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Many students have had little experience working in groups in an academic setting. While there are many excellent books and articles describing group processes, this guide is intended to be short and simply written for students who are working in groups, but who may not be very interested in too much detail. It also provides teachers (and students) with tips on assigning group projects, ways to organize groups, and what to do when the process goes awry.

Some reasons to ask students to work in groups

Asking students to work in small groups allows students to learn interactively. Small groups are good for:

  • generating a broad array of possible alternative points of view or solutions to a problem
  • giving students a chance to work on a project that is too large or complex for an individual
  • allowing students with different backgrounds to bring their special knowledge, experience, or skills to a project, and to explain their orientation to others
  • giving students a chance to teach each other
  • giving students a structured experience so they can practice skills applicable to professional situations

Some benefits of working in groups (even for short periods of time in class)

  • Students who have difficulty talking in class may speak in a small group.
  • More students, overall, have a chance to participate in class.
  • Talking in groups can help overcome the anonymity and passivity of a large class or a class meeting in a poorly designed room.
  • Students who expect to participate actively prepare better for class.

Caveat: If you ask students to work in groups, be clear about your purpose, and communicate it to them. Students who fear that group work is a potential waste of valuable time may benefit from considering the reasons and benefits above.

Large projects over a period of time

Faculty asking students to work in groups over a long period of time can do a few things to make it easy for the students to work:

  • The biggest student complaint about group work is that it takes a lot of time and planning. Let students know about the project at the beginning of the term, so they can plan their time.
  • At the outset, provide group guidelines and your expectations.
  • Monitor the groups periodically to make sure they are functioning effectively.
  • If the project is to be completed outside of class, it can be difficult to find common times to meet and to find a room. Some faculty members provide in-class time for groups to meet. Others help students find rooms to meet in.

Forming the group

  • Forming the group. Should students form their own groups or should they be assigned? Most people prefer to choose whom they work with. However, many students say they welcome both kinds of group experiences, appreciating the value of hearing the perspective of another discipline, or another background.
  • Size. Appropriate group size depends on the nature of the project.  If the group is small and one person drops out, can the remaining people do the work? If the group is large, will more time be spent on organizing themselves and trying to make decisions than on productive work?
  • Resources for students. Provide a complete class list, with current email addresses. (Students like having this anyway so they can work together even if group projects are not assigned.)
  • Students that don't fit. You might anticipate your response to the one or two exceptions of a person who really has difficulty in the group. After trying various remedies, is there an out—can this person join another group? work on an independent project?

Organizing the work

Unless part of the goal is to give people experience in the process of goal-setting, assigning tasks, and so forth, the group will be able to work more efficiently if they are provided with some of the following:

  • Clear goals. Why are they working together? What are they expected to accomplish?
  • Ways to break down the task into smaller units
  • Ways to allocate responsibility for different aspects of the work
  • Ways to allocate organizational responsibility
  • A sample time line with suggested check points for stages of work to be completed

Caveat: Setting up effective small group assignments can take a lot of faculty time and organization.

Getting Started

  • Groups work best if people know each others' names and a bit of their background and experience, especially those parts that are related to the task at hand. Take time to introduce yourselves.
  • Be sure to include everyone when considering ideas about how to proceed as a group. Some may never have participated in a small group in an academic setting. Others may have ideas about what works well. Allow time for people to express their inexperience and hesitations as well as their experience with group projects.
  • Most groups select a leader early on, especially if the work is a long-term project. Other options for leadership in long-term projects include taking turns for different works or different phases of the work.
  • Everyone needs to discuss and clarify the goals of the group's work. Go around the group and hear everyone's ideas (before discussing them) or encourage divergent thinking by brainstorming. If you miss this step, trouble may develop part way through the project. Even though time is scarce and you may have a big project ahead of you, groups may take some time to settle in to work. If you anticipate this, you may not be too impatient with the time it takes to get started.

Organizing the Work

  • Break up big jobs into smaller pieces. Allocate responsibility for different parts of the group project to different individuals or teams. Do not forget to account for assembling pieces into final form.
  • Develop a timeline, including who will do what, in what format, by when. Include time at the end for assembling pieces into final form. (This may take longer than you anticipate.) At the end of each meeting, individuals should review what work they expect to complete by the following session.

Understanding and Managing Group Processes

  • Groups work best if everyone has a chance to make strong contributions to the discussion at meetings and to the work of the group project.
  • At the beginning of each meeting, decide what you expect to have accomplished by the end of the meeting.
  • Someone (probably not the leader) should write all ideas, as they are suggested, on the board, a collaborative document, or on large sheets of paper. Designate a recorder of the group's decisions. Allocate responsibility for group process (especially if you do not have a fixed leader) such as a time manager for meetings and someone who periodically says that it is time to see how things are going (see below).
  • What leadership structure does the group want? One designated leader? rotating leaders? separately assigned roles?
  • Are any more ground rules needed, such as starting meetings on time, kinds of interruptions allowed, and so forth?
  • Is everyone contributing to discussions? Can discussions be managed differently so all can participate? Are people listening to each other and allowing for different kinds of contributions?
  • Are all members accomplishing the work expected of them? Is there anything group members can do to help those experiencing difficulty?
  • Are there disagreements or difficulties within the group that need to be addressed? (Is someone dominating? Is someone left out?)
  • Is outside help needed to solve any problems?
  • Is everyone enjoying the work?

Including Everyone and Their Ideas

Groups work best if everyone is included and everyone has a chance to contribute ideas. The group's task may seem overwhelming to some people, and they may have no idea how to go about accomplishing it. To others, the direction the project should take may seem obvious. The job of the group is to break down the work into chunks, and to allow everyone to contribute. The direction that seems obvious to some may turn out not to be so obvious after all. In any event, it will surely be improved as a result of some creative modification.

Encouraging Ideas

The goal is to produce as many ideas as possible in a short time without evaluating them. All ideas are carefully listened to but not commented on and are usually written on the board or large sheets of paper so everyone can see them, and so they don't get forgotten or lost. Take turns by going around the group—hear from everyone, one by one.

One specific method is to generate ideas through brainstorming. People mention ideas in any order (without others' commenting, disagreeing or asking too many questions). The advantage of brainstorming is that ideas do not become closely associated with the individuals who suggested them. This process encourages creative thinking, if it is not rushed and if all ideas are written down (and therefore, for the time-being, accepted). A disadvantage: when ideas are suggested quickly, it is more difficult for shy participants or for those who are not speaking their native language. One approach is to begin by brainstorming and then go around the group in a more structured way asking each person to add to the list.

Examples of what to say:

  • Why don't we take a minute or two for each of us to present our views?
  • Let's get all our ideas out before evaluating them. We'll clarify them before we organize or evaluate them.
  • We'll discuss all these ideas after we hear what everyone thinks.
  • You don't have to agree with her, but let her finish.
  • Let's spend a few more minutes to see if there are any possibilities we haven't thought of, no matter how unlikely they seem.

Group Leadership

  • The leader is responsible for seeing that the work is organized so that it will get done. The leader is also responsible for understanding and managing group interactions so that the atmosphere is positive.
  • The leader must encourage everyone's contributions with an eye to accomplishing the work. To do this, the leader must observe how the group's process is working. (Is the group moving too quickly, leaving some people behind? Is it time to shift the focus to another aspect of the task?)
  • The leader must encourage group interactions and maintain a positive atmosphere. To do this the leader must observe the way people are participating as well as be aware of feelings communicated non-verbally. (Are individuals' contributions listened to and appreciated by others? Are people arguing with other people, rather than disagreeing with their ideas? Are some people withdrawn or annoyed?)
  • The leader must anticipate what information, materials or other resources the group needs as it works.
  • The leader is responsible for beginning and ending on time. The leader must also organize practical support, such as the room, chalk, markers, food, breaks.

(Note: In addition to all this, the leader must take part in thc discussion and participate otherwise as a group member. At these times, the leader must be careful to step aside from the role of leader and signal participation as an equal, not a dominant voice.)

Concerns of Individuals That May Affect Their Participation

  • How do I fit in? Will others listen to me? Am I the only one who doesn't know everyone else? How can I work with people with such different backgrounds and expericnce?
  • Who will make the decisions? How much influence can I have?
  • What do I have to offer to the group? Does everyone know more than I do? Does anyone know anything, or will I have to do most of the work myself?

Characteristics of a Group that is Performing Effectively

  • All members have a chance to express themselves and to influence the group's decisions. All contributions are listened to carefully, and strong points acknowledged. Everyone realizes that the job could not be done without the cooperation and contribution of everyone else.
  • Differences are dealt with directly with the person or people involved. The group identifies all disagreements, hears everyone's views and tries to come to an agreement that makes sense to everyone. Even when a group decision is not liked by someone, that person will follow through on it with the group.
  • The group encourages everyone to take responsibility, and hard work is recognized. When things are not going well, everyone makes an effort to help each other. There is a shared sense of pride and accomplishment.

Focusing on a Direction

After a large number of ideas have been generated and listed (e.g. on the board), the group can categorize and examine them. Then the group should agree on a process for choosing from among the ideas. Advantages and disadvantages of different plans can be listed and then voted on. Some possibilities can be eliminated through a straw vote (each group member could have 2 or 3 votes). Or all group members could vote for their first, second, and third choices. Alternatively, criteria for a successful plan can be listed, and different alternatives can be voted on based on the criteria, one by one.

Categorizing and evaluating ideas

  • We have about 20 ideas here. Can we sort them into a few general categories?
  • When we evaluate each others' ideas, can we mention some positive aspects before expressing concerns?
  • Could you give us an example of what you mean?
  • Who has dealt with this kind of problem before?
  • What are the pluses of that approach? The minuses?
  • We have two basic choices. Let's brainstorm. First let's look at the advantages of the first choice, then the disadvantages.
  • Let's try ranking these ideas in priority order. The group should try to come to an agreement that makes sense to everyone.

Making a decision

After everyone's views are heard and all points of agreement and disagreement are identified, the group should try to arrive at an agreement that makes sense to everyone.

  • There seems to be some agreement here. Is there anyone who couldn't live with solution #2?
  • Are there any objections to going that way?
  • You still seem to have worries about this solution. Is there anything that could be added or taken away to make it more acceptable? We're doing fine. We've agreed on a great deal. Let's stay with this and see if we can work this last issue through.
  • It looks as if there are still some major points of disagreement. Can we go back and define what those issues are and work on them rather than forcing a decision now.

How People Function in Groups

If a group is functioning well, work is getting done and constructive group processes are creating a positive atmosphere. In good groups the individuals may contribute differently at different times. They cooperate and human relationships are respected. This may happen automatically or individuals, at different times, can make it their job to maintain the atmospbere and human aspects of the group.

Roles That Contribute to the Work

Initiating —taking the initiative, at any time; for example, convening the group, suggesting procedures, changing direction, providing new energy and ideas. (How about if we.... What would happen if... ?)

Seeking information or opinions —requesting facts, preferences, suggestions and ideas. (Could you say a little more about... Would you say this is a more workable idea than that?)

Giving information or opinions —providing facts, data, information from research or experience. (ln my experience I have seen... May I tell you what I found out about...? )

Questioning —stepping back from what is happening and challenging the group or asking other specific questions about the task. (Are we assuming that... ? Would the consequence of this be... ?)

Clarifying —interpreting ideas or suggestions, clearing up confusions, defining terms or asking others to clarify. This role can relate different contributions from different people, and link up ideas that seem unconnected. (lt seems that you are saying... Doesn't this relate to what [name] was saying earlier?)

Summarizing —putting contributions into a pattern, while adding no new information. This role is important if a group gets stuck. Some groups officially appoint a summarizer for this potentially powerful and influential role. (If we take all these pieces and put them together... Here's what I think we have agreed upon so far... Here are our areas of disagreement...)

Roles That Contribute to the Atmosphere

Supporting —remembering others' remarks, being encouraging and responsive to others. Creating a warm, encouraging atmosphere, and making people feel they belong helps the group handle stresses and strains. People can gesture, smile, and make eye-contact without saying a word. Some silence can be supportive for people who are not native speakers of English by allowing them a chance to get into discussion. (I understand what you are getting at...As [name] was just saying...)

Observing —noticing the dynamics of the group and commenting. Asking if others agree or if they see things differently can be an effective way to identify problems as they arise. (We seem to be stuck... Maybe we are done for now, we are all worn out... As I see it, what happened just a minute ago.. Do you agree?)

Mediating —recognizing disagreements and figuring out what is behind the differences. When people focus on real differences, that may lead to striking a balance or devising ways to accommodate different values, views, and approaches. (I think the two of you are coming at this from completely different points of view... Wait a minute. This is how [name/ sees the problem. Can you see why she may see it differently?)

Reconciling —reconciling disagreements. Emphasizing shared views among members can reduce tension. (The goal of these two strategies is the same, only the means are different… Is there anything that these positions have in common?)

Compromising —yielding a position or modifying opinions. This can help move the group forward. (Everyone else seems to agree on this, so I'll go along with... I think if I give in on this, we could reach a decision.)

Making a personal comment —occasional personal comments, especially as they relate to the work. Statements about one's life are often discouraged in professional settings; this may be a mistake since personal comments can strengthen a group by making people feel human with a lot in common.

Humor —funny remarks or good-natured comments. Humor, if it is genuinely good-natured and not cutting, can be very effective in relieving tension or dealing with participants who dominate or put down others. Humor can be used constructively to make the work more acceptable by providing a welcome break from concentration. It may also bring people closer together, and make the work more fun.

All the positive roles turn the group into an energetic, productive enterprise. People who have not reflected on these roles may misunderstand the motives and actions of people working in a group. If someone other than the leader initiates ideas, some may view it as an attempt to take power from the leader. Asking questions may similarly be seen as defying authority or slowing down the work of the group. Personal anecdotes may be thought of as trivializing the discussion. Leaders who understand the importance of these many roles can allow and encourage them as positive contributions to group dynamics. Roles that contribute to the work give the group a sense of direction and achievement. Roles contributing to the human atmosphere give the group a sense of cooperation and goodwill.

Some Common Problems (and Some Solutions)

Floundering —While people are still figuring out the work and their role in the group, the group may experience false starts and circular discussions, and decisions may be postponed.

  • Here's my understanding of what we are trying to accomplish... Do we all agree?
  • What would help us move forward: data? resources?
  • Let's take a few minutes to hear everyone's suggestions about how this process might work better and what we should do next.

Dominating or reluctant participants —Some people might take more than their share of the discussion by talking too often, asserting superiority, telling lengthy stories, or not letting others finish. Sometimes humor can be used to discourage people from dominating. Others may rarely speak because they have difficulty getting in the conversation. Sometimes looking at people who don't speak can be a non-verbal way to include them. Asking quiet participants for their thoughts outside the group may lead to their participation within the group.

  • How would we state the general problem? Could we leave out the details for a moment? Could we structure this part of the discussion by taking turns and hearing what everyone has to say?
  • Let's check in with each other about how the process is working: Is everyone contributing to discussions? Can discussions be managed differently so we can all participate? Are we all listening to each other?

Digressions and tangents —Too many interesting side stories can be obstacles to group progress. It may be time to take another look at the agenda and assign time estimates to items. Try to summarize where the discussion was before the digression. Or, consider whether there is something making the topic easy to avoid.

  • Can we go back to where we were a few minutes ago and see what we were trying to do ?
  • Is there something about the topic itself that makes it difficult to stick to?

Getting Stuck —Too little progress can get a group down. It may be time for a short break or a change in focus. However, occasionally when a group feels that it is not making progress, a solution emerges if people simply stay with the issue.

  • What are the things that are helping us solve this problem? What's preventing us from solving this problem?
  • I understand that some of you doubt whether anything new will happen if we work on this problem. Are we willing to give it a try for the next fifteen minutes?

Rush to work —Usually one person in the group is less patient and more action-oriented than the others. This person may reach a decision more quickly than the others and then pressure the group to move on before others are ready.

  • Are we all ready-to make a decision on this?
  • What needs to be done before we can move ahead?
  • Let's go around and see where everyone stands on this.

Feuds —Occasionally a conflict (having nothing to do with the subject of the group) carries over into the group and impedes its work. It may be that feuding parties will not be able to focus until the viewpoint of each is heard. Then they must be encouraged to lay the issue aside.

  • So, what you are saying is... And what you are saying is... How is that related to the work here?
  • If we continue too long on this, we won't be able to get our work done. Can we agree on a time limit and then go on?

For more information...

James Lang, " Why Students Hate Group Projects (and How to Change That) ," The Chronicle of Higher Education (17 June 2022).

Hodges, Linda C. " Contemporary Issues in Group Learning in Undergraduate Science Classrooms: A Perspective from Student Engagement ,"  CBE—Life Sciences Education  17.2 (2018): es3.

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Center for Teaching

Group work: using cooperative learning groups effectively.

Many instructors from disciplines across the university use group work to enhance their students’ learning. Whether the goal is to increase student understanding of content, to build particular transferable skills, or some combination of the two, instructors often turn to small group work to capitalize on the benefits of peer-to-peer instruction. This type of group work is formally termed cooperative learning, and is defined as the instructional use of small groups to promote students working together to maximize their own and each other’s learning (Johnson, et al., 2008).

Cooperative learning is characterized by positive interdependence, where students perceive that better performance by individuals produces better performance by the entire group (Johnson, et al., 2014). It can be formal or informal, but often involves specific instructor intervention to maximize student interaction and learning. It is infinitely adaptable, working in small and large classes and across disciplines, and can be one of the most effective teaching approaches available to college instructors.

What can it look like?

What’s the theoretical underpinning, is there evidence that it works.

  • What are approaches that can help make it effective?

Informal cooperative learning groups In informal cooperative learning, small, temporary, ad-hoc groups of two to four students work together for brief periods in a class, typically up to one class period, to answer questions or respond to prompts posed by the instructor.

