Effect of Group Diversity and Teamwork Quality on Groups' Cognitive Complexity." Studies in Higher Education, vol. 38, no. 1, 2013, pp. 87–103.

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