Digital Learning & Design

Students making cookies togetherDepending on your previous experiences, group work can seem like a blessing or a curse. When poorly designed, it can derail an otherwise effective assignment. But when designed effectively and presented clearly, group work increases student learning, fosters stronger relationships with peers, and shows higher course satisfaction. In this guide, we will provide a framework for designing and managing effective group work activities.

For group work to be successful, it’s best to have a well structured task with associated outcomes. We recommend that you answer the following questions before you design group work activities:

  1. What is your motivation for assigning group work? What is the purpose?  
  2. Who should be involved in designing and delivering the group work? What resources do you need?  
  3. How will you assess the group work and what do you want to evaluate? 
  4. How will groups be formed? 
  5. How much time is needed to complete the activity? 
  6. Which technology will best support the group(s)?

What structures can you provide to facilitate group work? For instance, will you create and assign the group roles, scaffold the project to help with time management, assign leaders or suggest collaborative software tools? Managing group work entails how and when you present the activity, schedule the due dates, share the evaluation criteria, and support a collaborative working environment. 

  1. Present the expectations and goals. Provide students with a detailed plan about what they are expected to complete and why. By showing students how the group work  is connected to their learning, and the real-world, they will be motivated to do their best work. 
  2. Share the timeline and explain how it fits into the context of the course. Scaffold the activity and provide students with the timeline so they know where they are going, and be able to plan for it.
  3. Propose a set of collaboration tools. You can use the Canvas People tool to Create and Manage Groups or Google Course Groups to facilitate group coordination and collaboration. Students can use Canvas Groups to collaborate on projects and assignments, and initiate or participate in asynchronous discussions. Depending on your class size and the purpose of the group work, students may choose which collaboration tool they’d like to use. 
  4. Describe how groups are formed. You can ask students to self-sign up by interest, topic, time zone, etc.,randomly assign groups, or manually assign them. Consider that how groups are formed will impact the level of engagement or interaction, at least initially. For assignments, we advise capping groups at 5 members. For discussions, creating a group set of 3-5 participants enables more intimate conversations with enough diversity of perspectives to keep students engaged.
  5. Share expectations for group interactions and roles. Articulate the key roles, and norms and expectations for working together to give the group a starting point. Describing roles and responsibilities can often help the groups run discussions and manage projects themselves without direct instructor oversight. Still, encourage groups to discuss how they will handle difficult situations and foster better collaboration as they would in common real-world situations.
  6. Engage students in evaluation. Build in mechanisms for students to report on how things are going so you can address issues of concern and equal distribution of work. If you will be grading the group tasks, let students know how individual performance, group performance, and the team work processes will be assessed. Using clear rubrics and providing timely and relevant feedback can help students be successful and improve their work. You may even ask students to develop some aspects of the grading criteria to involve them in the evaluation process.
  • If your course enrollment is high, consider using sections or group discussions to make the conversation more intimate and reading all posts more manageable (and likely) for students. Create several discussion group sets to vary group discussion composition. You can also vary group size. 
  • Assign or request discussion leaders, especially with smaller group discussions. 
  • Have each group from a group discussion post to a classwide discussion their main takeaways. (This is essentially two discussions, one for small groups and one for the whole class. They can be set up back-to-back in Canvas.)
  • Build in a peer review or collaborative element into assignments to hold students accountable to one another. 
  • Make time for groups to socialize and network at the beginning of their group assignments to foster relationships and personal connections. You may provide them with some ice breaker activities or other prompts to get them talking to each other.
  • Have groups focus on different content and produce a project that illustrates their learning. 
  • Create a podcast of a researched topic.
  • Engage in the engineering design process to build a 3D prototype.
  • Invite student groups to present an assigned reading and lead or facilitate the class discussion. 
  • Develop a public facing website or article to raise awareness or make a call to action.
  • Prepare a lesson to teach to the class.
  • Write and present a case study.

Remember that your group work activities will be most effective when they align with course learning objectives, and relate to the subject matter and course context. Email to consider how you can design group work that meets the needs in your course.

References & Additional Resources