Additional examples of ways to structure informal group work


The instructor asks a discussion question. Students are instructed to think or write about an answer to the question before turning to a peer to discuss their responses. Groups then share their responses with the class.

group work with

Peer Instruction

This modification of the think-pair-share involves personal responses devices (e.g. clickers). The question posted is typically a conceptually based multiple-choice question. Students think about their answer and vote on a response before turning to a neighbor to discuss. Students can change their answers after discussion, and “sharing” is accomplished by the instructor revealing the graph of student response and using this as a stimulus for large class discussion. This approach is particularly well-adapted for large classes.

group work with

In this approach, groups of students work in a team of four to become experts on one segment of new material, while other “expert teams” in the class work on other segments of new material. The class then rearranges, forming new groups that have one member from each expert team. The members of the new team then take turns teaching each other the material on which they are experts.

group work with

Formal cooperative learning groups

In formal cooperative learning students work together for one or more class periods to complete a joint task or assignment (Johnson et al., 2014). There are several features that can help these groups work well:

  • The instructor defines the learning objectives for the activity and assigns students to groups.
  • The groups are typically heterogeneous, with particular attention to the skills that are needed for success in the task.
  • Within the groups, students may be assigned specific roles, with the instructor communicating the criteria for success and the types of social skills that will be needed.
  • Importantly, the instructor continues to play an active role during the groups’ work, monitoring the work and evaluating group and individual performance.
  • Instructors also encourage groups to reflect on their interactions to identify potential improvements for future group work.

This video shows an example of formal cooperative learning groups in David Matthes’ class at the University of Minnesota:

There are many more specific types of group work that fall under the general descriptions given here, including team-based learning , problem-based learning , and process-oriented guided inquiry learning .

The use of cooperative learning groups in instruction is based on the principle of constructivism, with particular attention to the contribution that social interaction can make. In essence, constructivism rests on the idea that individuals learn through building their own knowledge, connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge and experiences to form new or enhanced understanding (Bransford, et al., 1999). The consideration of the role that groups can play in this process is based in social interdependence theory, which grew out of Kurt Koffka’s and Kurt Lewin’s identification of groups as dynamic entities that could exhibit varied interdependence among members, with group members motivated to achieve common goals. Morton Deutsch conceptualized varied types of interdependence, with positive correlation among group members’ goal achievements promoting cooperation.

Lev Vygotsky extended this work by examining the relationship between cognitive processes and social activities, developing the sociocultural theory of development. The sociocultural theory of development suggests that learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level with the support of their instructor or their peers. Thus both the idea of a zone of proximal development, supported by positive group interdependence, is the basis of cooperative learning (Davidson and Major, 2014; Johnson, et al., 2014).

Cooperative learning follows this idea as groups work together to learn or solve a problem, with each individual responsible for understanding all aspects. The small groups are essential to this process because students are able to both be heard and to hear their peers, while in a traditional classroom setting students may spend more time listening to what the instructor says.

Cooperative learning uses both goal interdependence and resource interdependence to ensure interaction and communication among group members. Changing the role of the instructor from lecturing to facilitating the groups helps foster this social environment for students to learn through interaction.

David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith performed a meta-analysis of 168 studies comparing cooperative learning to competitive learning and individualistic learning in college students (Johnson et al., 2006). They found that cooperative learning produced greater academic achievement than both competitive learning and individualistic learning across the studies, exhibiting a mean weighted effect size of 0.54 when comparing cooperation and competition and 0.51 when comparing cooperation and individualistic learning. In essence, these results indicate that cooperative learning increases student academic performance by approximately one-half of a standard deviation when compared to non-cooperative learning models, an effect that is considered moderate. Importantly, the academic achievement measures were defined in each study, and ranged from lower-level cognitive tasks (e.g., knowledge acquisition and retention) to higher level cognitive activity (e.g., creative problem solving), and from verbal tasks to mathematical tasks to procedural tasks. The meta-analysis also showed substantial effects on other metrics, including self-esteem and positive attitudes about learning. George Kuh and colleagues also conclude that cooperative group learning promotes student engagement and academic performance (Kuh et al., 2007).

Springer, Stanne, and Donovan (1999) confirmed these results in their meta-analysis of 39 studies in university STEM classrooms. They found that students who participated in various types of small-group learning, ranging from extended formal interactions to brief informal interactions, had greater academic achievement, exhibited more favorable attitudes towards learning, and had increased persistence through STEM courses than students who did not participate in STEM small-group learning.

The box below summarizes three individual studies examining the effects of cooperative learning groups.

group work with

What are approaches that can help make group work effective?


Articulate your goals for the group work, including both the academic objectives you want the students to achieve and the social skills you want them to develop.

Determine the group conformation that will help meet your goals.

  • In informal group learning, groups often form ad hoc from near neighbors in a class.
  • In formal group learning, it is helpful for the instructor to form groups that are heterogeneous with regard to particular skills or abilities relevant to group tasks. For example, groups may be heterogeneous with regard to academic skill in the discipline or with regard to other skills related to the group task (e.g., design capabilities, programming skills, writing skills, organizational skills) (Johnson et al, 2006).
  • Groups from 2-6 are generally recommended, with groups that consist of three members exhibiting the best performance in some problem-solving tasks (Johnson et al., 2006; Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992).
  • To avoid common problems in group work, such as dominance by a single student or conflict avoidance, it can be useful to assign roles to group members (e.g., manager, skeptic, educator, conciliator) and to rotate them on a regular basis (Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992). Assigning these roles is not necessary in well-functioning groups, but can be useful for students who are unfamiliar with or unskilled at group work.

Choose an assessment method that will promote positive group interdependence as well as individual accountability.

  • In team-based learning, two approaches promote positive interdependence and individual accountability. First, students take an individual readiness assessment test, and then immediately take the same test again as a group. Their grade is a composite of the two scores. Second, students complete a group project together, and receive a group score on the project. They also, however, distribute points among their group partners, allowing student assessment of members’ contributions to contribute to the final score.
  • Heller and Hollabaugh (1992) describe an approach in which they incorporated group problem-solving into a class. Students regularly solved problems in small groups, turning in a single solution. In addition, tests were structured such that 25% of the points derived from a group problem, where only those individuals who attended the group problem-solving sessions could participate in the group test problem.  This approach can help prevent the “free rider” problem that can plague group work.
  • The University of New South Wales describes a variety of ways to assess group work , ranging from shared group grades, to grades that are averages of individual grades, to strictly individual grades, to a combination of these. They also suggest ways to assess not only the product of the group work but also the process.  Again, having a portion of a grade that derives from individual contribution helps combat the free rider problem.

Helping groups get started

Explain the group’s task, including your goals for their academic achievement and social interaction.

Explain how the task involves both positive interdependence and individual accountability, and how you will be assessing each.

Assign group roles or give groups prompts to help them articulate effective ways for interaction. The University of New South Wales provides a valuable set of tools to help groups establish good practices when first meeting. The site also provides some exercises for building group dynamics; these may be particularly valuable for groups that will be working on larger projects.

Monitoring group work

Regularly observe group interactions and progress , either by circulating during group work, collecting in-process documents, or both. When you observe problems, intervene to help students move forward on the task and work together effectively. The University of New South Wales provides handouts that instructors can use to promote effective group interactions, such as a handout to help students listen reflectively or give constructive feedback , or to help groups identify particular problems that they may be encountering.

Assessing and reflecting

In addition to providing feedback on group and individual performance (link to preparation section above), it is also useful to provide a structure for groups to reflect on what worked well in their group and what could be improved. Graham Gibbs (1994) suggests using the checklists shown below.

group work with

The University of New South Wales provides other reflective activities that may help students identify effective group practices and avoid ineffective practices in future cooperative learning experiences.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school . Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Bruffee, K. A. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cabrera, A. F., Crissman, J. L., Bernal, E. M., Nora, A., Terenzini, P. T., & Pascarella, E. T. (2002). Collaborative learning: Its impact on college students’ development and diversity. Journal of College Student Development, 43 (1), 20-34.

Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014). Boundary crossing: Cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25 (3&4), 7-55.

Dees, R. L. (1991). The role of cooperative leaning in increasing problem-solving ability in a college remedial course. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22 (5), 409-21.

Gokhale, A. A. (1995). Collaborative Learning enhances critical thinking. Journal of Technology Education, 7 (1).

Heller, P., and Hollabaugh, M. (1992) Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics 60, 637-644.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3 rd edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Holubec, E.J. (2008). Cooperation in the classroom (8 th edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journl on Excellence in College Teaching 25, 85-118.

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education, community-building and change

What is group work?


What is group work? While many practitioners may describe what they do as ‘group work’, they often have only a limited appreciation of what group work is and what it entails. In this piece we introduce groups and group work, define some key aspects, and suggest areas for exploration. In particular we focus on the process of working with groups.

Contents : introduction  • what is a group?  • working with  • working with groups – a definition  • three foci  • exploring the theory and practice of group work  • conclusion  • further reading and references  • how to cite this article

For some group work is just another way of talking about teamwork. In this context, working in groups is often presented as a good way of dividing work and increasing productivity. It can also be argued that it allows for the utilization of the different skills, knowledge and experiences that people have. As a result, in schools and colleges it is often approached as a skill to be learnt – the ability to work in group-based environments. Within schools and colleges, working in groups can also be adopted as a mean of carrying forward curriculum concerns and varying the classroom experience – a useful addition to the teacher or instructor’s repertoire.

In this article our focus is different. We explore the process of working with groups both so that they may undertake particular tasks and become environments where people can share in a common life, form beneficial relationships and help each other. Entering groups or forming them, and then working with them so that members are able be around each other, take responsibility and work together on shared tasks, involves some very sophisticated abilities on the part of practitioners. These abilities are often not recognized for what they are – for when group work is done well it can seem natural. Skilled group workers, like skilled counsellors, have to be able to draw upon an extensive repertoire of understandings, experiences and skills and be able to think on their feet. They have to respond both quickly and sensitively to what is emerging in the exchanges and relationships in the groups they are working with.

Our starting point for this is a brief exploration of the nature of groups. We then turn to the process of working with. We also try to define group work – and discuss some of foci that workers need to attend to. We finish with an overview of the development of group work as a focus for theory-making and exploration.

What is a group?

In a separate article we discuss the nature of groups and their significance for human societies (see What is a group? ). Here I just want to highlight five main points.

First, while there are some very different ways of defining groups – often depending upon which aspect of them that commentators and researchers want to focus upon – it is worthwhile looking to a definition that takes things back to basics. Here, as a starting point, we are using Donelson R. Forsyth’s definition of a group as ‘ two or more individuals who are connected to one another by social relationships ’ [emphasis in original] (2006: 2-3). This definition has the merit of bringing together three elements: the number of individuals involved, connection, and relationship.

Second, groups are a fundamental part of human experience. They allow people to develop more complex and larger-scale activities; are significant sites of socialization and education; and provide settings where relationships can form and grow, and where people can find help and support.

Humans are small group beings. We always have been and we always will be. The ubiquitousness of groups and the inevitability of being in them makes groups one of the most important factors in our lives. As the effectiveness of our groups goes, so goes the quality of our lives. (Johnson and Johnson 2003: 579)

However, there is a downside to all this. The socialization they offer, for example, might be highly constraining and oppressive for some of their members. Given all of this it is easy to see why the intervention of skilled leaders and facilitators is sometimes necessary.

Third, the social relationships involved in groups entail interdependence. As Kurt Lewin wrote, ‘it is not similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but interdependence of fate’ (op. cit.: 165). In other words, groups come about in a psychological sense because people realize they are ‘in the same boat’ (Brown 1988: 28). However, even more significant than this for group process, Lewin argued, is some interdependence in the goals of group members. To get something done it is often necessary to cooperate with others.

Fourth, when considering the activities of informal educators and other workers and animateurs operating in local communities it is helpful to consider whether the groups they engage with are planned or emergent. Planned groups are specifically formed for some purpose – either by their members, or by some external individual, group or organization. Emergent groups come into being relatively spontaneously where people find themselves together in the same place, or where the same collection of people gradually come to know each other through conversation and interaction over a period of time. (Cartwright and Zander 1968). Much of the recent literature of group work is concerned with groups formed by the worker or agency. Relatively little has been written over the last decade or so about working with emergent groups or groups formed by their members. As a result some significant dimensions of experience have been left rather unexplored.

Last, considerable insights can be gained into the process and functioning of groups via the literature of group dynamics and of small groups. Of particular help are explorations of group structure (including the group size and the roles people play), group norms and culture, group goals, and the relative cohesiveness of groups (all discussed in What is a group? ). That said, the skills needed for engaging in and with group life – and the attitudes, orientations and ideas associated with them – are learnt, predominantly, through experiencing group life. This provides a powerful rationale for educative interventions.

Working with

Educators and animateurs often have to ‘be around’ for a time in many settings before we are approached or accepted:

It may seem obvious, but for others to meet us as helpers, we have to be available. People must know who we are and where we are to be found. They also need to know what we may be able to offer. They also must feel able to approach us (or be open to our initiating contact). (Smith and Smith 2008: 17)

Whether we are working with groups that we have formed, or are seeking to enter groups, to function as workers we need to be recognized as workers. In other words, the people in the situation need to give us space to engage with them around some experience, issue or task. Both workers and participants need to acknowledge that something called ‘work’ is going on.

The ‘work’ in ‘group work’ is a form of ‘working with’. We are directing our energies in a particular way. This is based in an understanding that people are not machines or objects that can be worked on like motor cars (Jeffs and Smith 2005: 70). We are spending time in the company of others. They have allowed us into their lives – and there is a social, emotional and moral relationship between us. As such, ‘working with’ is a special form of ‘being with’.

To engage with another’s thoughts and feelings, and to attend to our own, we have to be in a certain frame of mind. We have to be open to what is being said, to listen for meaning. To work with others is, in essence, to engage in a conversation with them. We should not seek to act on the other person but join with them in a search for understanding and possibility. (Smith and Smith 2008: 20)

Not surprisingly all this, when combined with the sorts of questions and issues that we have to engage with, the process of working with another can often be ‘a confusing, complex and demanding experience, both mentally and emotionally’ (Crosby 2001: 60).

In the conversations of informal and community educators the notion of ’working with’ is often reserved for describing more formal encounters where there is an explicit effort to help people attend to feelings, reflect on experiences, think about things, and make plans (Smith 1994: 95). It can involve putting aside a special time and agreeing a place to talk things through. Often, though, it entails creating a moment for reflection and exploration then and there (Smith and Smith 2008:20).

As Kerry Young (2006) has argued, ‘Working with’ can also be seen as an exercise in moral philosophy. Often people seeking to answer in some way deep questions about themselves and the situations they face. At root these look to how people should live their lives: ‘what is the right way to act in this situation or that; of what does happiness consist for me and for others; how should I to relate to others; what sort of society should I be working for?’ (Smith and Smith 2008: 20). This inevitably entails us as workers to be asking the same questions of ourselves. There needs to be, as Gisela Konopka (1963) has argued, certain values running through the way we engage with others. In relation to social group work, she looked three ‘humanistic’ concerns. That:

  • individuals are of inherent worth.
  • people are mutually responsible for each other; and
  • people have the fundamental right to to experience mental health brought about by social and political conditions that support their fulfilment. (see Glassman and Kates 1990: 14).

Working with groups – a definition for starters

What does it mean, then, to say that we work with groups, or that we are group workers? A problem that immediately faces us is that most commentators and writers come at this question from the tradition or arena of practice in which they are located. However, if we bring together the discussion so far we can say that at base working with groups involves engaging with, and seeking to enhance, interactions and relationships within a gathering of two or more other people.

Some will be focusing on issues and problems, and individual functioning. It is not surprising, for example, that Gisela Konopka (1963) writing from within social work would have this sort of focus – although she does look across different areas where these might arise:

Social group work is a method of social work which helps individuals to enhance their social functioning through purposeful group experiences, and to cope more effectively with their personal, group or community problems.

However, as Allan Brown (1992: 8) and others have pointed out, many group workers look beyond helping the individual with a problem. Group work can emphasize ‘action and influence as well as reaction and adaption’ ( op. cit. ). Thus, Allan Brown argues:

… group work provides a context in which individuals help each other ; it is a method of helping groups as well as helping individuals; and it can enable individuals and groups to influence and change personal, group, organizational and community problems. (Brown 1992: 8. Emphasis in the original)

This particular way of conceptualizing group work is helpful in that it looks to strengthen the group as what Lawrence Shulman (1979: 109; 1999) described as a ‘mutual aid system’. The worker seeks to help people to help each other. Crucially, it is concerned with the ways in which both individuals and groups can build more fulfilling lives for themselves and for communities of which they are a part. It also looks to wider change.

From this exploration I want to highlight three foci for group workers. They need to ‘think group,  attend to purpose, and stay in touch with themselves.

three foci of group work - mks

Thinking group

For the worker working with a group entails ‘thinking group’ (McDermott 2002: 80-91). ‘Thinking group’ means focusing on the group as a whole – ‘considering everything that happens in terms of the group context (also the wider context in which it is embedded –social, political, organizational) because this is where meaning is manifest’ ( op. cit. :81-2). She continues:

In advocating for the group worker to keep in mind that, while groups are comprised of individuals, at the same time their coming together may enable the expression of powerful forces reinforcing as sense of commonality and solidarity. These are the building blocks for the development of trust. Trust and its counterpart – reciprocity amongst members, may establish the bonds which serve to enable members to achieve their individual and common goals. The task of the worker is to nurture such developments. ( op. cit. : 82)

For Fiona McDermott the capacity to ‘think group’ is the single most important contribution that group workers can bring to their practice. They need to avoid working with individuals in the setting of the group, but rather see individual growth and development as something that emerges out of group interaction and group life.

Attending to purpose

As well as attending to the group as a process of harnessing the collective strengths of group members, workers also need to look to purpose. Urania Glassman and Len Kates (1990: 105-18), for example, have argued that group workers should attempt to effect two complementary objectives. The first is the development of mutual aid systems; the second is to help the group to attend to, and achieve, their purpose (what they describe as the actualization of purpose). In other words, workers need to keep their eyes on the individual and collective goals that the group may or does want to work towards. They also need to intervene in the group where appropriate to help people to clarify and achieve these.

