Group work

Group of students discussing around a tableLearning through group work has many potential benefits but can also be stressful for students, particularly when it contributes to assessment. Therefore, you need to design group work activities carefully.

This guide takes you through the key points you need to consider when including group work in your curriculum.

We also have a specific resource about online group work:

Managing group work in digital and blended learning

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Why use group work?

Effective group work activities can:

  • Enhance students’ learning.
  • Contribute to achieving the Sheffield Graduate Attributes or Sheffield Masters Graduate.
  • Help students develop skills such as organisation, negotiation, listening, conflict resolution, etc.
  • Enhance students’ employability, through the development of skills and by providing an experience of collaborative working they can reflect on and refer to in job applications/interviews.
  • Allow students to recognise and challenge their assumptions through exposure to other perspectives.
  • Help to build community and a sense of belonging, as students have the opportunity to get to know each other and form friendships.
  • Potentially create a more inclusive learning environment as students learn from each other and learn to work within a diverse group, where different experiences and strengths contribute to the group’s output.

Key things to consider

To make group activities successful, you will need to:

  • Develop a clear rationale for group work (the task should be something that is better done as a group than as an individual)
  • Design activities carefully
  • Communicate clearly with students: be explicit about the rationale for the task, how you expect them to complete it, if/how it will be assessed and what is valued
  • Support students to develop group working skills

If you plan to assess group work, you will also need to think carefully about how you design the assessment and support students through the process. See below for specific guidance on assessing group work.

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Practicalities of group work

Here is some practical guidance on dealing with different aspects of group work:

How can I manage group activities in the classroom?
  • Set clear learning outcomes and guidance for the activity so that students know what to do. Provide written as well as verbal instructions. If students are puzzled, rephrase or clarify your instructions.
  • Include time at the end of an activity for students to reflect on how effectively they were able to complete the activity. Provide prompts focussing on the aims of the activity.
  • Explain a strategy for timings and getting attention during group work, e.g. 20 minutes to discuss with 10 minutes to present findings while you walk around the room to answer questions.
  • Set some ground rules for participation (or encourage students to develop their own). Help your students to feel “safe” in order to participate in small groups.
  • Have strategies to manage group dynamics, such as one student dominating the discussion. You could consider structured approaches, such as giving each person time to speak. However, do not force every person to speak; offer alternative ways to participate, such as writing on a flipchart or communicating online.
  • Do not fear silence. Allow some “wait time” while students think.
  • Consider the physical environment, e.g. make sure students can see each other.
  • Observe, listen and interpret verbal and non-verbal cues. If you see students’ interest wane, try to switch focus. Try introducing a new activity or think about ways to change pace or delivery.
How can I support students to develop group working skills?

Working successfully in groups involves many skills that need to be developed and practised. You need to teach students these skills as well as the substantive content of the group activity. Unless you have a group of students with lots of experience of team working, do not assume they know what to do and you can ‘leave them to get on with it’. Do not underestimate the amount of support students may need.

Structure your programme to enable students to develop group work skills over time. Schedule group activities in class, or smaller group projects (with opportunities for feedback) before asking students to tackle complex or ‘high stakes’ group projects.

There are lots of existing resources for teaching group working skills. Try adapting or incorporating some of these activities into your teaching:

  • Getting to know each other: a simple activity to help students get to know other group members, assess the skills in the group and plan how to work together.
  • Team operating agreement: a template that students can use to create their own operating agreement, which sets out how they will work together.
  • Group roles: a simple card-sort activity that prompts students to reflect on the different roles they and others can take in a group.
  • Behaviour in teams: this series of videos focuses on group interactions and incorporates activities to help students develop and practice effective team working skills

For further guidance on incorporating this type of skills development into your programme, contact 301@sheffield.ac.uk.

You may also want to support students by providing additional structure, for example, you could allocate particular roles or tasks to individual students, or provide groups with a list of suggested roles or tasks to divide up.

Provide insights or support from students who have previously been through the same group project or assessment. You can also signpost students to additional sources of support, for example guidance from 301 on Group Work and Collaboration.

Case study:

  • The Behaviour in Teams group have developed a method for teaching and evaluating skills in group interaction. Contact the group if you want to discuss working with them.
How can I assess group work?

