Many teachers use group work to enhance student learning and opportunities for social presence in online learning. Whether the goal is to increase student understanding of content, to build particular transferable skills, improve peer relationships or a combination of each, group work can be used to capitalise on the benefits of peer-to-peer instruction. Group work can be formal or informal, in large groups or small groups, and requires targeted teacher facilitation to maximise student interaction and learning.
For a comprehensive look at what group work can look like and the approaches that can make it effective, visit the interactive resources developed by Brame & Beil (2015) on the Vanderbilt University web page – Group Work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively.
The effectiveness of group work to enhance student learning relies on a number of factors. Consider some of the challenges below:
- Students do not want to work with each other. Students are often told their group work experiences will be useful when applying for jobs or working within industry, but their priority is ‘here-and-now’. Students can get frustrated with the extended time that some group work activities can take.
- Students do not want to work with diverse groups. Issues such as dominating personalities, students who contribute little, cultural barriers in communication, and physical location as often cited as challenges in successful group work activities. An unfavourable experience will see reluctance to group work in the future.
- Students feel uncomfortable or incapable. Students need time and encouragement to move beyond social ‘comfort zones’ and to discover fellow students’ strengths and skills.
- Tasks are unsuitable for group work. Effective group work tasks require time, clear instructions, interaction and purpose. Not all learning activities benefit from group work.
- Insufficient teacher support or facilitation. Just because the learning activity is based on student – student interaction, does not mean the absence of teacher facilitation. Successful group work relies on support, clarity and guidance by the teacher.
- Consider group work issues at program, course and class level. Graduate attributes refer to global citizenship, cross cultural capability and effective collaborative work, so group skills need to be taught, scaffolded and assessed across all levels of the curriculum.
- Provide support and structure. Start with teachers setting clear expectations that students will collaborate as well as model respectful interactions and introduce diverse perspectives into learning tasks.
- Create collaborative, integrative tasks. Be creative in the task set. Consider innovative ways to engage all students in the process, opportunities to ‘shine’ and extend learning.
- Decide what to assess: product or process? It will take longer for diverse groups to work effectively, so care is needed to balance the value placed on the product (ie what they must do) and the process (ie how they do it). By assessing both, you steer students away from assuming they must generate a ‘perfect’ final artefact.
- Intervene and manage conflicts. Different assumptions and communication styles may not only cause conflict but impede students’ ability to resolve it. It is important to set ground rules for participation, discuss how the group will manage conflict and have a clear strategy for what the group will do should conflict arise.
- Enable reflection to encourage self-awareness. Provide reflective learning opportunities to assist students to move from participating in diverse group work to actually understanding and valuing the experience.
For examples on implementing the strategies above, access the Higher Education Academy UK – Group Work paper (pdf, 577kb)
Resources, strategies or assistance
- Higher Education Academy UK – Group Work
- Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Vanderbuilt University.
- Contact your School’s Community of Practice to explore ways in which you can effectively facilitate group work in your course.