When considering purpose it is also important to bear in mind the nature of the group engaged with – and the context within which we are working with them. An influential model for thinking about this in social work came from Papell and Rothman (1966). They distinguished between three models:

  • remedial – where the aim on the part of the work/agency is individual social adaption.
  • reciprocal – where the aim is to strengthen mutual aid and to mediate between individuals and society.
  • social goals – where the concern is to further social justice often through collective, social action.

Subsequently, there has been various variations and developments of this model e.g. Shulman (1999) – but this original model still remains helpful as a way of alerting us to thinking about purpose – especially from the perspective of the agency employing group workers.

Attending to ourselves

As Parker Palmer has argued in the context of education any attempt at reform or development will fail if we do not cherish and challenge the human heart that is the source of good practice (Palmer 1998: 3). For Palmer, good practice is rather more than technique, it flows from the identity and integrity of the worker’ (Palmer 2000: 11). This means that they both know themselves, and that they are seeking to live life as well as they can. Good group workers are, thus, connected, able to be in touch with themselves, with those they work with and their ‘subjects’ – and act in ways that further flourishing and wholeness.

In a passage which provides one of the most succinct and direct rationales for a concern with attending to, and knowing, our selves Parker Palmer draws out the implications of his argument.

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together…. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject – not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. I will know it only abstractly, from a distance, a congeries of concepts as far removed from the world as I am from personal truth. (Parker Palmer 1998: 2)

If we do not know who we are then we cannot know those we work with, nor the areas we explore.

Exploring the theory and practice of group work

The emergence of the group as a focus for intervention and work within social work and informal education in Britain and north America was a slow process and initially largely wrapped up with the response of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, to the social conditions they encountered in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. Examples from Britain include Hannah More and Robert Raikes and Sunday schooling ; John Pound and Quentin Hogg and ragged schooling ; George Williams and the YMCA ; Arthur Sweatman and Maude Stanley in boys’ and girls’ club work. Their motives were often a complex mix of concern for others, the desire to bring people to Bible truths and values, and worries about the threat to order that the masses posed.

Alongside this a considerable amount of mutual aid activity developed during the nineteenth century especially around chapels, meeting houses, working men’s clubs and in the field of adult education (see, for example, Smith 1988 on the making of popular youth work; Horton Smith 2000; Rose 2002). There was also a growing appreciation of group process and sophistication in approach within adult education. However, it was with developments in psychology and sociology (with the emergence of ‘small group theory’ and studies of group dynamics, for example) that the scene for a more thorough building of theory about working with groups – particularly in north America. Alongside this, the influence of progressive education as a philosophy – particularly through the work of John Dewey and William Kilpatrick – began to be felt by many practitioners (see Reid 1981a ).

In the USA, courses on group work started to appear in the early 1920s – and the first sustained treatments of group work began to appear. In particular, the work of Grace Coyle (1930; 1937) drawing upon her experience of settlement work, the YWCA and adult education was influential – but many others around the field such as Eduard Lindeman (1924), Margaretta Williamson (1929) and Mary Parker Follett (1918; 1924) were exploring different aspects of working with groups. There began to be a discourse around the work that transcended professional and sector boundaries.

First, it was discovered that workers in a variety of agencies had a great deal in common and that the major component of that common experience lay in their experience with groups. Out of this recognition came the widespread use of the term social group work and the development of interest groups focusing on work with groups in a number of cities. The second discovery was that what was common to all the groups was that, in addition to the activities in which the group engaged, groups involved a network of relationships between the members and the worker, between the group as a whole and the agency and neighborhood in which the members lived. This combination of relationships was called the group process. This second realization produced a search for deeper insights into these relationships, an attempt to describe them and to understand their dynamics. (Reid 1981a:123)

Group work began to be seen as a dimension of social work in north America (perhaps best symbolized by it being accepted as a section at the 1935 National Conference of Social Work). It’s potential as a therapeutic process was also starting to be recognized (Boyd 1935). As might be expected there was considerable debate around what group work was – and where it belonged (see, for example, Lieberman 1938). Although group work methodology was developed within recreation and informal education agencies it was increasingly being used in social work-oriented agencies within other institutions such as children’s institutions, hospitals, and churches (Reid 1981b: 145-6). Influential commentators such as Gertrude Wilson (1941) argued that group work was a core method of social work and not a field, movement, or agency. At the same time theorizing about group work was benefiting from significant advances in the understanding of group dynamics (most especially through the work of Kurt Lewin) and small work groups (Elton Mayo’s research at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company being the best known).

By the start of World War II, group work in north America ‘was beginning to change its emphasis from social action and preparation of group members for social responsibility to problems of individual adjustment’ (Reid 1981b: 154). This gathered pace during the 1940s and was reflected in the publication of key practice texts – notably Grace L. Coyle’s (1948) Group Work with American Youth: A Guide to the Practice of Leadership , and Gertrude Wilson and Gladys Ryland’s (1949) Social group work practice; the creative use of the social process . There were those, such as Alan Klein (1953) who continued to explore the connection between group work and democracy – but much of the running was now being made by those working within social work and therapy. Gisela Konopka’s explorations of therapeutic group work with children (1949), group work in institutions (1954) and of social group work as a helping process (1963) were amongst the most important here. Some more generic texts around social group work such Phillips (1957) also appeared.

In Britain, there was some awareness of these developments – but there was very little explicit exploration of group work theory and practice until the early 1950s. A number of the key figures involved in stimulating debate and exploration came from youth work – notably Peter Kuenstler at the University of Bristol. Kuenstler encouraged Grace Coyle to come to Britain to spend time with workers – and edited the first major text on social group work in Britain (Kuenstler 1955). Josephine Klein was another pivotal researcher and writer. Her books The Study of Groups (1956) and Working with Groups (1961) were major additions to the literature – and brought groups and group work firmly into the discourse of social work. This was helped by the attention given by the Younghusband Report (Ministry of Health 1959) to social group work.

Group work as form of social work is directed towards giving people a constructive experience of membership in a group, so that they may develop further as individuals and be better able to contribute to the life of the community.

There was also important work happening within community development – with studies of community groups (Spencer 1964) and small social groups (Phillips 1965). George Goetschius ’ (1969) long term exploration of work with community and estate groups was also important. Further significant work followed – notably Joan Matthews (1966) explorations of working with youth groups, Leslie Button’s (1974) examination of developmental group work, and Bernard Davies’ (1975) path-breaking interactionalist perspective with regard to the use of groups in social work practice.

At the same time there had been an explosion in exploration and publishing in the United States. Aside from the obvious problem of scale, there are issues around categorizing material, quality (many texts are are repeats of a basic how-to-do-it formula), and purpose. To make life easier I have adapted a framework used by Kenneth E. Reid in his helpful study of the use of groups in social work (1981) and added in a more therapeutically strand. I am not very comfortable with the categories – but they do provide a way of mapping material:

Case-focused group work . This approach can be described as ‘preventative and rehabilitative’, ‘remedial’ or ‘organizational’ – and is focused on the individual. The group provides a means by which an individual’s problems can be assessed and addressed. It is most clearly connected with social work and casework and case management. The emphasis is upon ‘ameliorating or preventing the adverse conditions that negatively influence individuals and result in deviant behaviour’ (Reid 1981: 191). Classic examples of this literature come from Gisela Konopka (1949, 1954, 1963) and Paul Glasser et al. (1974).

Interaction-focused group work . Here the group is understood as ‘a system of mutual aid wherein the worker and the members are engaged on the common enterprise of carrying out the group’s goals’ (Reid 1981: 191). Within this category fall humanistic approaches such as those of Glassman and Kates (1990), the social group work of Grace Coyle and the work of William Schwartz as his associates such as Lawrence Shulman (1979, 1999).

Group therapy, T-groups and encounter groups. There was a continuing growth in discussions that looked to the group as a key element in the therapeutic process – and that drew heavily upon central traditions of practice within psychotherapy e.g. psychoanalytic, Gestalt, cognitive-behavioural etc. Allied to this was material around family therapy (through which I have hardly bared to tread). ‘Classic’ work appeared from Wilfred Bion (1961) and some standard works from writers such as Irvin D. Yalom (1970). Another tradition of practice that could be said to fall in this strand is that of Training groups (T-groups). Here following on from Lewin’s interest in using small groups as training laboratories for teaching people interpersonal skills, Bradford’s work at the National Training Laboratory at Bethel, Maine; and the later development of sensitivity-training or encounter groups (e.g. Lieberman 1973, Rogers 1970) are examples of the use of groups for interpersonal learning.

Social goals group work . Here the focus is on dealing with ‘those problems that are related to the social order and the social value orientation in small groups’ (Reid 1981: 202). This long established set of traditions of practice is closely linked to community organization/community work. See, for example Mullender and Ward (1991) and Twelvetrees (1982, 1991, 2001, 2008).

In recent years there has been a significant development in the discussion of therapeutic traditions of group work, and some limited attention to group work within mainstream schooling. Unfortunately, much of the work within the social work arena has resulted in rather pedestrian ‘how-to-do-it’ texts – but there have been some good introductory texts examples over the last decade or so (e.g. Benson 2000; Brown 1993; Doel 1999).  Similarly, the quality of texts offered teachers and educators has been variable but one of the better examples is Jaques and Salmon (2006). Sadly, working with emergent groups, and with community groups has not had the attention it merits.

In this piece we have seen something of the development of thinking about group work – and explored some significant dimensions of practice. In many respects it raises as many questions as it answers.  For those concerned with informal education, social pedagogy and social action there is a considerable need to explore ways of working with groups that:

  • is educationally informed.
  • has a vision of the people as social beings.
  • is committed to democracy and social justice.
  • looks to the groups that arise as part of everyday living.

While there are fascinating examples of practice in this area, there is a huge gap in the literature.

Further reading and references

Reid, K. E. (1981) From Character Building to Social Treatment.  The history of the use of groups in social work , Westport, Connecticut .  Excellent discussion of the development of group work as a method within social work.

Benson, Jarlah. (2000) Working More Creatively with Groups . London: Routledge.

Bertcher, H. J. (1994) Group Participation. Techniques for leaders and members 2e. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups and other papers . London: Tavistock.

Bion, W. R. (1970) Attention and Interpretation . London: Tavistock.

Boyd, Neva (1935) ‘Group Work Experiments in State Institutions in Illinois,’ in Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, 1935. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Alan (1992) Groupwork . London: Heinemann.

Brown, Rupert (1999) Group processes: Dynamics within and between groups 2e. Oxford: WileyBlackwell.

Butler, S. and Wintram, C. (1991) Feminist Groupwork. London: Sage.

Button, Leslie (1974) Developmental group work with adolescents . London: University of London Press.

Campbell, Douglas T. (1958) ‘Common fate, similarity, and other indices of aggregates of persons as social entities’, Behavioral Science 3: 14-25.

Cartwright, Dorwin and Alvin Zander (eds.) (1968) Group dynamics: research and theory 3e. London: Tavistock Publications.

Cooley, C. H. (1909) Social Organization. A study of the larger mind . New York: Scribners.

Coyle, G. L. (1930) Social Process in Organized Groups. New York: Richard R. Smith.

Coyle, G. L. (ed.) (1937) Studies in Group Behavior . New York: Harper and Brothers.

Coyle, G. L. (1947) Group Experience and Democratic Values. New York: Women’s Press

Coyle, G. L. (1948) Group Work and American Youth. A guide to the practice of leadership. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Crosby, Mary (2001) ‘Working with people as an informal educator’ in L. D. Richardson and M. Wolfe (eds.) (2001) Principles and Practice of Informal Education. Learning through life . London: RoutledgeFalmer

Davies, Bernard (1975) The Use of Groups in Social Work Practice . London:Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Doel, Mark (1999) The Essential Groupworker . London: Jessica Kingsley.

Follett, M. P. (1918) The New State – Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government . New York: Longman, Green and Co.

Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience . New York: Longman Green and Co (reprinted by Peter Owen in 1951).

Forsyth, Donelson R. (1990) Group Dynamics 2e. Pacific Grove CA.: Brooks Cole.

Forsyth, Donelson R. (2005) Group Dynamics 4e. Belmont CA.: Wadsworth Publishing.

Glasser, P., Sarri, R. and Vinter, R. (eds.) (1974) Individual Change Through Small Groups. New York: Free Press.

Glassman, Urania and Len Kates (1990) Group Work. A humanistic approach. Newbury Park, CA.: Sage.

Homans, George (1951) The Human Group . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jaques, David and Salmon, Gilly (2006) Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Face-to-face and Online Environments 4e. London: Routledge.

Jeffs, Tony and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning 3e. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Johnson, David W. and Frank P. Johnson (2003) Joining Together. Group theory and group skills . Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Klein, Alan (1953) Society, Democracy and the Group . New York: Woman’s Press.

Klein, Josephine (1956) The Study of Groups . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Klein, Josephine (1961) Working with Groups. The social psychology of discussion and decision . London: Hutchinson.

Konopka, G. (1949). Therapeutic Group Work with Children . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Konopka, K. (1954). Group Work in the Institution – A Modern Challenge . New York: Association Press.

Konopka, G. (1963) Social Group Work: A helping process. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall.

Kuenstler, Peter (ed.) (1955) Social Group Work in Britain . London: Faber and Faber.

Lewin, Kurt (1948) Resolving social conflicts; selected papers on group dynamics . Gertrude W. Lewin (ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1948.

Lewin, Kurt (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers . D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Lieberman, Joshua (ed.) (1938) New Trends in Group Work . New York: Association Press.

Lieberman, M. A., Yalom, I. D. and Miles, M. B. (1973) Encounter Groups. First facts . New York: Basic Books.

Lindeman, E. C. (1924) Social Discovery. An approach to the study of functional groups. New York: Republic Publishing.

Lippitt, R. (1949) Training in Community Relations. A research exploration toward new group skills. New York: Harper.

Mayo, Elton (1933) The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization . New York: Macmillan.

McDermott, Fiona (2002) Inside Group Work. A guide to reflective practice . Crows nest NSW.: Allen and Unwin.

Miles, M. B. (1959, 1981) Learning to Work in Groups. A practical guide for members and trainers. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mills, Theodore M. (1967) The Sociology of Small Groups . Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Ministry of Health (1959) Report of the Working Party on Social Workers (The Younghusband Report). London: HMSO.

Mullender, A. and Ward, D. (1991) Self-Directed Groupwork. Users take action for empowerment. London: Whiting and Birch.

Palmer, Parker. J. (1998) The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life , San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, Parker, J. (2000) Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation ,  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Papell, C and Rothman, B. (1966) ‘Social Groupwork models: possession and heritage’, Journal for Education for Social Work 2(2): 66-77.

Phillips, Helen U. (1957) Essentials of Social Group Work Skill . New York: Association Press.

Phillips, Margaret (1965) Small Social Groups in England . London: Methuen.

Reid, K. E. (1981a) ‘Formulation of a method, 1920-1936’ in From Character Building to Social Treatment.The history of the use of groups in social work, Westport, Connecticut. Available in the informal education archives: http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/reid_groupwork_formulation_method.htm .

Reid, K. E. (1981b) ‘Expansion and professionalism, 1937-1955’ in From Character Building to Social Treatment.  The history of the use of groups in social work , Westport, Connecticut : Greenwood Press. Available in the informal education archives : http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/reid_groupwork_expansion.htm .

Rogers, C. R. (1970) Encounter Groups . Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Schulman, L. (1979) The Skills of Helping Individuals and Groups. Itasca, Ill.:Peacock.

Schulman, L. (1999) The Skills of Helping Individuals and Groups. 2e. Itasca, Ill.:Peacock.

Schwartz, W. and Zalba, S. R. (eds.) (1971) The Practice of Group Work . New York: Columbia University Press.

Smith, Heather and Mark K Smith (2008) The Art of Helping Others . London: Jessica Kingsley.

Smith, Mark K. (1994) Local Education. Community, conversation, praxis. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Spencer, John C. (1964) Stress & Release in an Urban Estate. A study in action research . [Written with the collaboration of Joy Tuxford & Norman Dennis]. London: Tavistock.

Thrasher, F. (1927) The Gang . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, J. C. with M. A. Hogg (1987) Rediscovering the social group : a self-categorization theory . Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Twelvetrees, A. (1982; 1991, 2001, 2008) Community Work.  London: Macmillan/Palgrave.

Westergaard, Jane (2009) Effective Group Work with Young People . Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Whyte, William Foote (1943, 1955, 1966, 1981, 1993) Street Corner Society: social structure of an Italian slum . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Williamson, Margaretta (1929) The Social Worker in Group Work. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Wilson, Gertrude (1941) Group work and case work, their relationship and practice. New York, Family Welfare Association of America.

Wilson, Gertrude and Ryland, Gladys (1949) Social group work practice; the creative use of the social process . Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co.

Yalom, Irvin D. (1970, 1975, 1985, 1995) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy . New York: Basic Books.

Yalom, I. D. and Lescz (2005) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy 5e, New York: Basic Books.

Young, Kerry (2006) The Art of Youth Work . Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Zander, Alvin (1985) The Purposes of Groups and Organizations . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Acknowledgement: The photograph – Group work – the relaxed way is by Jacob Bøtter ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/jakecaptive/47065774/ ) and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

How to cite this article : Smith, Mark K. (2008) ‘What is group work?’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education . https://infed.org/mobi/group-work/ . Retrieved: insert date] .].

© Mark K Smith 1996, 2005, 2008

Last Updated on October 19, 2019 by infed.org


  • Team Working, Groups and Meetings

6 Benefits of Group Work

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Working on your own can sometimes feel easier. It can be efficient, you can work on the project in your own time, and you can control the whole processes.

