top of page

Group Work

Most of what students have traditionally learned in school is worthless in the real world. Schools teach that work means performing tasks largely by oneself, that helping others is cheating, that technical competencies are the only things that matter, that attendance and punctuality are secondary to test scores, that motivation is up to the teacher, that success depends on performance on individual tests, and that promotions are granted no matter how little one works. In the real world of work, things are altogether different. Most employers do not expect people to sit in rows and compete with colleagues without interacting with them. The heart of most jobs, especially the higher paying more interesting jobs, is teamwork, which involves getting others to cooperate, leading others, coping with complex issues of power and influence, and helping solve people’s problems by working with them. (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 11)


Having students work in groups makes a lot of sense in theory, but it can be tricky to make it work effectively. Some faculty members make group work the main methodology in their classrooms, others use groups on an occasional basis. The key to successful groups is finding a structure so that students will work productively. If you are going to do a lot of group work, you really need to read up on some of the literature (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, are well recognized experts in this area). In this section we'll give some general principles, but probably the most effective means to introduce groups into your class is to look at some of the examples. 


Designing Group Projects:
  • Determine the objectives of the group project.


  • Determine composition of groups. The size of each group is important, many experts favor groups of four or five. There is also a question about whether groups should be homogeneous (grouping together students of similar ability), random, or heterogeneous. See Russell Marcus article below for advantages and disadvantages of different composition strategies. Some instructors keep the same groups together for weeks or months, others create new groups for each class.


  • Explain task and goal of the group to the students; tasks should be highly structured. This step is absolutely critical. Student are quite capable of sitting around talking about social events or pop culture, unless they have a defined task to accomplish with some means of accountability. The tasks can vary widely. Students might be asked to answer specific questions about the reading, or to prepare for a debate or role play.


  • Monitor the progress of the exercise. Often the instructor can move from group to group, making sure that students are on task, listening to what is going on, and intervening to guide the group's activities.


  • Summarize and evaluate the process. The instructor also can wrap up the project by asking the students to comment on how effective the process was. It may also be useful to teach students some basic group process skills, for example, you may want to review Tuckman's famous four stages of group work: forming, storming, norming, performing (search on the Internet for more details about these four stages).


Assigning Roles to Students


Groups should encourage interdependence and cooperation, so it is sometimes valuable to assign different roles to different members of the group. Here are some preliminary suggestions:


  • If there are written materials, it is helpful to give only one copy of the materials to each group, which forces the students to work together from the beginning. Many instructors assign a different role to each member of the group: for example, one student keeps the group on task; one summarizes main concepts; one keeps track of whether everyone participates; one focuses on how well the group has worked together.


  • Sometimes one person from each group will be required to report out the results of the group's work. If possible, this student should not know in advance that he or she will be asked to do so, so all students need to stay focused through the exercise. Barbara Millis gives each student a playing card (heart, diamonds, club, or spade), and then at the last minute says, "Each of the hearts should briefly report his/her group's observations" (Millis).


  • In Jigsaw groups, each member of the group brings some different information or expertise to the project. Suppose, for example, each student in the class was asked to write some notes on one of four different questions for the day before. In class, the groups are composed so that each group contains four people, each of whom prepared a different question and thus brings a different expertise. The exercise would then involving solving a problem that required all four perspectives (Barkley Cross and Major 56)



Barkley, Elizabeth F., K. Patricia Cross, Claire Howell Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Johnson, D.W., R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith. Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, 4. Washington, D.C.: Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, 1991.

Marcus, Russell, Observations on on Cooperative Learning Group AssignmentsThis paper outlines various techniques for selecting groups, and reviews pros and cons of various strategies. Interestingly, Marcus ultimately ends up recommending random assignments.

Millis, Barbara, Course Design: Ideas for Graduate Student Instructors, Basic Cooperative Learning Structures, US Air Force Academy, Division of Instructional Innovation and Instruction, University of Texas at Austin, 19 January 2008.

Nilson, Linda, Teaching at its Best (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) has a great chapter on groups (155 ff).  

Thomason, Neal, Making Student Groups Work: To Teach is to Learn Twice. Teaching Philosophy.  13:2 (1990) 111-125. Thomason presents a number of different approaches for using groups in philosophy classes.



Author:  John Immerwahr
Update: June 6, 2010

bottom of page