Learning 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.
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.
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?||
|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:
For further guidance on incorporating this type of skills development into your programme, contact email@example.com.
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.
|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:
You might find it helpful to use this template to plan your assessment.
|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:
|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.
|What digital tools can support group work?||
Google applications allow students to collaborate on documents or other resources.
You can set up Blackboard groups to give online spaces for students to collaborate within their work groups. This provides areas where data is secure, and students aren’t expected to sign up for third party tools.
Groups can be set up so they are:
Examples of tools that can be used in group setting include:
Students may choose to do some communication on alternative (non-university) platforms.
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:
|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:
|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:
|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.
|Links and downloads||