There are some good reasons to get involved in group work, though. Whether it’s forced upon you by your teacher or boss, or it’s a study group you arrange with your friends, group work can be useful in helping you to deepen your knowledge and understanding of issues.

Below, I outline six top benefits of group work.

6 Benefits of Group Work

1. You get a variety of perspectives

Working in a group enables you to examine topics from the perspectives of others. When you are required to discuss a topic and negotiate how to address it, you are forced to listen to other people’s ideas. Their ideas will then influence your own thinking and broaden your horizons. Your group members aren’t just fellow learners, they’re also your teachers.

The point of group work is that being social significantly enhances learning. Not only do you have to hear others’ perspectives, you also have to compare, contrast and integrate their perspectives into your own thinking. Perhaps someone else’s perspective will change your mind or show weaknesses in your own ideas. Only through engaging with others can your perspectives change.

The point here is not to simply change your perspective, but also to sharpen it. Your team members are not opponents whose minds you want to change. They are collaborators on a project in which you are collectively trying to develop a shared understanding of a topic in which the group’s final, shared, perspective is sharper, richer and more dynamic as a result of the collaboration. Group work is great for improving your critical thinking skills and making you a sharper thinker.

So, the next time you work in a group remember this: listen to others’ perspectives and see how their views can sharpen your own. Remember your view is malleable and should change as a result of the interaction. By the end of the group process, you’ll be smarter and more insightful than you were at the start.

2. You improve your vocabulary

In second language learning, interactions with others is widely accepted as the best way to learn. You’ll often hear English language teachers talk about situated learning. This is when a learner of English is thrown into a social situation and forced to interact in English in order to successfully navigate the social situation. The point of this task is to force the learner how language works in real life.

You may not realise it, but the same goes for you in all group work situations. Even if English is your first language, when you’re forced to interact with others you learn how they speak about a topic more effectively. You will learn words and phrases that are effective at explaining a phenomenon, and you’ll learn to discard the words and phrases that seem ineffective in explaining your point of view to others.

By the end of the group work process, you might start explaining concepts in a new way. You might also integrate new words and phrases into your explanations of topics. Imagine if, at the end of a group project, you presented the topic to a class or teacher and started using words and phrases you never would have thought of before working in a group. Your teacher will be impressed by your improved vocabulary and you’ll be on your way to increasing your grades.

3. You learn to teach

Sometimes you’re the expert in the group. This can be frustrating if you don’t have the right mindset about the topic. However, being the most knowledgeable person in a group does not mean you won’t get a lot out of group work.

Being the teacher within a group requires you to refine your knowledge. Even if you think you know all of what needs to be known, you will still need to be able to organize that knowledge enough to teach it to people in a way that makes sense to them.

As a part of the process of teaching information to your peers, you will find you need to break concepts down into easy-to-manage steps. Jerome Bruner used the term ‘ scaffolding ’ to explain how a teacher presents information in bite-sized chunks. You’ll keep delivering little bits of information until the learner has built up all of the knowledge to fully understand a topic on their own.

So, even if you’re more knowledgeable than your team members, you’re still going to get a lot out of group work. It will sharpen your understanding of a topic and make you even more of an expert than you were before!

4. You learn to manage personalities

One of the major reasons many people scoff at group work is that you have to work with people you might clash with.

This might not necessarily only be because you have personality differences. You may also have competing learning preferences . If one group member is a quiet, bookish and introverted learner and another is a boisterous and chatty learner, there might be a clash of learning approaches. This can cause problems in a group.

The path through this challenge is to change your mindset. If you’re in a group that has personality clashes, view the group learning scenario as your chance to develop the valuable real-life skill of managing people. It’s an essential skill for workplace cohesion, but also in your real life: most families experience competing personalities every thanksgiving dinner!

Taking the reins in a group work situation and finding a path through competing personalities makes you a much better people person. Some paths through such a challenge could include setting rotating team roles.

Team roles could include: note taker, timekeeper, resource investigator, and coordinator. The note taker can ensure everything that gets discussed is written down; the timekeeper ensures the group stays on task and completes all tasks on time, the resource investigator uses the internet and library to gather deeper information for the team and the coordinator ensures all team members’ opinions are heard. Try to rotate these roles each time the group meets.

5. You can leverage talent

We often find we have different skillsets to our friends. In fact, we may have different approaches to learning as well! This diversity of skills can be a huge benefit of group work.

Your interactions with team members who are more talented at certain tasks give you an opportunity for self-improvement. The team member who is excellent at creatively putting together group presentations can give the whole group tips on how to improve the final product. The team member who is gifted at research can support the group in gathering data for enhancing the group’s mission.

Keep in mind that your goal should not be to delegate the creative tasks to the creative person and the research tasks to the research guru. Your goal should be to have the experts in the group teach other members of the group strategies to get better at their areas of talent.

If you use group work as an opportunity to observe and learn from the talents of others, you’ll end up with greater skills than if you did the project in isolation. Embrace the opportunity to learn from peers, see their unique talents, and pick up on their strategies. Whether it’s a new study tip or insights into how to be a better public speaker, keep your eye out for these opportunities to learn from your talented team members.

6. You learn to negotiate

One of the most frustrating things about group work for me is that sometimes the final product of the group project is not exactly what I want. It’s hard for a perfectionist to see ideas and perspectives in a final group assessment submission that you don’t agree are the best.

However, this outcome is a desirable aspect of group work that’s built into the process. Allowing someone else’s ideas to be a part of a shared project leads to shared ownership. Everyone needs to see a little bit of themselves in the final product of the group work process.

The idea of give-and-take in group work is explained by the term ‘positive interdependence’. Positive interdependence loosely means that the group sinks or swims together. If your group members’ ideas are not included in the group discussion, their motivation will decrease and you will find they begin to put less effort in. This will hurt the group in the long run. It’s therefore useful to ensure your peers feel they have some ownership over the group discussion. This ensures group cohesion and makes sure the group sustains its motivation to learn in the long run. As this study found , groups that embrace positive interdependence tend to end up succeeding more than groups that lack a sense of being ‘in it together’.

Negotiation and compromise are necessities of life. Getting your own way shouldn’t be the goal of a group project. Putting the group first teaches you something: it teaches you about the importance of community, interdependence and tolerance. These values are the soft emotional intelligence skills that will make you a better listener, colleague and learner.

Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence

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Learn more about emotional intelligence and how to effectively manage personal relationships at home, at work and socially.

Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.

Final Thoughts

Even if group work gives you nightmares, try to focus on the positives. It is a very useful method of learning and developing new products. This is why universities and workplaces employ group work scenarios regularly. Groups that are effective help you not only develop better final products and learn more deeply, they teacher you soft skills and emotional intelligence that will serve you well for life.

Next time you get involved in a group scenario, keep your focus on how your group can be beneficial for your learning and development:

  • You get a variety of perspectives
  • You improve your vocabulary
  • You learn to teach
  • You learn to manage personalities
  • You can leverage talent
  • You learn to negotiate

About the Author

Chris Drew has a PhD in Education and teaches Teacher Education at university level. He is the founder of the blog HelpfulProfessor.com and is the voice behind the Essay Guidance Study Skills podcast. You can join his free personal tutor service by heading over to his website.

Continue to: Working in Groups and Teams Critical Thinking Skills

See also: Understanding Other People Group Diversity Group Cohesiveness

Energize Your Online Course with Group Work

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  • Digital Learning
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W ith the move to online learning, we’ve heard from many fellow educators wondering how best to execute a critical piece of what made their in-person classes so compelling—group work. For those who frequently have students work in small groups, or for those who want to start using groups to energize their class sessions, we bear good news: Group work is possible virtually thanks to online breakout rooms.

These rooms are a feature of many videoconferencing platforms, such as Zoom, and they enable you to move students from the central meeting room to breakout rooms for private group work, discussions, and class activities. It’s a great way to break up the monotony of watching a screen, giving students a chance to establish closer connections with each other, work intensely on focused tasks, and build momentum for discussion in the central room. In both discussion and lecture classes, breakout groups offer opportunities to engage about ideas, debate, take on a role as a team, or solve problems in a more intimate, less intimidating setting, regardless of the class size.

Even if you didn’t ordinarily use groups in traditional classroom teaching, we encourage you to try them online. This guide will help you easily implement and make the most out of online breakout rooms.

Designing Breakout Groups

If your students are not experienced with breakout meetings, consider starting with groups of two or three people. Choose assignments with predictable timing and allow a few minutes more for them than you would in a traditional classroom. Once students get more comfortable, you can scale up the size of the groups and the complexity of the assignments.

We’ve found the ideal breakout group size to be between three and seven people, depending on the time, task, and students’ aptitude for the platform. You can accelerate the learning curve by encouraging students to practice outside of class time; consider an assignment that requires the use of the platform. Include an “if you finish early” task, such as answering follow-up questions or solving additional exercises, to keep more efficient groups engaged. Over time, your students may even become more efficient online than in person—they can get together instantly (no milling about the classroom!) and can speed up many types of work through ready access to shared software.

Most platforms enable you to either pre-set the team composition or generate teams automatically during the session. Independent of how you compose the groups, find a way to identify the members of each group in the central room. Depending on your platform, students could do one of the following:

Change their screen name to include their group ID.

Select a similar virtual background. You could assign the background, or let each group choose.

Display a sheet of paper with their group ID.

For small classes, consider putting each student in their own, one-person breakout room. You can then communicate privately with each of them. They can share their screen, ask questions they may have been reluctant to ask in front of others, or save face as you assess their level of preparedness.

We have found that the smallest meaningful breakout requires a minimum of five to seven minutes. Even solving a simple problem requires some lead time as participants acknowledge each other’s presence and formulate a collaboratively composed solution. If deliverable material must be created, starting up the tools takes time.

“In both discussion and lecture classes, breakout groups offer opportunities to engage about ideas, debate, take on a role as a team, or solve problems in a more intimate, less intimidating setting, regardless of the class size.”

Managing breakout rooms is not terribly complicated, but we strongly recommend that you get comfortable with (and eventually master) some key skills before using these rooms in class for the first time:

Send students to breakout rooms.

Bring students back from breakout rooms to the central room.

Send a message to all students during a breakout.

What do the students see? For how long? (In some platforms, messages only show briefly.)

Send instructions to breakout rooms.

Send a message to a specific breakout room.

Visit breakout rooms.

Pre-load room assignments.

Manage display names.

Know how to launch and run all the tools you will use in class. Have a complete list of the tools (including versions if that is relevant for you) and be sure they are open and running on your computer before class.

Make sure your students practice their skills, too. They should all know how to do the following:

Use the tools to create, share, save, and submit the results of their work. This may involve:

Tools within the videoconferencing platform.

Software on their personal computers.

External cloud-based software.

Share their screens.

Send a help request to the instructor from a breakout room.

Identify their group membership for others:

Update their screen name to include group ID.

Set their background image.

Virtually all kinds of group work in a physical classroom can be turned into activities for breakout rooms: discussing questions, brainstorming strategies, solving problems, or working on a long-term course project. We run breakout exercises in which groups develop written answers or formal presentations, implement techniques, and create solutions in software.

The ways you incorporate the results in the overall learning process can vary greatly. The goal might be to give participants a chance to learn and practice virtual collaboration; engage with the material more deeply and discover questions that you will answer privately or for the whole class; provide a more intimate environment for students to express their views or lead a group; or to give you, the instructor, a way to assess where individual students stand.

To begin, it’s vital for the success of the activity that you provide clear instructions for the assignment that students will work on in a breakout room. When groups have to unnecessarily deliberate what is expected, it takes precious time away from the task at hand. Instructions should be as concise as possible, but should ideally cover the following information:

The assignment description.

A clearly specified deliverable, including the nature and format of any output you expect, and how it will be submitted and evaluated.

Timing; when is it due?

A description of how deliverables will be used and clear expectations around whether you plan to share some or all of them with other groups or use them later for another activity.

Precise locations for any materials required.

Guidance on the process, including media for communication (audio, video and/or chat), mechanisms to balance participation, and task structure.

We recommend one additional deliverable: a list of difficulties encountered during the breakout collaboration, especially in the beginning stages of using breakouts. You may find out that students had a hard time communicating, creating a shared document, transferring control, or accessing or interpreting your instructions. Knowing about any technical or procedural difficulties that groups encountered will help you improve the experience for everyone next time. You can collect the feedback privately or have participants share it with everybody.

Display the instructions in writing in the central meeting room and ensure access to them in the breakout rooms. On some platforms, you can post a document in each breakout room or send a chat message that all groups will see while in their breakout rooms. On other platforms, you may need to use another channel such as your learning management system (LMS), social media, or email. Set up each room with tools and information ready to go, to the extent your platform permits. Ask your teams to have a shared screen showing their progress always on display, so you can quickly see it when you join their room.

Before moving students to breakout rooms, ask if they have any questions about the task and the process. Resolving ambiguity will be much easier in the central room than with individual groups. Be clear about when you are sending them to the rooms, and what, if anything, they will need to do to join. Being sent to a breakout room can be disorienting; this will make the change as smooth as possible.

“Virtually all kinds of group work in a physical classroom can be turned into activities for breakout rooms: discussing questions, brainstorming strategies, solving problems, or working on a long-term course project.”

Student Collaboration in Breakout Rooms

Within each breakout room, beyond communicating via chat, audio, and/or video, students can share software to co-create digitally, either by displaying the work an individual group member is composing for everybody or giving other group members the ability to make changes to it, sequentially or simultaneously. Any software students use in your courses can be shared in a breakout room, from drawing and simple text editing tools to full versions of spreadsheets, word processors, presentation software, collaborative diagramming, emulators, and collaborative programming environments.

There are three ways students can do this:

Using functionality built into the videoconferencing platform. Most platforms include a basic whiteboard or text editor. These tools are easy to access in the breakout room. They usually allow simultaneous editing and require little setup on student machines.

Using software running on an individual’s computer. Most platforms will let group members display what is on their screens to the group, and even allow other group members to make changes to it. Allowing others to make use of one’s personal computer can raise security risks, but if you and your students are comfortable with the process, this can be a powerful solution.

Using cloud-based tools outside the videoconferencing platform. Any third-party collaboration platform can work. Be sure students have the necessary links and account credentials before sending them into breakout groups to use them.

When deciding what students should use in the breakout rooms, consider their infrastructure. If they are all joining on computers with fast connections, you can push the limits in exciting and productive ways. If many of them will be on phones with slower connections, keep to more basic tools within the platform.

Communicating with Students During Breakouts

As the instructor, you can join a breakout room at any time, just as you might visit small groups in a traditional classroom. You have the same options for pedagogy in terms of how you want to use that ability, but we do suggest you check in to identify any technical issues, especially if students are new to breakout rooms. If you like to spend time with groups while they are working, breakout rooms let you do that more efficiently, so you can spend more time with them, rather than moving between them. Most platforms provide group members a way to signal to the instructor that they would like help.

You can broadcast a message to the breakout rooms, which is particularly useful for letting teams know when the allocated time is coming to an end. Keep messages concise, as they may only appear briefly. Implement a countdown timer in your room if your platform permits it. If not, consider setting one up in your LMS or other site and asking students to open it. Let students know if the chat in the breakout room is limited to the members of the room.

Reporting Out

Don’t feel obligated to have every group report their results every time, particularly if the reports will be time consuming. Having each team submit a deliverable will motivate students to work diligently (this is greatly simplified by using a shared cloud-based spreadsheet, word-processing document, presentation, or other deliverable material that is shared with you). Meeting time in the central room is precious—avoid repetitive reports of the same findings by multiple groups.

You and your students can quickly master virtual collaboration in the breakout room environment. Accept that some glitches are inevitable and keep open communication about what worked well and what was difficult in order to continue to improve.

Using breakout rooms, you will find your students to be more engaged when they return to the central meeting room, and you will have some valuable fodder for the remainder of your class. Not only will the students be refreshed from the change of context, they will also be poised to apply what they learned while working with each other.

Tamara Babaian

Tamara Babaian is a professor of computer information systems at Bentley University. She teaches mostly technical courses to business students and studies human-computer collaboration and intelligent systems.

group work with

Bill Schiano is a professor of computer information systems at Bentley University. He teaches both managerial and technical courses exclusively using discussion and the case method and has done so in online and hybrid formats. Bill regularly facilitates the web-based seminar Teaching with Cases Online .

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Implementing Group Work in the Classroom

Group work can be an effective method to motivate students, encourage active learning, and develop key critical-thinking, communication, and decision-making skills. But without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors, and feel like a waste of time. Use these suggestions to help implement group work successfully in your classroom.

Preparing for Group Work

  • Think carefully about how students will be physically arranged in groups.  Will it be easy for groups to form and for all students to be comfortable? Also think about how the layout of your classroom will impact volume. Will students be able to hear one another clearly? How can you moderate the activity to control volume?

Set clear guidelines on professional, civil conduct  between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.

Talk to students about their past experiences with group work  and allow them to establish some ground rules for successful collaboration. This discussion can be successfully done anonymously through the use of note cards.

