TEACHING NOTES: Group work stages and activities

So far in our series on group work we have considered getting students started and using icebreaker activities; things to consider prior to getting students into groups and various ways to divide them into groups plus potential group roles and tasks. Although this has been mentioned previously, it is important and therefore worth restating: to ensure students have a positive experience when in groups it is necessary to equip them ‘with the skills that they need’ to succeed (Prichard, Bizo, & Stratford, 2006, p. 120). This final article on group work for 2018 revisits the different stages of group work and various activities you can do in tutorials to help prepare students that are related to each stage.

Harris and Watson (1997) suggest there are different types of in-class exercises appropriate to different stages of group work. The stages they discuss are linked to group dynamics or allowing the group to develop their team-building, trust-building and conflict-management skills (Beccaria, Kek, Huijser, Rose, & Kimmins, 2014; Natoli, Jackling, & Seelanatha, 2014).

Table 1 (adapted from Harris & Watson, 1997, p. 405)

Group or skill building stage (different with naming protocols) Type of exercises
Initial stage Orientation Team building Forming Icebreakers
Transition stage Conflict Conflict management Storming Trust building and group understanding
Working stage Emergence Trust building Norming Problem solving
Termination stage Reinforcement Completion Performing Reporting / Feedback

I have successfully trialled a number of activities, with my favourite being think-pair-share (TPS). I particularly like this activity because it works well as an introductory icebreaker activity or as an opportunity to get students to start thinking about how they might approach the problem they are set (develop trust building and group understandings or approaches to a problem). The activities also allow quieter group members to be involved in larger group conversations. There are three steps:

  1. Think – Ask whole class to consider their answers to a particular question OR each group could be asked to consider their answers to different preassigned questions (linked to the group’s assessment).
    The group members need to ponder their responses and write them down, but not discuss them.
  2. Pair – Each person either discusses their answers with the person next to them (pair) OR where you are doing this activity as a whole class exercise, they can share with their whole group.
  3. Share – The pairs share with others in the group and discuss differences and similarities OR the group leader of each group shares with the entire class and you help mediate a discussion about the responses.

I sometimes ask group participants to rank each members’ responses in order of importance or the order in which they would like them discussed in the wider group to give all group members greater agency in how the responses are shared.

If using TPS as an icebreaker I recommend doing it across the entire class as it can help people get to know their classmates as well as the groups they are in. If you are using it to get students thinking about a group assessment, it is better to keep them talking in their groups. The exercise will aid in getting students to think about their group assessment and start them building relationships and working collaboratively. After getting students to share their ideas you may wish to have each group begin assigning tasks among its membership.

TPS is an activity that is included on a number of websites which discuss group activities. The Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo recommends it as one of a range of activities. The following activities would work well in tutorials to aid in development of students’ skills during the ‘transition’ or ‘working’ stages of group work. They also provide you with opportunities to monitor how groups are performing:

  • Snowball groups/pyramids – Supports the generation of considered ideas, aids in narrowing topics and aids in developing decision making skills.
  • Jigsaw – Supports students to gain greater understanding of concepts and teach each other while improving their capacity to work as a team.
  • Fishbowl – Allows group interactions to be observed while providing insights into understanding and opportunities for analysis of ideas.

For more detail about each of these or for further icebreaker activities, visit Group work in the classroom: Types of small groups on the University of Waterloo website.

The final article in our series on group work will cover managing conflict in groups and assessment activities and considerations. It will also provide further links to a range of websites on various aspects of group work.


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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2014.02.006

Harris, S. A., & Watson, K. J. (1997). Small group techniques: Selecting and developing activities based on stages of group development. To Improve the Academy, 378.

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/1554480X.2014.912519

Prichard, J. S., Bizo, L. A., & Stratford, R. J. (2006). The educational impact of team-skills training: Preparing students to work in groups. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(1), 119-140. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709904X24564

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

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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