Why learn in teams and groups?

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Students learn best when they are actively engaged in the processing of information. One way to involve students in active learning is to have them learn from each other in small groups or teams. Research shows that students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught, retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats, and appear more satisfied with their classes (Davis 1993; Barkley et al. 2005; Mello & Less 2013; Freeman et al. 2014). This may occur because students are motivated in specific ways by group work. For example, group work leverages peer accountability, motivating students to engage because others are counting on them. In addition, group work builds classroom community, which can build the feeling of belonging essential to students’ motivation to learn (Svinicki 2016). Finally, when students work in groups, they “are exposed to other perspectives and alternatives” and “they share and exchange ideas,” (Tang 1998). This is beneficial because students can recognize the complexity of what they are learning and be involved in the construction of knowledge.

Resistance to Group Work

What if you face student resistance to group work? That’s normal! As a starting point, consider the origins of the resistance. Your students may have preconceived notions about how classroom teaching should look based on their prior experiences. That model might involve them sitting passively absorbing information from their instructor. It may take time for them to see the learning benefits that come from their active engagement. You can preempt this resistance with transparency about your learning goals. Before you jump into a group activity or assign a group project, take the time to explain why you chose the group format and what the students can gain from the experience (Svinicki 2016; Seidel & Tanner 2013; Felder 2007).

Some students may be hesitant to join group activities because they have negative experiences with “social loafing,” when some group members do not contribute equally in group work. You can address this concern by building your activities to promote fairness (Seidel & Tanner 2013). Some strategies we will discuss to promote individual accountability in groups include:

  • grading systems
  • individual pre-work
  • peer evaluations
  • group contracts

Of course, designing and implementing a thoughtful, evidence-based group activity or project can have a big impact on students’ opinions of group work. In the following pages, we will discuss how to accomplish this in three contexts of group work: Informal, In-class Group Activities; In-class Group Activities with Standing Groups or Teams; and Project-based Groups or Teams.


Barkley, E., Cross, P., & Major, C. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Felder R.M.(2007). “Random thoughts: Sermons for grumpy campers.” Chemical Engineering Education, 41 (3), 183–184.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Mello, D. and Less, C. A. (2013). "Effectiveness of active learning in the arts and sciences." Humanities Department Faculty Publications & Research. 45.

Seidel, S. B., & Tanner, K. D. (2013). "What if students revolt?"--considering student resistance: origins, options, and opportunities for investigation. CBE life sciences education, 12(4), 586–595. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe-13-09-0190

Svinicki, M. D. (2016). Motivation: An updated analysis (Report No. 59). IDEA Center, Inc.

Tang, C. (1998). Effects of collaborative learning on the quality of assignments. In B. Dart & G. Boulton-Lewis (Eds.), Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (pp. 102–123). Melbourne, Australia: The Australian Council for Education Research Ltd.