Designing the Group Activity

  • Identify the instructional objectives.  Determine what you want to achieve through the small group activity, both academically (e.g., knowledge of a topic) and socially (e.g., listening skills). The activity should relate closely to the learning objective(s) and class content, and must be designed to help students learn, not simply to occupy their time. When deciding whether or not to use group work for a specific task, consider these questions: What is the objective of the activity? How will that objective be furthered by asking students to work in groups? Is the activity challenging or complex enough that it requires group work? Will the project require true collaboration? Is there any reason why the assignment should not be collaborative?
  • Make the task challenging.  Consider giving a relatively easy task early in the term to arouse students’ interest in group work and encourage their progress. In most cases collaborative exercises should be stimulating and challenging. By pooling their resources and dealing with differences of opinion that arise, groups of students can develop a more sophisticated product than they could as individuals. See our teaching tip “ Group work in the Classroom: Small-Group Tasks ” for some ideas.
  • Allocate essential resources across the group so that group members are required to share information (e.g., the  jigsaw method ). Or, to come up with a consensus, randomly select one person to speak for the group, or assign different roles to group members so that they are all involved in the process (e.g., recorder, spokesperson, summarizer, checker, skeptic, organizer, observer, timekeeper, conflict resolver, liaison to other groups).
  • Another strategy for promoting interdependence is specifying common rewards for the group, such as a group mark. See the CTE teaching tip “ Methods for Assessing Group Work ” for more information.
  • Decide on group size.  The size you choose will depend on the number of students, the size of the classroom, the variety of voices needed within a group, and the task assigned. Groups of four-five tend to balance the needs for diversity, productivity, active participation, and cohesion. The less skillful the group members, the smaller the groups should be (Gross Davis, 1993).
  • To vary group composition and increase diversity within groups, randomly assign students to groups by counting off and grouping them according to number. 
  • For some group tasks, the diversity within a group (e.g., gender, ethnicity, level of preparation) is especially important, and you might want to assign students to groups yourself before class. Collect a data card from each student on the first day of class to glean important information about their backgrounds, knowledge, and interests. Alternately, ask students to express a preference (e.g., list three students with whom they would most like to work or two topics they would most like to study), and keep their preferences in mind as you assign groups.
  • Allow sufficient time for group work.  Recognize that you won't be able to cover as much material as you could if you lectured for the whole class period. Cut back on the content you want to present in order to give groups time to work. Estimate the amount of time that subgroups need to complete the activity. Also plan for a plenary session in which groups’ results can be presented or general issues and questions can be discussed.
  • Design collaborative work in multiple forms:  pairs, small groups, large groups, online synchronously, online asynchronously, etc. Some students might be better at contributing after they have had time to digest material, while others might be better at thinking on the spot. Other students will defer to others in large groups but actively contribute in pairs. All roles should be valued and included.

Introducing the Group Activity

  • Share your rationale for using group work.  Students must understand the benefits of collaborative learning. Don't assume that students know what the pedagogical purpose is. Explicitly connect these activities to larger class themes and learning outcomes whenever possible. 
  • Have students form groups before you give them instructions.  If you try to give instructions first, students may be too preoccupied with deciding on group membership to listen to you. 
  • Facilitate some form of group cohesion.  Students work best together if they know or trust each other, at least to some extent. Even for brief group activities, have students introduce themselves to their group members before attending to their task. For longer periods of group work, consider introducing an  icebreaker  or an activity designed specifically to build a sense of teamwork.
  • Explain the task clearly.  This means both telling students exactly what they have to do and describing what the final product of their group work will look like. Explaining the big picture or final goal is important, especially when the group work will take place in steps (such as in  snowballing or jigsaw ). Prepare written or visual instructions (e.g., charts, sequential diagrams) for students. Remember to include time estimations for activities. 
  • Set ground rules for group interaction.  Especially for extended periods of group work, establish how group members should interact with one another, including principles such as respect, active listening, and methods for decision making. Consider making a group contract. See  Group Decision Making , a CTE teaching tip prepared for students working in groups, and  Making Group Contracts .
  • Let students ask questions.  Even if you believe your instructions are crystal clear, students may have legitimate questions about the activity. Give them time to ask questions before they get to work.

Monitoring the Group Task

  • Monitor the groups but do not hover.  As students do their work, circulate among the groups and answer any questions raised. Also listen for trends that are emerging from the discussions, so that you can refer to them during the subsequent plenary discussion. Avoid interfering with group functioning — allow time for students to solve their own problems before getting involved. You might consider leaving the room for a short period of time. Your absence can increase students’ willingness to share uncertainties and disagreements (Jaques, 2000).
  • Be slow to share what you know.  If you come upon a group that is experiencing uncertainty or disagreement, avoid the natural tendency to give the answers or resolve the disagreement. If necessary, clarify your instructions, but let students struggle — within reason — to accomplish the task (Race, 2000).
  • Clarify your role as facilitator.  If students criticize you for not contributing enough to their work, consider whether you have communicated clearly enough your role as facilitator.

Ending the Group Task

Provide closure to the group activities.  Students tend to want to see how their work in small groups was useful to them and/or contributed to the development of the topic. You can end with a plenary session in which students do group reporting. Effective group reporting “can make the difference between students’ feeling that they are just going through their paces and the sense that they are engaged in a powerful exchange of ideas” (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999, p. 107).

  • Oral reports:  Have each group give one idea and rotate through the groups until no new ideas arise. Or have each group give their most surprising or illuminating insights or their most challenging question. You can record ideas raised to validate their value.
  • Written reports:  Have each group record their ideas and either present them yourself or have a group member do so. One variation on this is to have groups record their conclusions on a section of the blackboard or on flipchart paper that is then posted on the wall. Students then informally circulate around the room and read each other’s answers. Alternately, you can ask students to move around the room in small groups, rotating from one set of comments to another and adding their own comments in response. Another variation on written reports is to have students write brief comments on Post-it notes or index cards. Collect them, take a few minutes to process them or put them in sequence, then summarize their contents.
  • Model how you want students to participate.  When responding to students’ answers, model the respect and sensitivity that you want the students to display towards their classmates. Be ready to acknowledge and value opinions different from your own. Be willing to share your own stories, critique your work, and summarize what has been said.
  • Connect the ideas raised to course content and objectives.  Recognize that groups might not come up with the ideas you intended them to, so be willing to make your lecture plans flexible. Wherever possible, look for a connection between group conclusions and the course topic. However, be aware that misconceptions or inaccurate responses need to be clarified and corrected either by you or by other students.
  • Don’t provide too much closure.  Although the plenary session should wrap up the group work, feel free to leave some questions unanswered for further research or for the next class period. This openness reflects the nature of knowledge.
  • Ask students to reflect on the group work process.  They may do so either orally or in writing. This reflection helps them discover what they learned and how they functioned in the group. It also gives you a sense of their response to group work.

If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the  CTE Support  page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.

  • Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999).  Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Gross Davis, B. (1993).  Tools for Teaching.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Jaques, D. (2000).  Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Improving Group Work, 3rd ed.  London: Kogan Page.
  • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory.  Journal on Excellence in College Teaching , 25(3&4), 85-118.
  • Race, P. (2000).  500 Tips on Group Learning.  London: Kogan Page.
  • Roberson, B., & Franchini, B. (2014). Effective task design for the TBL classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 275-302.

CTE teaching tips

  • Group Work in the Classroom: Small-Group Tasks
  • Group Work in the Classroom: Types of Small Groups
  • Making Group Contracts
  • Methods for Assessing Group Work

Other resources

  • Journal on Excellence in College Teaching (2014). Special Focus Issue:  Small-Group Learning in Higher Education — Cooperative, Collaborative, Problem-Based, and Team-Based Learning .
  • Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006).  Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom  (3 rd  edition). Edina, MN: Interaction. 
  • Silberman, M. (1996).  Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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How to Work Well with Others: The Psychology Behind Group Work

left: person in field jumping for joy. right: man hitting forehead with hand in frustration

Do your perceptions change when someone discusses an opinion different from your own? Do you find yourself more engaged when your teammates smile and agree with you, or do you find yourself lost for words when someone is talking over you, uptight, and not listening? Did you know that research shows 5 specific personality traits that reflect positive leadership? That you have a powerful impact on others — and they may have the same impact on you — emotionally or mentally — through imitation?

Two words come into play when dealing with group work:  Social contagion .

What exactly does this mean?

Social contagion theory (also known as emotional contagion theory) is a psychological phenomenon indicating that, to a certain degree, people have power and influence over you. You are somewhat of a product of whom you know , such as your close friends.

Your friends can help shape your perceptions, outlook, values, culture, emotions, and behaviors

It’s based on interpersonal relationships we form, but it’s not just limited to the people we know.

Social contagion happens in many places on the internet, from human rights campaigns to changing your profile picture to the equal sign to support marriage equality . You may be influenced because of how many people are doing it.

left: person in field jumping for joy. right: man hitting forehead with hand in frustration

Social scientific research continues to confirm the idea that attitudes, belief systems, behaviors, and the effects of others can most definitely spread through populations with great speed, like an epidemic.

But isn’t it peculiar to find yourself (or watch someone else) be convinced of something, because another person tends to explain themselves more assertively or dominantly? This spreading of ideas can directly affect groups through imitation and conformity to specific ideas.

Assertiveness is not the same as leadership

In a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley , individuals with a dominant personality trait consistently upheld significant influence among others in a group setting. Dominance personality traits include assertiveness; independence; confidence; and fearless, original thinking.

However, this does not necessarily mean that people can attain influence by acting only assertively or forcefully, as research shows. Behavior such as bullying and intimidation does not show results for influential success. Rather, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional intelligence play a huge role with traits such as assertiveness, making the dominant-trait individual appear competent — even if they actually lack competence.

Individuals high in a dominance trait tend to:

  • gain more control over group processes
  • hold increased levels of perceived control over group decisions

In contrast, people with high leadership skills:

  • possess social skills that allow them to take lead
  • communicate very well
  • motivate others

Good communication requires listening — and can make a huge difference in group work. For example, by listening to various opinions, you could take the lead by incorporating all of them, or  explaining  why only one of them will work. Teammates should feel they have a voice, which is very important, but if you want to be more influential, you can be more engaged, (talkative), show how motivated you are (while motivating others), and share your own perceptions frequently. Your peers will view you as someone they can look up to and work well with.

This could be a “confidence boost” for the next time you are ill-prepared to discuss something out loud.

You can be more influential by imitating those with influence

Mirror neurons are brain cells that activate when we observe someone performing an action and when we perform the same action—for example, throwing a ball and then watching someone throw a ball back to you. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons help people read into the minds of others and empathize with them.

Mirror neurons have helped developmental and evolutionary psychologists understand human behavior, and how the brain can observe the actions of others to help us understand our world. A research study at the University of Washington showed that infants and adults do indeed imitate adults to understand perceptions of themselves and others, and to understand how they might be different or similar.

Another study conducted at the University of California shows that culture can influence mirror neurons. When participants in the study looked at someone who shared their culture, the mirror neurons had higher activity compared to when the participant looked at someone who didn’t share the same culture.

This shows that mirror neurons have an important role in imitation learning, physical actions and other peoples’ behavior.

So, what can you do?

Do what the best influential novice can do: observe and imitate the social constructs of someone you respect.

What behaviors do influential people typically demonstrate?

  • They express their opinions more frequently.
  • They make more direct eye contact.
  • They use a relaxed, expansive, and welcoming posture.

In school and work, we have the ability to think and speak for ourselves and with one another. We’re in our own personalized groups — such as friends, students, colleagues, teachers, and staff. At Penn State World Campus, we often connect with and influence others through our integrative chat rooms, email, discussion forums, and social networks.

Some personality traits are more effective for group work

A study conducted at Yale University compared the influence of one person who consistently displayed positive or negative emotions. The findings? The group with one member focusing on positive emotions had improved cooperation, less conflict, and higher perception of task performance.

Aside from being positive, what are the top personality traits involved with group work?

Two researchers explored these personality traits. Warren Norman in 1963 coined the name the Five-Factor Model, and Lewis Goldberg, in 1990, the Big Five on the basis of these traits. These traits have been supported by research such as job performance, job satisfaction, turnover rate, and interpersonal skills among colleagues.

“Big Five” personality traits

  • Extraversion — talkative in nature; outgoing; and associated with behaviors such as being sociable, gregarious, active, and assertive
  • Agreeableness —   friendly, cooperative, good-natured, flexible, courteous, and tolerant  
  • Conscientiousness —   particularly self-disciplined, organized, thorough, hardworking, and achievement-oriented
  • Emotional Stability —   calm, secure, poised, relaxed, aware, and rational
  • Openness to Experience —   imaginative, original, intelligent, artistically sensitive, attentive to inner feelings, and intellectually curious

Conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability are positively related to job performance , according to a Vanderbilt University study . In addition, emotional stability and agreeableness are strongly related to team work which involved interdependently working with other employees versus other people, such as customers or clients. This shows that these personality characteristics are important for work and predicting work outcomes among employees.

Further research in this area examined this question: How does the team’s composition of personalities influence team members’ level of satisfaction? Results found that the more agreeable and emotionally stable team members are, the more satisfied they are with their team.

On the other hand, the more dissimilar team members are from their teammates in regards to conscientiousness, the less satisfied they are with their team. Team work satisfaction increases with teammates if they are more agreeable and emotionally stable; are similarly conscientious; similar in nature; and less extraverted. Overall, agreeableness and emotional stability had the greatest effects on satisfaction within a team.

Final thoughts

It’s okay if you are not a leader or the most influential. Some people like to follow others. People sometimes don’t even realize they can be a leader until something they believe in or are passionate about becomes the center of their universe. Then, their influence can become contagious.

What personality traits do you find in people and yourself that promote excellent group work?

Related articles.

Mollie Guba

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  • 9 Ways to Work Well in a Group

group work with

Group work can be among the most frustrating tasks to be faced with at school.

You should also read…

  • 7 Common Study Problems and How to Deal with Them
  • 9 Little Things That Make All the Difference in Your Work and Your Studies

It’s easy enough to see why it’s required. It’s hard to get exact figures for how many people’s jobs require them to work with colleagues, but given only 15% of British adults in employment are self-employed, it’s certainly the vast majority of us. If school is to be a good preparation for the workplace, then learning how to work in a group of people is an essential skill to gain. All the same, group work in school is frequently awful. It seems to turn your normally intelligent, helpful peers into bossy control freaks, lazy coasters happy to let everyone else prop them up and people who are extremely enthusiastic but not very good at carrying out the task in hand. And it all gets so much worse if it’s a task that contributes to your final grade. Part of the problem is that group work in an adult work environment makes sense. If you’re part of a cereal company trying to decide on which new product to introduce, it’s logical to involve the CEO, someone from accounts, someone from marketing and someone from your cereal development team in the decision; everyone has different knowledge and skills to contribute to the process. By contrast, if you and the other group members are all in the same class at school, if all has gone well, you should have roughly the same level of knowledge and skills – eliminating a key advantage of group work and making the organisation of the task much harder. In this article, we’re taking a look at nine things you can do to make group work easier, less stressful and more successful for all involved.

1. Allow extra time

Image shows an old-fashioned alarm clock.

We’ve all got that friend who is twenty minutes late to everything. (If you don’t, consider the possibility it might be you). The friend who you tell a film starts at 5pm if it actually starts at 5.30pm, to ensure you won’t miss the start. The friend who leads you into the habit of being twenty minutes late as well, to ensure you won’t be standing around waiting for them all the time. There’s a decent chance that working in a group, you’ll end up working with at least one of these people – the people who tend to hand in work two days after the deadline, with excuses about broken printers and corrupted memory sticks. So, if you can get the team to arrange to nothing else, get them to arrange to building in some redundancy into your planning. Perhaps you could do this by getting everyone to proofread everyone else’s work two days before the deadline (so if one person’s work only appears the day of the deadline, it won’t be proofread, but at least it’ll be done). Better yet, ask your teacher to look over the work, so anyone handing in late won’t just be disappointing the group, but also inconveniencing the person ultimately marking it all.

2. Trust your teacher

Image shows a teacher pointing at one of her students.

Let’s be honest: the one biggest fear most of us have about group work is that we will get someone in our group who is either lazy or incompetent, and we will be judged (and marked!) on the standard of their work rather than our own. That one rubbish person risks bringing the marks of the rest of the group down unless someone does their work for them – and then it’s not exactly group work any more. There’s only so much that can be done to mitigate this fear if everyone in the group gets the same grade. But if you are graded separately, then don’t worry. Just like teachers can spot plagiarism or the use of Google Translate miles away, any reasonably competent teacher can also identify which member of a group was responsible for what task – and not just by identifying their handwriting. So you should still be sure of getting the grade that you – and you alone – deserve.

3. Adapt the task to the group

Image shows a portrait of the Tudors.

This is the solution to the problem we discussed above. Imagine you’re doing a group project on the Tudors after 12 weeks of studying them. If all has gone well, you should all know roughly the same amount about the Tudors. The differences in your knowledge might be that one person went on holiday in week 6 and so has a slightly hazy understanding of the reign of Edward VI. This is not the kind of thing you can really use when trying to play to your strengths. All the same, it is worth trying to adapt the task to the group. Is there a talented musician who could open the presentation by playing some Tudor music? Chances are there is someone who is better at writing, someone who is better at presentation skills and someone who is better at graphic design – try to think of ways that you could divide up the work to play to everyone’s strengths. The initially obvious division (e.g. one monarch per person) might not be the best way to get everyone to work to the best of their ability.

4. Try active listening

Image shows a dog looking at a row of bone-shaped treats.

Active listening is a communication technique that – to be honest – can sometimes sound a little silly. It involves the listener repeating and paraphrasing what the speaker has said, to check they’ve understood. It works a bit like this, where Linda is using active listening: Harriet: Hey, would you mind feeding my dog at the weekend? Linda: I think I understand – you’d like me to come round to your house, and give your dog some food? Harriet: Yes, that’s it. He needs a couple of spoonfuls of the wet food and his bowl filling up with dry food. Twice a day. Linda: So I should come on Friday evening, Saturday morning and evening and Sunday morning and evening, and fill up his bowl with dry food, and give him maybe 100g of wet food as well? Harriet: Yes… would you mind doing that? Jim’s going to be walking him, so you don’t need to worry about that. Linda: You’re asking me if I’m OK with feeding him, but you’re not asking me to walk him as well? Got it. At this point, Harriet could be forgiven for asking Linda if she’s feeling OK. In a group scenario, especially where lots of ideas are being thrown out and discarded, these techniques are much more useful. If someone suggests something you don’t quite understand, you can ask them to clarify, or you can rephrase and ask if that’s what they meant – which can produce a more nuanced answer as well as ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

5. Get someone to be in charge

Image shows a duck with her ducklings.

