TEACHING NOTES: Groupwork – getting started easily

Groupwork is a foundational part of our face-to-face teaching in higher education. Even in the online space we search for opportunities and strategies to allow students to work together. This is, in part, because it’s what we have always done. However, groupwork is an integral strategy in many of the learning theories we use to underpin our students’ learning. Social learning theories posit that we learn with and from each other. Constructivist theories suggest we make meaning based on previous knowledge, and one of the strategies we use for students to do this is to share knowledge. Cognitivist theories of learning look in part at relationships and patterns in knowledge and learning and again, discussion and unpacking of ideas helps students to make sense of the information presented.

However, from a more pragmatic perspective, there are few professions where we are not required to work with others. In recognition of these workplace requirements, our graduate qualities include producing graduates who are collaborative, communicate effectively and connect across boundaries – arguably, all outcomes that benefit from students engaging in effective groupwork.

Often students are thrown into high stakes groupwork (i.e. assessed groupwork) with no real idea as to how an effective group is supposed to function, and this can happen at any year level. Not providing students with adequate support in how to work in a group is, of course, a recipe for disaster from both yours and the students’ perspective. No one knows what their roles are, how much they are expected to contribute, how to negotiate with non-participating students, and how to broach the issues they encounter with you. As teachers, we often expect that by the time students have passed their first year, they should know how groupwork works, right?


Unless students have been specifically taught about how groups are supposed to work effectively and what kinds of roles or functions groups should have, then they won’t necessarily know, even in their final year, how to work well in that environment. So consider if you have ever taught your students about the mechanics of working in a group. If you haven’t, chances are no one else has either. If you have, keep doing it because it’s likely you are in the minority.

So, mechanics of groupwork aside (we’ll look at this next month), what can you do to help this process along? Well, using low stakes group activities is one option and this can help a larger group assignment to go more smoothly. Below are some other ideas you might like to try:

  1. Three-card discussion group: This activity is about encouraging equal contribution to group discussions.
    Task – Choose a discussion topic or question. Give each student three index cards at the beginning of the activity. Have the students arrange themselves in a circle. Direct each student to throw one of their index cards into the centre of the circle after they contribute to the discussion. The discussion can only conclude after all members have used all of their cards.
  2. Three-color group quiz: This activity helps students identify what they know, both individually and as a group, in a collaborative, community-building manner.Task – Using a quiz that assesses learning, ask students to complete the quiz in three different colours:
    • black for answering what they as an individual know
    • green for answering what members of the group know
    • blue for answering from the textbook or lecture notes

    Answers can be discussed in class or this task can be done outside of class time.

  3. Team boat exercise: This is great to get students used to giving each other collaborative feedback in a groupwork setting after completion of a group project, but you could use it at the mid-point of a longer project.
    Task – As a group, students must draw a picture of a boat. Everyone in the group must be represented in the picture. Groups must be prepared to explain the rationale behind their drawings to the class. Discussion questions:

    • Why did the group choose to draw their particular type of boat?
    • What group roles were represented in the drawing of the boat?
    • How did drawing the boat illustrate group strengths and weaknesses?
    • Was the group’s boat a good metaphor for how the group functioned? Why or why not?
    • What did the group learn about itself and group members by drawing the boat?

    These ideas are simple, but the inclusion of low stakes activities that involve groupwork help to build cohesion among students, and get them used to sharing ideas and responsibilities before they have the added pressure of assessment.


Barkley, E. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Cox, P. L., & Friedman, B. A. (2009). The team boat exercise: Enhancing team communication midsemester. Business Communication Quarterly, 72, 230-236.

Fluckiger, J., Vigil, Y. T., Pasco, R., & Danielson, K. (2010). Formative feedback: Involving students as partners in assessment to enhance learning. College Teaching, 58, 136-140.

McCann, T. M., Johannessen, L. R., Kahn, E., & Flanagan, J. M. (2006). Talking in class: Using discussion to enhance teaching and learning. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Merriam, S. B. (2007). Traditional learning theories. In Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (pp. 275-297). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stewart, M. (2012). Understanding learning: Theories and critique. In L. Hunt & D. Chalmers (Eds.), University teaching in focus (pp. 3-20). Victoria: ACER Press.

Written by Cassandra Hood
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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