Group Work

Student Groups: One Teacher's Successes

The research is clear that peer cooperation promotes learning and can foster students' appreciation of diverse perspectives. But how to get students on board to realize the full benefits of working with their peers?

In other blog posts, CRLT has featured some effective strategies for structuring group work and guiding student pairs. Here, we highlight one U-M instructor who is applying those strategies to foster group work that has won high praise from her students and, by their account, facilitated their success with the most challenging aspects of the course.

Cynthia (Cindee) Giffen, who teaches Biology 171 in the Comprehensive Studies Program, assigns her students to in-class working groups that change several times a semester. The class includes students with a diverse range of background preparation, and the groups are designed to provide a safe space for students to work through complex activities, ask questions, and make mistakes in a low-risk environment as they prepare for individual assessments. Giffen requires students to work on complex tasks in groups during class. Students receive a participation grade for their engagement in the group activities, but all written work they submit for a grade is completed individually, using their own words. Students are motivated to work in these groups, then, in part because these low-stakes interactions prepare them to submit their best work when it's time to earn a grade.

Cross Cultural Group Work

internationalizing the curriculum graphic

Research on teamwork in professional contexts illuminates the issues that arise for students as well. Challenges often arise from sources other than differences of language or classroom experience; they can come from different views of organizations, hierarchy, decision-making, and -- perhaps most important -- expressing agreement or disagreement.  Whether students see these differences as being individual or cultural may be less important than helping them identify differences and work through them. 

Enhancing Small Group Discussions in a Large Lecture with Google Docs and Google Forms

Photo of Mika LaVaque-MantyMika LaVaque-Manty,  Political Science, teaches lecture courses with 100-300 students and several GSIs. He has used Google Docs to foster and monitor small group discussions during class. Students are divided into groups that are either pre-assigned or based simply on where they happen to sit.

Depending on the number of groups and the purpose of the assignment, they may work on a single Google Document or generate one for each group. In either case, only one student in a group serves as a “scribe,” although other students may view the shared document. This way, a student’s lack of a laptop is not a problem, and the number of documents remains manageable. In cases where the entire class works on a single document, the instructors create it, share it with the students, and divide it into sections so that a manageable number of groups (3-5) works on each section. They can then project the collectively produced document so that the class can debrief it together.

Improving Teamwork Through Online Synchronous Discussions

Photo of professor Robin FowlerHere is a short video on this teaching strategy.

Robin Fowler, College of Engineering, co-teaches Introduction to Engineering, a course in which student teams design, build, and test products for professional scenarios (e.g., Company X needs a remote-operated vehicle to investigate subglacial life at the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica). Teams need to apply course concepts to evaluate competing designs relative to client-generated objectives and constraints. However, teams often pursue suboptimal designs due to poor group process.

To enable more equitable and conceptually sound design decisions, Fowler shifted team meetings from face-to-face discussions to synchronous, text-based online discussions, during which team members are geographically dispersed. Fowler creates a Google Doc for each team, including each student’s individual project idea and a decision-making matrix to be completed as a team. Students simultaneously access these materials and negotiate decisions at preordained times using the commenting and chat features in Google Docs.

Effectiveness of Cooperative Learning, Group Work, and Team Work

Strategies for Developing Students' Group Work Skills in the Laboratory Class

Portions adapted from Kerner (2009); Black, Gach, & Kotzian (2007); Chadwich (1989); Winter, Lemons, Bookman, & Hoese (2001)


Your students will do most of their experiments as a member of a team where they will be expected to combine and compare data.  Research on learning has shown that students learn better, develop interpersonal skills, and enjoy a course more when they work in a group-learning environment. In addition, teamwork typifies real-world science better than independent learning.  Team learning does not mean that students simply work side by side on a problem, or the best student works while the others watch. Rather, a well functioning group has interdependent team members who effectively communicate ideas, interact around questions, analyze data, and problem solve together. Your job as an instructor is to help students learn how to work in a team and to mediate learning difficulties. This section will provide skills specific to the laboratory class. See Guidelines for Using Groups Effectively for more information on working with student group work and teams in classroom instruction.