Some groups end up with one outspoken leader who interrupts people and tries to force their own ideas on them. That can be hard to deal with. However, potentially more difficult is the situation in which the entire group are like shy people at a comedy gig, with no one daring to sit in the front row. It does become necessary to pick someone to coordinate, if not to lead; group projects go very slowly if everyone tries to do everything by consensus. The danger, of course, is that the group’s leader – having effectively taken responsibility – then ends up doing everything that everyone else can’t be bothered to do. One way of avoiding this is to ensure that whoever would be most likely to be the person picking up the slack doesn’t also end up with the leadership role, so that the burden becomes better shared.

6. Find a suitable space

Image shows a smart meeting room.

A lot of schools require that their students carry out group projects, but don’t provide much easily accessible space that’s suitable for carrying them out. Perhaps you’re lucky to have booths in the library or specifically designated study rooms for group work, but if not, it can be a struggle. Libraries are usually too quiet for group work, whereas other spaces – like canteens or common rooms – are too loud. It may be that no one in the group lives close enough to school for their house to be a feasible place to work at. And no decent group work ever got done outdoors. Often the solution to this simply requires that someone is a little proactive. Can you book an empty classroom to work in at lunchtime? Is there a music practice space that you could borrow for academic work? Formally booked spaces are particularly good for this because they require that the whole group pulls together at a particular time to make use of the opportunity while you have it.

7. Use appropriate technology

Image shows a smartphone.

In the modern age, group work should never be dependent on everyone scribbling overlapping things on the same piece of dog-eared paper. A functioning collaboration no longer requires everyone to be in the same building or even all working at the same time. Considering using: Skype and similar software, so that you can all get online at the same time during your homework time and chat about the group project. Google Chat and other messenger software can also help if voice calls are impractical. Google Docs and similar software, which allow everyone to collaborate on the same document, showing edits, suggestions, comments and chat in real time. All revisions are saved, so if one person makes a change to the document that everyone else would like to undo, it’s easy to fix.

8. Be aware of subjective error

Image shows a mop in a bucket.

Imagine two people who live together, and who split chores evenly. Ask one of them what percentage of the chores they do. Chances are, they will say something more than 50% – 60%, perhaps, or even 65%. Their partner will say the same. Given that they are presumably not doing 120% of the chores, there is something else going on here. In fact, it’s pretty clear. We tend to overestimate the things we have subjective experience of, and underestimate everything else. You know all about the half hour you spent with bleach and a toilet brush yesterday; the fact that your partner did an hour and a half with the hoover is more easily dismissed. Remember this in group scenarios. If four people in a group each aim to do 25% of the work, it probably won’t all get done because each of them will overestimate their own contribution. If everyone aims for 30%, there’s a much better chance that will work out to 100% of the work being done overall.

9. Use your emotional intelligence

Image shows people sitting at a cafe table and working.

The value of group work is that it doesn’t just test your general intelligence; it also tests your emotional intelligence in interacting well with others. Unfortunately, when there’s a deadline to hit and people to impress, this can be something we forget, instead focusing entirely on the pure intellectual challenges of the task. Does this conversation sound familiar? Harriet: I’m just really annoyed because Becky didn’t pull her weight. We all knew that sorting out the PowerPoint would be too tricky for her. Linda: That sounds really infuriating. Harriet: It really was. And I knew Paul would just try to take over, and he did, he was really bossy… If it does, it raises the question: if you knew from the start what the problems would be, why didn’t you fix them? Using your emotional intelligence demands that just as you identify the core of a Maths problem and then fix it, so you can identify the core of an interpersonal problem and then work out a solution – possibly using some or all of the tips above. Not everyone will necessarily have the skills to spot the problems in the first place, as it takes emotional intelligence to work out which members of a group might – for instance – row, or try to take over, or not pull their weight if nudged. If you do have those skills, then you should use them, just as much as the group’s Maths whizz should have the first go at the equations. Do you have any more tips for effective group work? Share them in the comments!

Image credits: banner ; clock ; teacher ; Tudors ; dog ; ducks ; meeting room ; smartphone ; mop ; group .

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  • CBE Life Sci Educ
  • v.17(1); Spring 2018

Kristy J. Wilson

† Biology Department, College of Arts and Sciences, Marian University, Indianapolis, IN 46222

Peggy Brickman

‡ Department of Plant Biology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602

Cynthia J. Brame

§ Center for Teaching and Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203

This essay introduces an evidence-based teaching guide presenting research and resources related to group work. The guide provides links to key articles accompanied by summaries organized by teaching challenge and an instructor checklist. In addition to describing the guide, the article identifies areas for further research.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics faculty are increasingly incorporating both formal and informal group work in their courses. Implementing group work can be improved by an understanding of the extensive body of educational research studies on this topic. This essay describes an online, evidence-based teaching guide published by CBE—Life Sciences Education ( LSE ). The guide provides a tour of research studies and resources related to group work (including many articles from LSE ). Instructors who are new to group work, as well as instructors who have experienced difficulties in implementing group work, may value the condensed summaries of key research findings. These summaries are organized by teaching challenges, and actionable advice is provided in a checklist for instructors. Education researchers may value the inclusion of empirical studies, key reviews, and meta-analyses of group-work studies. In addition to describing key features of the guide, this essay also identifies areas in which further empirical studies are warranted.


Group work is one of the most widely used and deeply researched teaching approaches in the college classroom. Group work that promotes students’ collaboration to achieve shared learning goals has been shown to increase student achievement, persistence, and attitudes toward science (e.g., Springer et al ., 1999 ; Tanner et al ., 2003 ; Johnson and Johnson, 2009 ; Johnson et al ., 2014 ). It can provide opportunities for students to explain their reasoning to one another and to themselves, thereby promoting the cognitive restructuring that leads to learning (e.g., Kagan, 2014 ). It offers opportunities for formative assessment and feedback with peers to shape that learning (e.g., Johnson and Johnson, 2009 ). It also provides students with an avenue to incorporate diverse viewpoints and to develop communication and teamwork skills that are especially important in scientific collaboration and professional fields (e.g., Lamm et al. , 2012 ).

However, anyone who has worked in a group or used group work in courses has experienced challenges. These challenges, if left unchecked, can prevent effective learning and result in poor-quality products, unequal distribution of workload, and escalating conflict among team members (e.g., Feichtner and Davis, 1984 ). In this article, we describe an evidence-based teaching guide that we have created to condense, summarize, and provide actionable advice from research findings (including many articles from CBE—Life Sciences Education [ LSE ]). The guide can be found on the American Society for Cell Biology website ( https://lse.ascb.org/evidence -based-teaching-guides/group-work ), and a link will be listed on the LSE home page to direct users to a complete list of guides as this feature grows. We have included several useful features in the guide: a landing page that indicates starting points for instructors ( Figure 1 ), syntheses of observations from the literature ( Figure 2 ), summaries of and links to selected papers ( Figure 3 ), and an instructor checklist that details recommendations and points to consider. The guide is meant to aid instructors who are new to group work as well as instructors who have tried group work and experienced difficulties or want to improve their students’ experiences and outcomes. Researchers interested in exploring this area will also appreciate our efforts to identify empirical studies, informative reviews, and unanswered questions for which additional research is warranted. Some of the questions that we have considered in developing the guide are highlighted in the following sections.

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Screenshot representing the landing page of the guide, which provides readers with an overview of choice points.

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Screenshot showing an example description of overall conclusions that can be drawn about an element of group work, based on a synthesis of the literature.

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Screenshots representing (A) summaries and links to important papers and (B) other resources.


The guide begins by separating findings, recommendations, and resources for formal, permanent groups from informal, temporary groups. During formal group work, students work in persistent groups for an extended period on a collaborative project, while in informal group work, ad hoc groups work together on an in-class problem or question for periods ranging from a few minutes to a full class session ( Johnson et al ., 2014 ). Formal group work requires more planning and coordination, but the benefits are that it can help students work together to reach important course objectives. Informal group work, on the other hand, is easy to incorporate into classes of any size and in any space. Informal group work can be an effective supplement to lecture, allowing learners to process information, and is often an essential part of, or used in conjunction with, classic active-learning techniques (e.g., Tanner et al. , 2003 ).

Three elements that are particularly important to consider in structuring formal group work are task interdependence, individual accountability, and reward interdependence ( Johnson and Johnson, 2009 ). Task interdependence refers to the degree to which group members must work together to complete the assigned task. For optimal group benefit and motivation, tasks should not be able to be completed by just one or two group members, but rather should require contributions from all group members (e.g., Gillies, 2013 ). Individual accountability, or the understanding that group members will be responsible for the work they specifically contribute, reduces social free-riding in group settings and encourages members to contribute. Reward interdependence can be accomplished through several mechanisms, including shared grades, for which individual students earn a final grade that relies on scores earned by their team members on a test or assignment, or certificates of recognition that students can earn if their average team scores on quizzes or other individual assignments exceed a pre-established criterion ( Serrano and Pons, 2007 ).

Notably, the very distinction between the types of group work points to an unanswered research question:

Are there specific types of outcomes that are better met with informal group work rather than formal group work, or vice versa?


When planning formal group work, the literature suggests that instructors should form small groups (typically three to five students), considering student characteristics that can contribute to effective group processes and performance (e.g., Treen et al. , 2016 ; and other references within the Group Size section of the guide). Generally, groups that are gender balanced, are ethnically diverse, and have members with different problem-solving approaches have been shown to exhibit enhanced collaboration (see references within the Group Composition section of the guide). Within these generic observations, however, there are a number of unanswered questions for which further research is needed:

  • What are the different impacts for ethnic majority and minority students in ethnically diverse groups? If so, what are they, and why do they occur?
  • Does context determine effective gender composition for groups? If so, is it a generalizable context (e.g., physics groups work best with one composition, while biology groups work best with another composition)? Alternatively, does the effectiveness of different group gender compositions depend on the measure being used (e.g., creativity of final product, effectiveness of group communication)? Are there task features or group structures that can mitigate disadvantages of particular gender mixes?
  • The data on academic performance as a diversity factor also do not point to a single conclusion. What features of group work lead to benefits for high-, mid-, or low-performing students? Will these features be combined to benefit mixed-ability groups? Do homogeneous or heterogeneous groups provide a greater advantage?
  • What are effective steps to take to support students with different disabilities while they participate in group work?


There are a number of common problems that students and instructors experience when involved in group work. The most commonly reported problem is uneven workload (free-riding or overbearing students). However, groups also experience other types of social conflict and lack of cohesion that can result in production of “Frankenstein products” that are a conglomeration of individual student efforts without integration and synthesis of ideas. There are several practices and resources that can help ensure that groups function more effectively. Students report greater satisfaction with group work if the instructor has implemented methods to monitor and manage groups ( Chapman and Van Auken, 2001 ; and other references within Setting Group Norms ). Suggested methods include providing an opportunity for students to discuss their expectations for group work and setting group norms. For group work that spans multiple days or weeks, providing opportunities for identifying individual effort and allowing students to evaluate their peers can allow for ongoing adjustments to group dynamics. Assigning specific roles to students within groups can emphasize interdependence, and prompting students to provide elaborated explanations during discussions can help promote learning gains ( Gillies, 2013 ). Even with these recommendations, there are many unanswered questions.

  • Findings from research studies on peer evaluation have clearly identified several methods to identify dysfunctional groups. What are the potential solutions to address dysfunctional groups and under what conditions are these solutions effective? When is it more effective to disband a dysfunctional group rather than enforce mediation?
  • What is the best method to deal with persistent free-riders?


We describe a number of formalized group-work pedagogies with defined criteria and tasks that instructors can consider. These include problem-based learning, team-based learning, process-oriented guided inquiry learning, case-based learning, and peer-led team learning, all of which have descriptions and biology-relevant papers linked within the Formalized Pedagogies section of the guide. Instructors considering these approaches should consider forming a team of instructors, administrators, and/or staff to address the attendant time and resource needs. For any group task, it is important to consider why group work is being used in a particular situation and how it meets the instructor’s learning goals for students. To help promote student buy-in and student learning, these goals should be shared with students, along with an explanation of how the group work aligns with these goals.

Effective group tasks should challenge groups to solve highly complex or ill-structured problems that require the collaboration of the group to solve (e.g., Scager et al. , 2016 ; and other references within the Task Features section). In addition, tasks that engage student interest, such as by using contemporary issues relevant to students’ lives and generating products for an audience outside the classroom, can increase students’ motivation (e.g., Schmidt et al. , 2011 ). With this general recommendation in mind, however, there are a number of unanswered questions:

  • Typically, a task’s relevance to students’ lives increases task value and thus student motivation. What are the best ways to structure relevant tasks in the biology classroom? Do these features differ by major or level of student?
  • Does a students-as-producers approach, wherein students generate new knowledge for an external audience, impact motivation for all students or only some? Does the relative size of the product/student contribution matter (e.g., one figure on a poster vs. entire infographic for congressional representative)?
  • How do different group tasks or task instructions affect cognitive development of knowledge structures and their use? What tasks support development of declarative knowledge (what), procedural knowledge (how), and conceptual knowledge (when/why)?
  • Students lie at various places along the novice–expert continuum. How do we match scaffolding to student needs?


We finish this summary to our guide by cautioning that group work is not a panacea for learning. A great deal of research has defined the type of tasks for which group work is more effective than individual learning. Groups of students show greater gains than individual students for tasks that are complex and ill-­defined with multiple possible correct answers ( Kirschner et al. , 2011 ), but for simpler tasks that require recall, definitions, or looking up information, students exhibit greater gains when they work on their own. Thus, maximizing the benefits of group work requires that instructors attend to the learning goals they want their students to attain and, if applicable, the group-work structures that they put in place to help the students reach those goals.


We thank William Pierce and Thea Clarke for their efforts in producing the Evidence-Based Teaching Guides website and the American Society for Cell Biology for hosting the site.

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Center for Teaching Innovation

How to evaluate group work.

Students working in small groups often learn more and demonstrate better retention than students taught in other instructional formats. When instructors incorporate group assignments and activities into their courses, they must make thoughtful decisions regarding how to organize the group, how to facilitate it, and how to evaluate the completed work.

Instructor Evaluations

  • Create a rubric to set evaluation standards and share with students to communicate expectations.
  • Assess the performance of the group and its individual members.
  • Give regular feedback so group members can gauge their progress both as a group and individually.
  • Decide what criteria to base final evaluations upon. For example, you might weigh the finished product, teamwork, and individual contributions differently.
  • Consider adjusting grades based on peer evaluations.

Peer Evaluations

Consider providing a rubric to foster consistent peer evaluations of participation, quality, and quantity of work.

  • This may reveal participation issues that the instructor might not otherwise know about.
  • Students who know that their peers will evaluate them may contribute more to the group and have a greater stake in the project.
  • Completing evaluations early in the project allows groups to assess how they can improve.

General Strategies for Evaluation

  • Groups need to know who may be struggling to complete assignments, and members need to know they cannot sit back and let others do all the work. You can assess individual student progress by giving spot quizzes and evaluate group progress by setting up meetings with each group to review the project status.
  • Once or twice during the group task, ask group members to fill out a group and/or peer evaluation to assess team effectiveness. Consider asking “What action has each member taken that was helpful for the group? What action could each member take to make the group more effective?”
  • Help students reflect on what they have learned and how they have learned it. Consider asking students to complete a short survey that focuses on their individual contributions to the group, how the group interacted together, and what the individual student learned from the project in relation to the rest of the course.
  • Explain your grading system to students before they begin their work. The system should encourage teamwork, positive interdependence, and individual accountability. If you are going to consider the group’s evaluation of each member’s work, it is best to have students evaluate each other independently and confidentially.

Example Group Work Assessment Rubric

Here is an example of a group work assessment rubric. Filling out a rubric for each member of the group can help instructors assess individual contributions to the group and the individual’s role as a team player.

This rubric can also be used by group members as a tool to guide a mid-semester or mid-project discussion on how each individual is contributing to the group.

Total Points ______

Notes and Comments:

Gueldenzoph, L. E., & May, G. L. (2002). Collaborative peer evaluation: Best practices for group member assessments.  Business Communication Quarterly, 65 (1), 9-20.

Johnston, L., & Miles, L. (2004). Assessing contributions to group assignments.  Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 29 (6), 751-768.

Oakley, B., Felder, F. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I, (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams.  Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2 (1) 9-34.

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Table of Contents

Professor Bianchi teaches some of her classes in the University of Iowa’s active-learning  TILE  classrooms, which have round tables to facilitate group work.  Instructors in other kinds of classrooms can encourage students to manage their physical space by moving desks, chairs, or themselves so that all group members can work face-to-face with every member contributing. 

Students will be motivated to participate when group assignments are deliberately calibrated to require real collaboration.

Groupwork is most appropriate when the task requires higher-level conceptual thinking that requires the skills and ideas of multiple students.

Image of students discussing assignments in small groups.

Group work conducted during class prevents scheduling issues (especially problematic for students with significant work or familial responsibilities), or concerns about students simply parceling out parts of the project without any real collaboration.

Professor Bianchi encourages instructors to give thoughtful instructions for group activities.  Students may need to be taught how to interact effectively as a group with discussion – rather than simply engaging in majority-rules voting or dividing up parts of the activity with no communication.  Assigning students certain roles (such as Skeptic, Reporter, and Manager) early in the semester can help students learn to use all of these skills as a group member. 

During group work activities, students benefit when instructors use open-ended  questions  about process, obstacles, and next steps. Simply stopping by to ask “how are things going?” usually does not encourage students to engage with the instructor.

Professor Bianchi explains the importance of observing groups and intervening in groups that are not functioning well.  If a group is ignoring the useful comments of one individual, the instructor can “assign competence to low-status students” by explaining why the student’s contributions were valuable, which alters the group dynamic for the future.  

Some instructors emphasize the importance of students’ individual preparation through a “readiness assurance” test or quiz that students complete individually before engaging in groupwork. 

Most scholars and practitioners recommend assigning a significant portion of a students’ grade to the student’s own individual work.  Some instructors  ask for student input  in determining the ratio. 

