TEACHING NOTES: Group work – next steps for success

In the September newsletter, we looked at the importance of group work and why we need to train students in how to work in groups (Group work – getting started easily). We noted that students will do better when given support in developing the skills to work in a group. Even if they have worked as part of a group before, they probably haven’t done it as part of your classroom or in relation to your expectations and, most importantly, in relation to the assessment requirements of the topic you are teaching. So it’s important to consider some basic but key elements even before you start.

Group work skills include allowing time and opportunities for the group to develop a sense of cohesion (team-building skills) and trust (trust-building skills), and determine what to do when things go ‘pear-shaped’ (conflict-management skills) (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose, & Kimmins, 2014; Natoli, Jackling, & Seelanatha, 2014). It’s important for students to be given agency and a sense of control over their learning within the group so they can learn, develop, and construct knowledge in their own ways (Mamas, 2018). What you expect of them and of the group needs to be clearly explained; so set tasks and expectations need to be appropriate and unambiguous (Natoli et al., 2014). Students also need to know what they should do when things go wrong and have a reasonable understanding of group dynamics (Beccaria et al., 2014). In order to address these issues it’s vital to attend to the mechanics of group work.

The mechanics of group work partly depend on what sort of group work you are planning. Lange, Costley, and Han (2016) discuss group work in terms of students engaging in cooperative learning where students work in groups to help both the group and its individual members learn from each other as well as part of a cohesive unit. They suggest two forms of cooperative learning (aka group work) which are: formal, where the group is set and learning occurs across a number of classes; and informal, where students work in ad hoc groups to complete a small task in one session. The mechanics differ in relation to these two types of group work. Here, we focus on the formal group work model, where students work in groups to complete a task over a number of weeks. In this scenario, the mechanics include ensuring tasks and assessment are appropriate, setting the groups up well (what to think about before you start and how to assign students to groups), establishing appropriate roles, and helping students understand the dynamics of group work. The rest of this post will provide ideas to help you set up the groups so they work well. Other aspects of the mechanics will be covered over the next few posts.

There are a number of things to consider before you start:


  • Why are you using group work as a teaching strategy? How is it relevant to the topic and what the students are required to learn?

‒  Have you explained all of your reasons to students?

  • What norms do you want to establish, and how will you communicate these to your students?

‒  Identify what you expect from students (acceptable behaviours, engagement etc.). Is there anything you will not tolerate?

‒  What can students expect from you? What level of support will you give them? What channels of communication are you intending to use?

  • Are there any OH&S issues students should be aware of? Is any of the material the group will be discussing or reading covering sensitive, or are they going to be working with sharp objects or dangerous chemicals?
  • What sorts of activities will the group be required to do?

‒  Will you include icebreakers (some ideas for ice-breakers were covered last time)?

Time and timing

  • When will students start working in groups?

‒  Will they get to know each other in class first?

‒  How much in class time will be provided and how much work (time) will be required outside of class?

‒  How will you use FLO to help facilitate the group work?

Once you have thought about the questions above, the next thing to think about is how you will assign students to the group. Some of the ways you can do this include:

  • Self-selection – allow students to choose their own groups.
    This can work well but problems may arise if students who are friends all choose the same groups, and it can leave some students feeling left out, especially if they do not know anyone in the class.
  • Random – ask the students sitting near each other to form a group.
    You may run into the same issues as above, because students are sitting near friends.
  • Use FLO to set up the groups.
    This is very similar to random group choice, but you have less control.
  • 1, 2, 3 – involves giving students a number and having all the students with the same number form a group.
    Doing it this way resolves the issues identified by randomly choosing groups or asking students to form their own groups.
  • Opinion – this can be really useful in topics where you are discussing issues which divide people based on their opinions.
    Conduct an exercise to determine what opinions students in the class have on a particular subject. For example, set up corners of the room as strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Then ask students to stand in the corner which aligns best with their response to a statement, such as ‘all courses should include group work’ or choose something specific to your course.
    You can then either set up groups according to the same opinion or divide these responses to ensure the groups are a mixture of opinions by giving students a number (1, 2, 3) and have all the students with the same number form a group.
    It may require careful managing if you are trying to encourage students who are fixed in their ideas to shift and be more open minded. It can be tricky where students who are very vocal about what they think are in groups with students who are less vocal but still fixed.
  • Ability – this can be useful in topics where you have students with a range of abilities. Ask students to line up according to their degree of confidence in explaining what ‘a concept related to your topic’ means. Move down the line and assign each student with a number (1, 2, 3) and ask all the students with the same number to form a group. You should end up with students from both ends of the spectrum in each group.

The next steps involve getting the students started in their groups. These are discussed in the next few sets of teaching notes.


Beccaria, L., Kek, M., Huijser, H., Rose, J., & Kimmins, L. (2014). The interrelationships between student approaches to learning and group work. Nurse Education Today, 34(7), 1094-1103. doi:10.1016/j.nedt.2014.02.006

Lange, C., Costley, J., & Han, S. L. (2016). Informal cooperative learning in small groups: The effect of scaffolding on participation. Issues in Educational Research, 26(2), 260-279.

Mamas, C. (2018). Exploring peer relationships, friendships and group work dynamics in higher education: Applying social network analysis. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(5), 662-677. doi:10.1080/0309877X.2017.1302568

Natoli, R., Jackling, B., & Seelanatha, L. (2014). The impact of instructor’s group management strategies on students’ attitudes to group work and generic skill development. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 9(2), 116-132. doi:10.1080/1554480X.2014.912519

Written by Dr Ann Luzeckyj
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

Leave a Reply