Building Effective Groups

In today’s Higher Ed Classrooms, it is becoming common for professors to build in group assignments into their syllabus or lectures/instructions. Group work is often seen as a way to get students to participate and engage actively with class discussions. The big question, however, is—does making students work in a group in itself enhance learning? Are there principles that guide grouping for instruction? When and how can grouping be used effectively?

First Things First: You need to be clear about the purpose you are trying to achieve and whether grouping will help serve that purpose. Don’t use groups because everyone is using it in their classroom or because you just want to try out new things.

Learning Outcomes: You must be clear about what you expect the group to achieve—is there a learning outcome you are trying to achieve for which groups are most suitable? Do you want your students to co-create, refine their collaboration, critical thinking or communication skills, learn peer evaluation/review, develop team spirit and specific people skills, or perhaps embrace new perspectives? The goals for the group work must be clear, well-stated, and known to your students.

Learning Activities: Decide what activities the group will do and how to distribute students into groups. Effective teams or groups are ones in which people work together, share responsibility, make substantive decisions, and work interdependently (ITL Research).

Guidelines and Tips

Plan and Prepare Well

To get the best out of groups, make it part of your syllabus and think through your course goals. Think about your class size and what is possible, choose a classroom that is suitable for group activities where students can sit round, consider whether or not the group work will be in-class or out-of-class, the layout of the classroom, technology tools that can support students in groups, etc.

Group Size and Membership

Let students have equal chances of being in any groups, and group size should be between three and five. Avoid four-member groups as much as possible so that the group does not get polarized into sub-groups of two. Odd numbers are preferable for grouping.

Give Students Choice of Group Activities

Let each group be able to choose among a list of activities. You may ask students to self-select topics or readings or projects that are of interest to them out of a pool you have prepared for their learning.

Set and Discuss Rules Guiding Group Work

Don’t assume students know what to do or how to run a group successfully. Advocate for respectful behaviors and work with your students to come up with workable rules for the group activities.

Be Clear About Expectations and Assessments Criteria

Ask each group to document what roles each member plays in the group work. Make your grading rubrics clear to the whole class. Some professors have also asked that each student write a reflection about roles played by them and other group members in the group work, and to also document their experience in the group.

Helpful Resources

From WSU Libraries

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