Reflective writing and other exercises in which students  assess each other’s and their own contributions  can help students to process the experience and improve for the next time. 

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Benefits of Group Work

Resource overview.

Why using group work in your class can improve student learning

There are several benefits for including group work in your class.  Sharing these benefits with your students in a transparent manner helps them understand how group work can improve learning and prepare them for life experiences (Taylor 2011).  The benefits of group work include the following:

  • Students engaged in group work, or cooperative learning, show increased individual achievement compared to students working alone.  For example, in their meta-analysis examining over 168 studies of undergraduate students, Johnson et al. (2014) determined that students learning in a collaborative situation had greater knowledge acquisition, retention of material, and higher-order problem solving and reasoning abilities than students working alone. There are several reasons for this difference. Students’ interactions and discussions with others allow the group to construct new knowledge, place it within a conceptual framework of existing knowledge, and then refine and assess what they know and do not know. This group dialogue helps them make sense of what they are learning and what they still need to understand or learn (Ambrose et al. 2010; Eberlein et al. 2008). In addition, groups can tackle more complex problems than individuals can and thus have the potential to gain more expertise and become more engaged in a discipline (Qin et al 1995; Kuh 2007). Group work creates more opportunities for critical thinking and can promote student learning and achievement.
  • Student group work enhances communication and other professional development skills.  Estimates indicate that 80% of all employees work in group settings (Attle & Baker 2007). Therefore, employers value effective oral and written communication skills as well as the ability to work effectively within diverse groups (ABET 2016-2017; Finelli et al. 2011).  Creating facilitated opportunities for group work in your class allows students to enhance their skills in working effectively with others (Bennett & Gadlin 2012; Jackson et al. 2014). Group work gives students the opportunity to engage in process skills critical for processing information, and evaluating and solving problems, as well as management skills through the use of roles within groups, and assessment skills involved in assessing options to make decisions about their group’s final answer. All of these skills are critical to successful teamwork both in the classroom and the workplace.

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. Criteria for accrediting Engineering Programs (ABET), 2016-2017  http://www.abet.org/accreditation/accreditation-criteria/criteria-for-accrediting-engineering-programs-2016-2017/

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010).  How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Attle, S., & Baker, B. 2007 Cooperative learning in a competitive environment: Classroom applications.  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education ,  19 (1), 77-83.

Bennett, L. M., & Gadlin, H. (2012). Collaboration and team science.  Journal of Investigative Medicine ,  60 (5), 768-775.

Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014). Boundary crossings: Cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning.  Journal on Excellence in College Teaching ,  25 (3/4), 7-55.

Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R. S., Platt, T., Varma‐Nelson, P., & White, H. B. (2008). Pedagogies of engagement in science.  Biochemistry and molecular biology education ,  36 (4), 262-273.

Finelli, C. J., Bergom, I., & Mesa, V. (2011). Student teams in the engineering classroom and beyond: Setting up students for success.  CRLT Occasional Papers ,  29 .

Jackson, D., Sibson, R., & Riebe, L. (2014). Undergraduate perceptions of the development of team-working skills.  Education+ Training ,  56 (1), 7-20.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory.  Journal on Excellence in University Teaching ,  25 (4), 1-26.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J. A., Bridges, B. K., & Hayek, J. C. (2007). Piecing Together the Student Success Puzzle: Research, Propositions, and Recommendations. ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 32, Number 5.  ASHE Higher Education Report ,  32 (5), 1-182.

Qin, Z., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1995). Cooperative versus competitive efforts and problem solving.  Review of educational Research, 65 (2), 129-143.

Taylor, A. (2011). Top 10 reasons students dislike working in small groups… and why I do it anyway.  Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education ,  39 (3), 219-220.

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Organizing the Groups

Designating roles in groups, sharing group results.

Having students work in groups lets them practice the skills they are learning. Speaking in front of the whole class can be scary, and combined with the tension of speaking to the teacher, the situation can be downright terrifying to students. Breaking them up into groups not only develops social skills useful in the professional environment for which they are training, but gives them a chance to perform in a supportive environment before a test or even before having to do homework on the topic on their own.

Keep in mind the following elements of group work when selecting the appropriate type of group work for your class.

  • Size : Two to six people in a group is ideal. The smaller the group, the more likely each student will be to contribute to the discussion. Groups of two or three students are sufficient for simple tasks for which consensus should be reached quickly. Groups of four to six are better for more complex tasks in which a greater number of ideas may improve the final results.
  • Selection : You should either assign students randomly to groups or select students so that each group has an equal distribution of talents. Do not let students choose their own teams, for they may team up with friends or form cliques that can get off topic.  Video on group formation  (running time 4:57).
  • Duration : Use the groups for a brief discussion in class or for all semester. Long-term groups work more substantively and less superficially.

To derive the greatest benefit from the group interaction, you should spend a few minutes clarifying the students’ roles and the expectations for the group’s work.

Groups that are created for in-class discussion can be easily organized around a four-person model based on roles. Each member of the group plays a specific role that supports the team’s collaborative effort. These roles include:

  • Leader : Responsible for keeping the group on task, maintaining the schedule (meetings, deadlines), and maintaining contact information (phone numbers, emails).
  • Encourager : Encourages conversation and inclusion of all opinions, and guides the discussion toward consensus.
  • Prober : Ensures that the assumptions are correct and that there is sufficient evidence for the solution.
  • Recorder : Writes down the group’s solution that will be submitted for the group grade.

While some people will tend to lead and some will tend to follow, everyone should be willing to compromise and modify their ideas in the interest of group unity. If the groups are going to be working together on a long-term project or multiple tasks, you may wish to modify these roles to emulate roles that one might encounter in your discipline. Ensure that the students rotate through these positions. Try to break a long project into at least as many tasks as there are people in each group and have the students rotate through the roles each time they start a new task.

Students should share the results of their group with the class at large. This holds them accountable to show their work. Having to show the other groups what they did can increase their motivation to produce higher level work. While in the past, instructors were used to having groups report out their work either verbally or on newsprint posted on walls along with a walk-around format, for long-term projects, many social pedagogies now exist that can be employed, such as Prezi presentations or having students create a Public Service Announcement (PSA), blog, or a web page of their results. Do not forget to debrief students about the lessons they might have learned from the group work.

Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design

Discussion can motivate students, especially when the activity involves authentic learning—that is, real world and messy—allowing students to collaborate, reflect on, and synthesize their learning. When planning the structure for a discussion, look for one that will hold students accountable to their peers, not just the instructor, in a public way (Bass & Elmendorf, 2011).

IDEA Paper #49 Effective Classroom Discussion

This paper sets out basic principles to create the expectation for student discussion, as well as the role of the instructor in fostering discussion in class. 

Team-Based Learning is an advanced form of group work in which content coverage is pushed outside of the class, with students using precious in-class time to take quizzes to show they have mastered the content and then practice the application of critical disciplinary skills such as problem-solving and argumentation. For more information, go the TBL website, which has many videos, including ones on forming groups, the difference between groups and teams, and peer evaluation of team members. 

Who Is Doing This at IUB?

The National Study of Student Engagement data show that 68% of IUB seniors engage in class discussion. Many IUB professors commonly use various discussion techniques. Some specific examples are listed below:

Prof. Jill Robinson (Chemistry) uses small groups for problem solving and “clickers” to collect student responses to get students to think deeply about fundamental chemical principles that can influence our climate. She does so even though she is teaching a large class (140-student C118: Principles of Chemistry and Biochemistry) and often teaching in a challenging classroom space.

Biology Professor and Carnegie Scholar Whitney Schlegel leads students to learn with their peers by engaging in discussion, problem-solving, and inquiry by using team members as a resource in classes of over 100. She utilizes a high-tech classroom so that students can show the products of their group work during class.

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Eberly Center

Teaching excellence & educational innovation, what are the challenges of group work and how can i address them.

Unfortunately, groups can easily end up being less, rather than more, than the sum of their parts. Why is this?

In this section, we consider the hazards of group projects and strategies instructors can use to avoid or mitigate them. Find other strategies and examples here or contact the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence for help.

For students, common challenges of group work include:

  • Coordination costs
  • Motivation costs
  • Intellectual costs

For instructors, common challenges involve:

  • Allocating time
  • Teaching process skills
  • Assessing process as well as product
  • Assessing individual as well as group learning

Challenges for students

Coordination costs represent time and energy that group work consumes that individual work does not, including the time it takes to coordinate schedules, arrange meetings, meet, correspond, make decisions collectively, integrate the contributions of group members, etc. The time spent on each of these tasks may not be great, but together they are significant.

Coordination costs can’t be eliminated, nor should they be: after all, coordinating the efforts of multiple team members is an important skill. However, if coordination costs are excessive or are not factored into the structure of group assignments, groups tend to miss deadlines, their work is poorly integrated, motivation suffers, and creativity declines.

Instructors should note that coordination costs increase with:

  • Group size: The more people in the group, the more schedules to accommodate, parts to delegate, opinions to consider, pieces to integrate, etc. Smaller groups have lower coordination costs.
  • Task interdependence: Tasks in which group members are highly reliant on one another at all stages tend to have higher coordination costs than tasks that allow students to “divide and conquer”, though they may not satisfy the same collaborative goals.
  • Heterogeneity: Heterogeneity of group members tends to raises coordination costs, especially if there are language issues to contend with, cultural differences to bridge, and disparate skills to integrate. However, since diversity of perspectives is one of the principle advantages of groups, this should not necessarily be avoided.

Strategies: To help reduce or mitigate coordination costs:

  • Keep groups small.
  • Designate some class time for group meetings.
  • Use group resumes or skills inventories to help teams delegate subtasks.
  • Assign roles (e.g., group leader, scheduler) or encourage students to do so.
  • Point students to digital tools that facilitate remote and/or asynchronous meetings.
  • Warn students about time-consuming stages and tasks.
  • Actively build communication and conflict resolution skills.
  • Designate time in the project schedule for the group to integrate parts.

Motivation costs refers to the adverse effect on student motivation of working in groups, which often involves one or more of these phenomena:

  • Free riding occurs when one or more group members leave most or all of the work to a few, more diligent, members. Free riding – if not addressed proactively – tends to erode the long-term motivation of hard-working students.
  • Social loafing describes the tendency of group members to exert less effort than they can or should because of the reduced sense of accountability (think of how many people don’t bother to vote, figuring that someone else will do it.) Social loafing lowers group productivity.
  • Conflict within groups can erode morale and cause members to withdraw. It can be subtle or pronounced, and can (but isn’t always) the cause and result of free riding. Conflict – if not effectively addressed – can leave group members with a deeply jaundiced view of teams.

Strategies: To address both preexisting and potential motivation problems:

  • Explain why working in groups is worth the frustration.
  • Establish clear expectations for group members, by setting ground rules and/or using team contracts.
  • Increase individual accountability by combining group assessments with individual assessments. 
  • Teach conflict-resolution skills and reinforce them by role-playing responses to hypothetical team conflict scenarios. 
  • Assess group processes via periodic process reports, self-evaluations, and peer evaluations.

Intellectual costs refer to characteristics of group behavior that can reduce creativity and productivity. These include:

  • Groupthink : the tendency of groups to conform to a perceived majority view. 
  • Escalation of commitment : the tendency of groups to become more committed to their plans and strategies – even ineffective ones – over time. 
  • Transparency illusion : the tendency of group members to believe their thoughts, attitudes and reasons are more obvious to others than is actually the case.
  • Common information effect : the tendency of groups to focus on information all members share and ignore unique information, however relevant.

Strategies: To reduce intellectual costs and increase the creativity and productivity of groups:

  • Precede group brainstorming with a period of individual brainstorming (sometimes called “nominal group technique”). This forestalls groupthink and helps the group generate and consider more different ideas.
  • Encourage group members to reflect on and highlight their contributions in periodic self-evaluations. 
  • Create structured opportunities at the halfway point of projects to allow students to reevaluate and revise their strategies and approaches.
  • Assign roles to group members that reduce conformity and push the group intellectually (devil’s advocate, doubter, the Fool).

Challenges for instructors

While group assignments have benefits for instructors , they also have complexities that instructors should consider carefully, for example in these areas:

Allocating time: While group assignments may save instructors time in some areas (e.g., grading final projects), they may add time in other areas (e.g., time needed up front to identify appropriate project topics, contact external clients, compose student groups; time during the semester to meet with and monitor student groups; time at the end of the semester to ascertain the contributions of individual team members.)

Teaching process skills: Functioning effectively in teams requires students to develop strong communication, coordination, and conflict resolution skills, which not all instructors feel qualified to teach. Many instructors are also reluctant to devote class time to reinforcing these skills and may be uncomfortable dealing with the interpersonal issues that can arise in groups. In other words, dealing proactively with team dynamics may push some instructors out of their comfort zone.

Assessing process as well as product: Assessing teamwork skills and group dynamics (i.e., process) can be far trickier than assessing a team’s work (i.e., product). Effective evaluation of process requires thoughtful consideration of learning objectives and a combination of assessment approaches. This creates layers of complexity that instructors may not anticipate.

Assessing individual as well as group learning: Group grades can hide significant differences in learning, yet teasing out which team members did and did not contribute to the group or learn the lessons of the assignment can be difficult. Once again, this adds complexity to group projects that instructors often underestimate. 

Find effective strategies to help faculty address these issues in the design of effective group projects .

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  • Tes Explains

What is group work?

What is group work?

Group work is an extremely broad term, applicable across a range of subjects and learning activities in classrooms. At its core, it simply means students working together in small groups to complete a task or project, while - it is hoped - simultaneously developing their skills around communication, collaboration and problem-solving. 

But group work is also a pretty hotly contested issue in education, and it’s easy to understand why. For some, the very mention of it summons images of sprawling groups of off-task, misbehaving children, or pupils being assigned to fixed groups according to their “ability”. 

How it works in the classroom:

Christine Howe, emeritus professor of education at the University of Cambridge, is a passionate advocate for group work. Speaking to Tes , she proposed that group work could be used in every lesson, as long as the groundwork is laid by teachers to enable rich discussion to take place.

Her research found that “teachers sometimes need more training on the key variables that are absolutely crucial to effective group work”, such as creating contexts in which students have different views, in order to get them to engage meaningfully and enthusiastically with one another. Teachers need to set up tasks where students negotiate their positions and give reasons for their differing views, for example, and are then obliged to come to a consensual view.

She proposed that teachers structure tasks to ensure that everyone contributes: for example, setting ground rules, such as making sure that everyone has time to say what they think and that everyone is listened to, or asking students to write down their views on a piece of paper before the discussion starts, so they “can’t hide behind not having an idea”.

She continued: “Once you have student participation, two further things need to happen: firstly, the student’s contributions need to be elaborated upon, either by other students or by the teacher; and secondly, there needs to be questioning of the ideas expressed. If you can do that, it will pay dividends.”

Further reading:

  • Group work: why it works and how to do it well
  • Why it’s time to say goodbye to group work
  • What’s the best number of pupils for group work?
  • How to make group work a success
  • Why peer learning is more effective than you think
  • Collaborative learning is the key to success
  • Collaborative learning approaches (EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit)

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.

To achieve this, it summarises the best available evidence for teachers; its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, for example, is used by 70 per cent of secondary schools.

The charity also generates new evidence of “what works” to improve teaching and learning, by funding independent evaluations of high-potential projects, and supports teachers and senior leaders to use the evidence to achieve the maximum possible benefit for young people.

How far can we apply research to a new context?

World Bank Group Announces Next Phase of Support for People of Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2024 —The World Bank Board of Executive Directors today endorsed an adjusted approach to support the people of Afghanistan. “Approach 3.0” will deploy funds from the International Development Association (IDA) through grants to United Nations agencies and other public international organizations. These funds will continue supporting basic services nationwide, particularly those benefiting women, and will be outside the control of the Interim Taliban Administration (ITA).  

Since August 2021, the World Bank Group has been providing support through Afghanistan Resilience Trust Fund (ARTF) financing. Over $1.5 billion of ARTF funds have been channeled through partners on the ground, benefitting more than 25 million Afghans nationwide. These resources initially aided Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs, and for the past two years have supported critical basic services such as food, water, health, education, and jobs.

The IDA funds are being made available now at the request of the ARTF donors to complement ARTF and sustain the results ARTF funds have supported to date. The World Bank Group will continue to work with all multilateral and bilateral partners to ensure coordinated basic services aid for the Afghan people.

Approach 3.0 will continue implementing the “principled approach,” started under Approach 2.0, which puts women at the center of projects and ensures that project activities are implemented by and for women. The World Bank Group’s independent third-party monitoring agent will continue to verify all project activities.

As part of delivering basic services at scale, Approach 3.0 will support employment opportunities by bolstering income-generating activities, especially in the area of microfinance, by facilitating the participation of the private sector in delivery of aid.

At the request of the three neighboring countries participating in the project, the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) in Afghanistan will be resumed. CASA-1000 is a $1.2 billion regional project to bring clean energy from Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Construction in the other three participating countries is nearly complete and these countries have requested that CASA-1000 activities in Afghanistan resume to avoid the risk of the project becoming a stranded asset. The project in Afghanistan will resume in a ring-fenced manner to ensure all construction payments and future revenue are managed outside of Afghanistan and do not involve ITA systems.

Also, under Approach 3.0 the World Bank Group will continue to produce analytical work on areas such as financial sector, private sector, and poverty surveys as part of the Afghanistan Futures program of research, monitoring, and knowledge sharing to engage with the international community and underpin support to the Afghan people.

Since 2021, World Bank support to the Afghan people has followed a step-wise approach. Through Approach 1.0 , the World Bank provided $280 million in ARTF funds to UNICEF and the World Food Program as humanitarian gap financing to meet emergency health and nutrition needs. Through Approach 2.0 , the World Bank and ARTF donors have been supporting the Afghan people with over US$1.3 billion since early 2022 with critical health, education, food security, livelihoods, and water services at scale nationwide. These funds have remained outside the systems and control of the ITA and have focused on service delivery for women and girls. For more information on the projects supported under Approach 2.0, click here .

