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Center for Faculty Development

Using Group Work to Foster In-Class Connections

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Benefits of Group Work

Group work, also known as collaborative or cooperative learning (Johnson et al., 2014), can enhance the learning experience in your class. Moreover, research highlights that several outcomes resulting from group work, such as greater achievement, positive relationships, and social competence, are factors that have been found to promote students’ success and persistence in higher education (Astin, 1993; Tinto, 1993). Sharing the benefits of cooperative learning with students may increase their buy-in to the process as well as assuage fears about collaborative work.

  • Students participating in group work learn more than students working independently. Several meta-analyses on cooperative learning in higher education have found that cooperative learning relates to several important outcomes. A meta-analysis by Springer, Stanne & Donovan (1999) focused on outcomes for students in undergraduate STEM courses. They found that students who participated in cooperative or collaborative learning had higher achievement, more favorable attitudes toward the material, and greater persistence (both in courses and academic programs) than students who did not use cooperative learning. Similar results were found in a more recent meta-analysis by Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (2014). Their findings showed that students participating in cooperative learning had greater individual achievement and greater positive attitudes towards learning than students engaged in individual or competitive learning.
  • Group work leads to better social outcomes. The meta-analysis on cooperative learning by Johnson et al. (2014) also found a number of social outcomes linked to participating in cooperative learning experiences. Students engaging in these experiences reported greater quality of relationships with peers on campus, including increased interpersonal attractiveness, cohesiveness, and trust, across students with different cultural backgrounds (e.g., ethnicity, language, social class, gender, and ability). Higher perceived social support from peers and faculty and higher self-esteem. Similarly, Springer et al. (1999) found that small group learning was related to increases in self-esteem and motivation.
  • Group work builds important career-relevant skills. Facilitated group work allows students opportunities to practice and develop skills in effectively communicating ideas and information, collaborating and being accountable to others, and building professional relationships— all skills that are necessary for success in any career. As such, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (2022) include both teamwork and communication among the eight career readiness competencies for college graduates that can be developed through group work.

Considerations and Suggestions for the Use of Group Work

While scholars have noted the use of team-based or group work continues to increase (Colbeck et al., 2000; Hansen, 2006), they also note that students lack assistance with understanding the rationale and process on group work that leads to students being unprepared to work in teams (Hansen, 2006). Literature on collaborative learning and team-based projects provides some guidance on how to facilitate this process to lead to success.

  • Make decisions on the parameters of the group work. Instructors should articulate the learning objectives that are to be met with cooperative learning. This should be both the academic and social skills that may be developed as a result of group work. Decisions about the size of groups, group assignment, and the duration of the group work should also be specified (Johnson et al., 2014).
  • Share expectations with students. Multiple scholars highlight that sharing clear expectations for group work and the process makes for a better experience (Bacon et al., 1999; Hansen, 2006, Johnson et al., 2104). Sharing all aspects of the group work is needed, which should include the learning objectives, assignment guidelines, and the methods of evaluation. Providing details on the process that groups should undertake to complete the work also leads to improvement in group processes (Bacon et al., 1999). Sharing research on the benefits of group work also can help to overcome student resistance to collaborative learning (Stover & Holland, 2018).
  • Group Assignment and Composition. In evaluating outcomes associated with group work in STEM classes, Springer et al.’s (1999) meta-analysis examined outcomes moderated by group assignment procedures. Few differences in achievement or attitudes based on group assignment were found, suggesting that random, non-random, and self-selection assignment to groups may lead to similar outcomes. Yet, some have found that students in self-selected groups report more positive group dynamics (e.g., communication, accountability, enthusiasm) but report using their time less effectively than randomly assigned groups, despite no differences in overall quality of their work (Chapman et al., 2006). Related to racial and gender composition of groups, a meta-analysis by Springer et al. (1999) found that groups that were exclusively comprised of African America or Latino/a students had higher achievement that racially heterogenous or predominately White groups. Globally, there were no differences in achievement based on the gender composition of groups (Springer et al., 1999).
  • Group formation. For longer team projects, Hansen (2006) suggests it may be helpful to teach students about the stages of group development, such as Tuckman’s (1965) group development sequence that includes the stages of forming (group creation and focus on acceptance), storming (rising conflict over expectations, roles, and leadership), norming (development of cohesion and trust), and performing (peak performance with high commitment to the group, and trust). Keying in on these stages may help students to understand what they can expect as their group develops to be able to anticipate challenges ahead. Given this, initial work in groups may be better if completed in class to ensure students’ foster connections with their group members and work through conflict in expectations and roles). This also allows the instructor to monitor these initial interactions to ensure that groups start to build cohesion and trust through the initial stages of group development.
  • Assign group members roles. Making sure that group members all are assigned specific roles can help combat social loafing (Hansen, 2006), but also facilitates positive interdependence. Positive interdependence is the perception that your success is linked with group members, and your work benefits others in your group and vice versa (Johnson & Johnson, 1992). Personal accountability for specific tasks or roles in the group aids in creating positive interdependence in the group (Johnson et al., 2014). Instructors may create roles that are relevant to the learning objectives of the group work and required tasks. Common roles may be leader, recorder, time-keeper, and critic for shorter-term group work. It is important, however, that the rewards (e.g., grades) match the type of tasks assigned to promote motivation and higher performance. For example, individual tasks should be individually rewarded, while tasks that require more interdependent work among group members should offer group rewards, such as assigning the same grade for all group members (Bacon et al., 1999).
  • Solicit and provide group feedback at multiple points. Providing multiple points of feedback allows group members the opportunity to improve their performance over the life of the group (Davis, 1992). Peer evaluations provide the instructor with valuable feedback on both individuals’ performance but also on the group’s cohesion and may help deter social loafing (Johnson & Smith, 1997) and provides students more feelings of control over their efforts (Huddleston, 2003).

See an example from MKT 322 (coming soon)

  • Provide opportunities for reflection on the group process. Whether placed at the mid-point and/or end of the group’s lifecycle, having students reflect on the learning process that occurred using collaborative learning can be beneficial.

Further Reading

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in University Teaching, 25(4) 1-26.

Hansen, R. S. (2006). Benefits and problems with student teams: Suggestions for improving team projects. Journal for Education for Business, 82,11-19.

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