Assessing group work can be challenging, and assessment can be a source of anxiety and conflict for students. However, designing assessment thoughtfully can minimise problems. Make sure you plan the assessment carefully and, where possible, involve students in the planning.

Communicate clearly with students about group assessment: explain why they are doing it and ensure that learning outcomes, marking criteria and assessment processes are transparent.

When designing assessment for group work, consider the following questions:

  • What are the learning outcomes for this activity? What do you want students to learn and how will you measure it? This should guide your choice of assessment method and criteria.
  • How does this fit into the wider programme? Is there a balance of group work and other types of assessment? Do students have the opportunity to practice this type of assessment and gain formative feedback? Will students have time to undertake group work alongside their other assessments?
  • What type of behaviour do you want to motivate in students? Including an element of marks for individuals, not just groups, can help to avoid freeloading behaviour.
  • Do you want to assess the process and/or the product of group work? If your learning outcomes include group working skills, you will need to include some assessment of the group working process.
  • Who will assess the work? (You could include elements of self-assessment, peer assessment and/or staff assessment)

You might find it helpful to use this template to plan your assessment.

These resources provide more in-depth guidance on the different options for assessing group work:

How should I allocate students to groups?

Graham Gibbs recommends constructing mixed ability groups (rather than letting students choose their own groups) and suggests a group size of 4-6 students. Mixed ability groups tend to disadvantage the most able students, so you can compensate for this by having an element of individual marks.

To give students the experience of working with a range of people, you may want to ensure diversity within groups in terms of gender, age, nationality, etc. However, you will need to support students with working in diverse groups: it can take more time for groups to settle when they include people with different backgrounds and working styles. See guidance below on making group work inclusive.

Remember to explain the rationale for group division to students.

Further reading: this is an excellent simple guide to making group work inclusive and supporting students to work in diverse groups: Inclusive small group work

How can I use group work to enhance employability?

Group work can help students to develop skills and attributes that are valued by employers, for example emotional intelligence, organisation, communication, collaborative working, working to achieve consensus, relationship building, and motivating and listening to others. It can also help students to develop their career management capabilities, for example developing self-awareness, reflection, and the practical skills needed for job applications and selection processes.

Here are some ideas for maximising the benefits of group work for enhancing employability:

  • Incorporate reflective activities to help students become aware of their strengths, weaknesses and preferences when working in groups, and identify areas where they can develop further.
  • Use reflection and/or peer feedback to enable students to develop emotional intelligence, i.e. understanding how their actions affect others in teams, becoming more adept at understanding their own emotions/reactions and understanding how others operate.
  • Design authentic group work activities and assessments that mirror team working practices in a professional context (or in a specific industry). You could invite feedback/input from employers to the design process.
  • Investigate whether employers could contribute to the assessment of students' group work skills.
  • Offer opportunities to practise group work skills that reflect employers' actual selection processes, for example group tasks at graduate assessment centres.
  • Show how academic group work can help students demonstrate their group work skills and experience in applications and interviews. Support students to recognise, articulate and evidence the skills they have developed.
  • Explicitly communicate the relevance of a group activity to employment/further study.
  • Explore the different dimensions of working in groups to help students understand what employers mean when they say they require team working skills.
  • Help students understand the nature of team work in specific occupations, e.g. what kinds of people professionals in different kinds of work collaborate with; the different roles that people play in organisations and teams.
How can I make group work inclusive?

Some students will find group work more difficult than others. (For example, hearing-impaired students or non-native English speakers may find it harder to contribute to verbal discussions; autistic students may struggle with group interactions; students with a part-time job or caring responsibilities might find it difficult to meet their group outside of scheduled teaching hours). You need to ensure that no student is unfairly disadvantaged, and you will need to support students to create an inclusive environment within their groups. Here are some simple actions you can take.