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Match Group inks deal with OpenAI, says press release written by ChatGPT

group work with

In a press release written with help from ChatGPT, Match Group announced an enterprise agreement with the AI chatbot’s maker, OpenAI. The new agreement includes over 1,000 enterprise licenses for the dating app giant and home to Tinder, Match, OkCupid, Hinge and others. The AI tech will be used to help Match Group employees with work-related tasks, the company says, and come as part of Match’s $20 million-plus bet on AI in 2024.

While press releases, by their nature, tend to be the enthusiastic sharing of company news, the ChatGPT-penned release is a bit over the top, saying things like how ChatGPT promises to “be the wingman…employees didn’t know they needed,” how the CTO “couldn’t contain his enthusiasm” when offering the canned quote, and included a line about AI safety that reads, “our love story with AI comes with a promise of responsibility — think of it as a prenup with the technology.” Groan! 

It even offered a quote from ChatGPT itself: “I’m thrilled that Match Group matched with me. Together, we’re not just breaking the ice; we’re melting it, and reshaping the way work gets done.” Bleh!  

Who knew we’d miss the human-driven editorial work that went into penning these company missives, previously?

As for the news itself, Match Group says it will begin using the AI tech, and specifically ChatGPT-4, to aid with coding, design, analysis, build templates, and other daily tasks, including, as you can tell, communications. To keep its corporate data protected, only trained and licensed Match Group employees will have access to OpenAI’s tools, it noted.

Before being able to use these tools, Match Group employees will also have to undergo mandatory training that focuses on responsible use, the technology’s capabilities, as well as its limitations. The use will be guided by the company’s existing privacy practices and AI principles , too. The comapny declined to share the cost of the agreement or how it will impact the tech giant’s bottom line, but Match believes that the AI tools will make teams more productive.

Match execs recently spoke of the company’s plans for AI during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings, noting that, this year, the app maker will use AI technology to both evolve its existing products and build new ones. The company’s Shareholder letter explained how AI could help to improve various aspects of the dating app journey. For instance, it could help with profile creation, where Match is testing features like an AI-powered photo picker, and generative AI for help making bios. The company said that AI will also improve its matching abilities and post-match guidance, in areas like conversation starters, nudges, and offering date ideas.

“We expect [AI] to touch every aspect of our apps by improving profile quality, discoverability and matching. And even more importantly, creating an even safer environment for our users to connect in,” CEO Bernard Kim told investors on the earnings call in late January.

“I believe that AI is existential to the future of Match Group and our business. AI will help us create improved user experiences and will truly make our products better,” Kim said at the time.

The company also suggested that it would use AI to build standalone AI-powered apps that it will begin testing in 2024.

A centralized innovation team will be working to integrate AI across Match’s portfolio of apps and incubating new ideas, with some of that work being handled by the team at Match acquisition Hyperconnect. (The company acquired Seoul-based Hyperconnect in 2021 for $1.73 billion , its biggest acquisition ever. However, the investment has yet to pay off in the form of a new breakthrough app as large or as popular as Tinder.)

Asked if Match would be leveraging OpenAI tech in its broader AI initiatives across its portfolio, a rep for Match declined to answer.

However, the company had said it was investing $20 million to $30 million in AI innovation in 2024.

Sarah Perez can be reached at [email protected] and Signal 415.234.3994.

  • Our Mission

An Effective Strategy for Successful Group Work

Articulating what good teamwork looks like takes planning, reflection, and respect for student choice.

Illustration of people holding hands to form an arrow

One of my all-time favorite reflective protocols is the Start-Stop-Continue exercise. It encourages learners to consider the impact of whatever is being learned by asking them about its perceived impact. A teacher or facilitator completes a lesson or an instruction sequence and then pauses, asking their audience to consider what they’re going to start doing, stop doing, or continue doing based on a learning experience.

One example of how this structure was impactful for my growth occurred after I participated in a series of professional learning communities (PLCs) focused on collaborative learning. I was teaching middle school, and while collaborative learning can and should be done at any grade level, it’s especially important in middle school, because tween learners need support as they encounter more complex emotions and social situations for the first time . 

Based on what I learned from the PLC and the impact those strategies had in my classroom, I committed to start, stop, and continue certain things in regard to collaboration, each of which had profound impacts on how I viewed work time within a project-based learning (PBL) context. 

START: Differentiate between group work and team work

Calling project work time “group work” is a bit of a misnomer. I once heard a colleague of mine, who also happened to be an experienced little league coach, explain the importance of this distinction in a very clever way: “There is a reason why we call them baseball teams rather than baseball groups.” His point was that groups are not invested in the long-term success of their partners, while teammates recognize that individual efforts contribute to the success of all and are therefore more invested. 

The reason this differentiation is key is that it reminds teachers to provide temporary grouping structures throughout the course of an assigned project that are different from the team that is producing the final product. There are many benefits to this, but here are three that I’ve observed: 

  • It provides students access to different perspectives and solutions that may exist outside their project team. 
  • It allows teachers to leverage protocols that might call for pairs, trios, or larger groupings than the project teams may provide. 
  • It gives students a break from the people they’re collaborating with the most. This is sometimes critical to the continued harmony in a classroom, especially at the middle school level where relationships and hormones seem to change with the tides.

STOP: Assuming That collaboration is built by experience alone

Having students work in groups is not the same as teaching them to collaborate. It’s akin to teaching someone to swim by throwing them in a lake and shouting at them from a distance until they figure it out; it’s skill development born out of desperation, and there are definitely less stressful ways to learn. 

I believe that providing specific, teacher-facilitated opportunities to discreetly develop collaboration skills should be a part of any project where teamwork is required, especially early on. You want students to have a chance to follow Tuckman’s stages of group development before grades add extra stress to the experience. Provide them time for storming and norming before deadlines, and you’ll be setting them up for a better chance at success.

This can be done with short group challenges accompanied by a quality assessment tool, such as a rubric that clearly articulates what good teamwork looks like. Books like the summer camp classic Silver Bullets or the evidence-based rubrics on the PBLWorks website are resources worth checking out. Building your students’ collaboration muscles takes planning, but it doesn’t need to add full days to your PBL projects. Look for places to include 15-to-20-minute experiences at the beginning of your day for greatest impact. 

CONTINUE: Include student voice in groupings

Whether or not to allow your students to pick their own groups for collaborative learning is a common question. While student choice can promote positive class culture and engagement, students don’t always make grouping decisions based on who will be their most effective learning partner. Despite this, I did and still do advocate for occasionally allowing students to have some say in their groups, but this doesn’t mean completely unstructured, or on scaffolded control. 

Group and team formation should be a shared endeavor. Sometimes you’re the one who makes the decision, and sometimes you allow a degree of student choice—but most often in a shared process.

An example of this would be allowing students their choice of roles, then a teacher uses that choice to form groups based on those roles. Another example might be allowing them to submit the name of a partner whom they want to work with and then forming the final group by putting two pairs together. They might also choose the type of final product they would like to create and then form groups based on that choice.

These choices I made about what to start-stop-continue doing in regard to group and team work became much more than just kids working in groups, but an opportunity to increase a key college- and career-readiness skill that would benefit them for the rest of their lives.

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Studying the relationship between identity and conflict.

Nicholas Sambanis

Nicholas Sambanis (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

An ethnic minority faces state violence after advocating for self-determination. Immigrants endure discrimination from the native population. A local government faces the challenges of integrating newly arrived refugees. A country erupts into civil war. 

Yale political scientist Nicholas Sambanis’ expertise covers all these scenarios. He studies civil war and other forms of intergroup conflict, both violent and non-violent, what causes these conflicts, and ways to end them. He has also focused on interventions to help countries engaged in ethnic conflict transition from hostility to peace, and he works on ways to reduce ethnic prejudice and discrimination in cases where ethnic conflict is expressed non-violently.

Sambanis, who began his academic career at Yale, serving on the faculty from 2001 to 2016, spent seven years at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Yale this year as the Kalsi Family Professor of Political Science in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

He’s also founder and director of the Identity and Conflict Lab (icL), which conducts interdisciplinary research on questions of intergroup conflict and identity politics. 

In an interview with Yale News, Sambanis discussed the lab’s interdisciplinary approach, his evaluation of strategies to reduce anti-immigrant bias, and his early-career experiences at Yale. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

How did you come to study civil war and other intergroup conflict?

Nicholas Sambanis: I was drawn to these questions in the mid-90s, while I was pursuing my Ph.D. at Princeton. At the time, I was interested in the process of European unification and had started studying international economic policy with a focus on monetary policy coordination. Being from Greece, I had seen how important it was for the country to join the EU. The idea of forging institutions that tied countries together fascinated me.

Then, the wars in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda changed things for me. These wars played out as I was thinking about my dissertation prospectus, and I decided to switch from economic policy to security policy and to study ways to end violent ethnic conflict. These seemed like more pressing problems at the time, and harder to solve. So I started to work on multilateral peacekeeping operations, studying whether they can help end civil wars.

What kinds of research does the Identity and Conflict Lab pursue?

Sambanis: We conduct problem-driven research in the social sciences. The main problem we address is the incidence and expression of identity-based conflict, both violent and non-violent. The scope of our work is broad — there is no single, narrow theme. We have worked on why some conflicts over self-determination turn violent while others remain non-violent, why governments choose to accommodate some ethnic groups while they repress others, and what drives bias and discrimination against immigrants and ways to reduce such bias.

We have also worked on predicting the outbreak of civil wars and exploring both cognitive and biological foundations of prejudice, integrating insights and methods from political science, psychology, economics, and history. The work is driven by real social problems, but it is also informed by theory in the social sciences. We pay a lot of attention to proper measurement, conceptual clarity, and on advancing the literatures in the field we work on, though we also aspire to influence policy debates.

What are you currently working on?

Sambanis: For the past seven years, my focus has been on immigration. I focus on challenges of immigrant integration across countries. Native-immigrant conflict is a type of ethnic conflict, usually non-violent. At any one time, there can be a dozen ongoing projects at the lab, and these extend beyond immigration. For example, for several years now, we have been collecting data on self-determination movements by various ethnic and religious groups around the world so as to anticipate and explain the outbreak of violent separatist conflict. We’re also doing work on state and religious minority-group conflicts, with a focus on India and Pakistan. We have also been expanding to the field of political communication with a focus on foreign policy. There, I am very interested in exploring the role of nationalism in escalating inter-state disputes over sovereignty and territory. We have conducted some research in Greece and Turkey and will expand to other countries.

Does the work focus on economic immigrants or refugees?

Sambanis: We’ve done studies on both. While people tend to be more positively disposed towards refugees than economic immigrants, in practice the public often questions the veracity of refugees’ claims for asylum; they perceive economic opportunity as their main motive when their justifications for seeking asylum can’t be documented and verified.

But we have done studies on both types of migrants in many countries, including Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus. Right now, we’re doing studies in Italy, Spain, France, Denmark, and we’re starting a new project on migrant workers in the Gulf region. A recently published book with two of my former postdocs, Danny Choi and Mathias Poertner, called “ Native Bias: Overcoming Discrimination Against Immigrants ,” presents some of the main ideas that structure the lab’s work on native-immigrant conflict. The book focuses on Muslim immigrant integration in Germany and explores challenges to the European model of multiculturalism. The data for that book were collected over several years mainly through experimental interventions in the field. The main idea is to create micro-environments, skits basically, which allow unobtrusive observation and measurement of people’s reactions to immigrants and other natives when they adhere to or violate valued civic norms. This allows us to measure behavior, not just attitudes, while isolating specific causes of that behavior experimentally.

What is the relationship between identity and conflict in the questions you study?  

Sambanis: The role of identity on behavior is the overarching theme of my work. The dominant perspective in political science right now is that social identities (ethnicity, race, religion) don’t matter as much as people’s material interests. Identities are used by people who are really motivated by material interest — they are justifications or ways to organize collective action in pursuit of other goals. That view doesn’t seem right to me, though. And depending on your position on that core question, you would develop different types of interventions to end conflict. It is not easy to separate affective interests from material interests and motives of behavior, however. How you see the world and your position in society can shape your identity and vice versa.

Is that true regarding people’s attitudes towards migrants?

Sambanis: The perception of cultural [identity] threat seems to be a more powerful predictor of native-immigrant conflict than economic competition. But like in other contexts, identity and material interests are often fused together. Recently, political scientists interested in reducing prejudice against refugees have been drawing ideas from psychology about cognitive interventions designed to induce empathy toward refugees by pushing natives to take their perspective or by making salient the shared refugee backgrounds that some native populations have with refugee populations.

In the United States, for example, they would do surveys asking people when their families came to the United States, or if they had any immigrants in the family. And they found that asking people about these shared histories tended to improve their attitudes towards immigrants. There are a few studies like this, including in Greece and Cyprus, where there are very large segments of the population that have a family history of displacement. These studies were intriguing because they suggested that it is easy to break through identity barriers with simple cognitive interventions. But after doing studies around the globe, I found no support for this idea, unfortunately. Changing stereotypes and eliminating biases toward ethnically different groups probably requires structural, long-term interventions.  

Your first job in academia was at Yale. How was your experience?

Sambanis: I was attracted to Yale because of its reputation as a leading political science department. There were pioneering scholars on the faculty, and some of them really impacted my own trajectory as a scholar. I learned so much from reading and observing my colleagues here, both the leading senior scholars and junior faculty. Coming up the ranks here as an assistant professor changed everything about the way I approached my research. It changed the questions I asked and the methods I used to study those questions. In many ways, Yale was the best school I ever attended. Coming here was the right decision for me and I’m glad to be back. 

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  2. Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively

    In informal cooperative learning, small, temporary, ad-hoc groups of two to four students work together for brief periods in a class, typically up to one class period, to answer questions or respond to prompts posed by the instructor. Additional examples of ways to structure informal group work Think-pair-share

  3. Setting Up Effective Group Work

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  4. Group Work That Works

    "The most effective creative process alternates between time in groups, collaboration, interaction, and conversation... [and] times of solitude, where something different happens cognitively in your brain," says Dr. Keith Sawyer, a researcher on creativity and collaboration, and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

  5. A Guide to Working in Groups

    May 17, 2023 Group work, for some, is another way of saying teamwork. It can help us to divide work and increase productivity. It allows for the utilization of different skills, knowledge, and experiences of a variety of individuals. Group work can help us form relationships and support one another.

  6. What are the benefits of group work?

    Benefits for instructors Faculty can often assign more complex, authentic problems to groups of students than they could to individuals. Group work also introduces more unpredictability in teaching, since groups may approach tasks and solve problems in novel, interesting ways. This can be refreshing for instructors.

  7. What is group work?

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  8. How to Improve Group Work

    Group work can be a highlight of a class or a pain point for students and teachers alike. Cult of Pedagogy 's Jennifer Gonzalez examines the many challenges of group work in her post " Make Cooperative Learning Work Better ." Two key questions emerge for Gonzalez: First, is group work worth doing?

  9. 6 Benefits of Group Work

    Group work is great for improving your critical thinking skills and making you a sharper thinker. So, the next time you work in a group remember this: listen to others' perspectives and see how their views can sharpen your own. Remember your view is malleable and should change as a result of the interaction.

  10. Energize Your Online Course with Group Work

    Energize Your Online Course with Group Work. A How-To Guide for Making the Most of Digital Breakout Rooms. by Tamara Babaian and Bill Schiano. April 14, 2020. W ith the move to online learning, we've heard from many fellow educators wondering how best to execute a critical piece of what made their in-person classes so compelling—group work.

  11. Implementing Group Work in the Classroom

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    Social contagion theory (also known as emotional contagion theory) is a psychological phenomenon indicating that, to a certain degree, people have power and influence over you. You are somewhat of a product of whom you know, such as your close friends. Your friends can help shape your perceptions, outlook, values, culture, emotions, and behaviors

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    1. Allow extra time Always allow more time than you think you'll need. We've all got that friend who is twenty minutes late to everything. (If you don't, consider the possibility it might be you). The friend who you tell a film starts at 5pm if it actually starts at 5.30pm, to ensure you won't miss the start.

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  15. How to Evaluate Group Work

    The system should encourage teamwork, positive interdependence, and individual accountability. If you are going to consider the group's evaluation of each member's work, it is best to have students evaluate each other independently and confidentially. Example Group Work Assessment Rubric. Here is an example of a group work assessment rubric.

  16. What are the Pros and Cons of Group Work?

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  17. Group Work: Best Practices

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  19. Benefits of Group Work

    The benefits of group work include the following: Students engaged in group work, or cooperative learning, show increased individual achievement compared to students working alone. For example, in their meta-analysis examining over 168 studies of undergraduate students, Johnson et al. (2014) determined that students learning in a collaborative ...

  20. What Are the Benefits of Group Work? (With Definition)

    Group work is when two or more individuals collaborate to finish a task or project. Employees typically receive distinct positions within the group to foster accountability among team members. In some occupations, creativity can flourish when individuals openly exchange ideas and benefit from the contributions of others.

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    Groups of four to six are better for more complex tasks in which a greater number of ideas may improve the final results. Selection: You should either assign students randomly to groups or select students so that each group has an equal distribution of talents.

  22. What are the challenges of group work and how can I address them?

    In this section, we consider the hazards of group projects and strategies instructors can use to avoid or mitigate them. Find other strategies and examples here or contact the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence for help. For students, common challenges of group work include: Coordination costs; Motivation costs; Intellectual costs

  23. What is group work?

    Group work is an extremely broad term, applicable across a range of subjects and learning activities in classrooms. At its core, it simply means students working together in small groups to complete a task or project, while - it is hoped - simultaneously developing their skills around communication, collaboration and problem-solving.

  24. World Bank Group Announces Next Phase of Support for People of Afghanistan

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  27. An Effective Strategy for Group Work in School

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  29. Studying the relationship between identity and conflict

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