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Group Work

Why is this important?

Group work can encourage the development of key professional skills, enhance student engagement and encourage deeper learning.  This page highlights the benefits and challenges of group work, and suggests some tips for effective use.

    • Involves students in active learning, encouraging engagement with the material and other students
    • Increases interaction between students, improving integration and retention as students’ sense of belonging and enthusiasm increases (Tinto, 1997)
    • Creates opportunities for students to develop, articulate and defend their ideas and develops their critical thinking skills as they question, challenge and clarify the suggestions, perspectives and understanding of others  (Exley and Dennick, 2004 )
    • Increases student autonomy and responsibilities as self-directed learners and decreases their dependency on staff. (Exley and Dennick, 2004)
    • Encourages peer learning and teaching which deepens students’ understanding (Boud et al, 2001)
    • Increases students’ preparedness for work, e.g. through working on complex group tasks and problems (Pauli, et al., 2008)
    • Nurtures life-long learning  and employability skills such as communication, critical reflection and self-directed learning (Pauli et al., 2008, p47), as well as the promotion of leadership, teamwork and collaboration and enhanced practical problem-solving, decision-making  and presentation skills, (Light et al., 2009, p128)
    • Provides opportunities for personal reflection and improved self-understanding – e.g. students can become aware of their own ‘inhibitions, defences and assumptions’ (Light et al., 2009, p131)
    • Develops students’ group working skills. Group work can teach students how to “work co-operatively with others using the varied skills of the group’, (Light et al., 2009, p131) and exposes students to different perspectives and ways of thinking,  enhancing their ‘awareness and acceptance of diversity’, (Light et al., 2009, p128)

    Light et al. (2009) argue that educators may be sceptical of group work for a range of reasons:

    • negative past experiences as a participant and/or a facilitator of group work
    • the time needed to engage in group work may mean less time for teacher-led instruction on important material
    • group work activities require careful logistical and resource planning which takes extra preparation time
    • some lecturers consider learning to be a solitary process
    • lecturers may be uncertain about the quantity and quality of learning in small group settings or when students are given autonomy in learning
    • they perceive that some students do not like group work
    • there may be ‘real or imagined negative reactions’ from fellow staff members
    • timetabling and / or room layout constraints are not conducive to group work
    • lecturers may feel they do not have the facilitative know-how to effectively manage group work productively.

    Students may also have negative perceptions of group work based on their past experiences while others look less favourably on team work as they prefer to work alone as a result of their personality, learning style or need for singular achievement.

    Conflict between group members can arise which impact the teaching and learning process and outcomes. Pauli et al. (2008) argue that these conflicts arise for a number of reasons:

    • social loafing / freeloading - when student(s) does not contribute to the group effort; rather they assume more motivated members will do the work for them.
    • sucker effect - when one or two group members take on all the responsibilities for the work / or the reverse sucker effect - when motivated students withdraw from the group so as not to be taken advantage of.
    • interactional difficulties - e.g. due to cliques, differences in approach to leadership or conflict resolution.
    • logistical pressures - e.g. unable to arrange times to meet, need to rely on others to complete their sections of work.

    Significant challenges arise for educators and students around the issue of the assessment of group work. For example, differentiating individual contributions to the group work product and process presents ethical issues for educators needing to attribute individual grades; students dislike it when there is the potential for the group mark to negatively impact upon their individual grade or when there has been social loafing by group members, with less motivated students gaining good grades as a result of others’ work.

    1. Before the activity, decide group size (consider - as group size increases the number of students who will actively participate in the group decreases) and composition (either allow groups to self-select or pre-determine the group membership).
    2. Set or negotiate ground rules for the groups. Light et al. (2009) suggest examples, including respecting other members, listening to and considering each member’s opinion, being polite when challenging ideas you do not agree with, maintaining confidentiality, and coming to class on time, prepared and ready to engage.
    3. Provide a group orientation session (Van Rheede, Van Oudtshoorn & Hay, 2004) where students are introduced to the dynamics of group work and can consider potential challenges the group may face. Moon’s (2009) ‘Making groups work: improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development’ is an example of a useful resource for both educators and students.
    4. Ask groups to discuss and allocate roles and responsibilities to each member - this creates the foundation for positive interactions and criteria-based accountability between members.
    5. Give the groups clear guidelines about structure, time constraints, expected outcome and assessment procedures, at the beginning and throughout the process, using multiple media (oral, written - hard-copy / online). 
    6. Consider the physical environment for the group work sessions. Light et al. (2009, p148) suggest that in an ideal setting ‘students will all be able to see the instructor and each other and to maintain eye contact which ... fosters good interpersonal communication’. The Flexible Teaching Space (PFC/03/017) is a high-tech room built to facilitate a range of teaching approaches including group work.
    7. Consider carefully how group work will be assessed.  Advice on the assessment of group work can be found in the CED Assessment and  Feedback section of this site. Kate Exley’s article ‘Managing and assessing group  work’ and the CSHE resource Assessing group work are also useful resources.

    Boud D, Cohen, R and Sampson, J (Eds.) (2001) Peer Learning in Higher Education  Routledge: London.

    Cartney, P. & Rouse, A. (2006) ‘The emotional impact of learning in small groups: Highlighting the impact on student progression and retention’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11, 79-91

    Exley K and Dennick R (2004) ‘Small Group Teaching: Tutorials, Seminars and Beyond. RoutledgeFalmer: London

    Light, G.; Cox, R. & Calkins, S. (2009, 2nd edition) ‘Learning and Teaching in Higher Education’, Sage: London

    Pauli, R.; Mohiyeddini, C.; Bray, D.; Michie, F.; & Street, B. (2008) ‘Individual differences in negative group work experiences in collaborative student learning’, Educational Psychology, 28, (1), 47-58

    Tinto, V. (1997), “Classrooms as communities: exploring the educational character of student persistence”, Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), pp 599-623

    Van Rheede van Oudtshoorn, GP & Hay, D (2004) 'Group work in higher education : a mismanaged evil or a potential good?', South African Journal of Higher Education, 18, (2), 131-149. []


    CSHE Assessing group work

    Exley, K. ‘Managing and assessing group work’

    David Jaques Small group teaching

    Light, G.; Cox, R. & Calkins, S. (2009, 2nd edition) ‘Learning and Teaching in HIgher Education’, Sage: London  - Chapter 5 “Facilitating small-group teaching” pp.127-153

    Medev Learning in small groups                                                                         

    Moon, J. (2009) ‘Making groups work: improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development‘, Escalate