  • Design an inclusive group task. This should be something that is more easily done by a group than an individual, that requires all group members to contribute, and that provides opportunities to draw on the different members’ skills and knowledge.
  • Provide clear information about the purpose and intended learning outcomes of the group activity, timescales and scope of the activity, assessment and marking criteria, and how to access support.
  • Provide structure: allocate time for group work in class; provide a suggested list of tasks and roles, or allocate these to individuals; set interim deadlines for parts of a project.
  • Support students to develop group working skills (see above).
  • Support students to create an inclusive environment within their groups. Use an icebreaker activity to help them get to know each other and help them to identify the diverse range of skills and expertise that they each bring to the group (e.g. getting to know each other activity).
  • Provide adjustments or alternative assessments for students where needed.

Further reading (both excellent, short guides):

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Challenges of group work

Groups invariably have challenges of different skills and abilities, backgrounds and expectations. You will need to design group activities carefully and support your students to navigate these difficulties. Here are ways to approach some common challenges of group work.

How can I address student anxiety/negative feelings about group work? Students can have concerns about group work and particularly group assessment. It is important to acknowledge and address this. Here are some strategies:
  • Explain the rationale for group work and the benefits for students. For example, Why are you asking them to do this activity in a group? How does it fit with the rest of their programme? What will they learn from this activity? What skills can they develop? How will this help them in their studies? How does it support their employability?
  • Involve students in the design of group work activities in order to address any concerns they have and create a learning experience that works for them. You can find guidance on working collaboratively with students on the student engagement pages.
  • Manage students’ expectations. Let them know that group work can be challenging, but reassure them that you don’t expect perfection and that navigating difficulties is part of the learning process.
  • Uncertainty can create anxiety. Make sure that you provide clear information from the start about what will be involved in a group work project. For example, how groups will be allocated, if and how group work will be assessed, the expected workload, what support is available, and what students should do if they experience problems in the group. Set clear objectives and learning outcomes for the project. You could also provide some of this information in advance to assist students with module selection.
  • Think carefully about how you assess group work (see above for more information).
How can I support students to manage their time?

Time management can be a significant challenge for student groups. You can help in the following ways:

  • When planning timescales for group projects, consider students’ other commitments (for example from other modules).
  • Ensure that the scope of the group task is manageable. Clearly communicate the purpose and intended learning outcomes of the project. Explain what you expect from students, both in terms of how they work together and the work that they produce. Provide exemplars of project outputs to help students grasp the scale of the project.
  • Schedule time for groups to work on the project within taught sessions. This ensures that they have time to meet, encourages them to focus on the task and provides an opportunity to get support and feedback from peers and tutors.
  • Support students to collaborate remotely by providing appropriate tools (e.g. Google Docs).
  • Support students with project planning. You could provide guidance or a template for different phases of a project.
  • For longer projects, consider how you can build in structure, e.g. explicit stages of the project for students to follow, or interim deadlines for parts of the project.
  • Communicate regularly with students throughout the project, e.g. send reminders of deadlines.
How can I avoid the problem of unequal contributions from group members?

Where groups are allocated a single mark for the outcome of a joint project, there is an incentive for freeloading. Several options exist for assessment to address concerns about imbalanced contribution:

  • Include individual tasks in each group project. These will be marked individually plus an overall group mark which will be the same for all group members.
  • Ask students to write a reflective piece on their contribution to the assignment, which can be graded and added to the group mark. This also helps students to get the most out of group work through reflecting on the challenges that arose and how they could have acted differently.
  • Integrate peer assessment and ask students to include evidence. You can increase or reduce a mark based on the assessment.
  • Use group work as a formative activity, followed by individual summative assessment.

The following sources provide more information on the different options for assessing group work, and guidance on specific methods, for example peer assessment.

How can I deal with conflict in groups?

Consider in advance how you will deal with any problems within groups. Establish a process for dealing with group conflict and communicate this clearly to students (e.g. when should they raise an issue, who should they contact for help, what type of support/intervention can they expect).

Encourage student groups to draw up a team operating agreement that they all sign up to. This can help to avoid conflict, as it clarifies expectations, and to manage conflict, as students can use the agreement to hold each other to account. You could provide them with a template and example and allocate time in a taught session to do this.

Conflict can sometimes arise from conflicting working styles and preferences. Encourage students to reflect on this before starting a group task.

Check in with groups regularly or at fixed points in order to check on progress and flag up any problems. Allocate time to yourself for assisting groups, dealing with queries and problems. 

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Further information

Links and downloads

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External links

Further reading