10 steps to incorporate effective group work online

Whether students learn online, in-person, or a hybrid of both, group work is an important part of the university learning experience. Not only does group learning expose students to new ways of thinking, but it also teaches students valuable soft skills that will benefit them in their academic, personal and professional life.

That being said, effective group work, particularly when in an online learning environment, is not as easy as pairing students and assigning work. In fact, unless proper steps are taken and student’s individual learning needs are considered, group work can actually detract from student learning. Don’t fear - read on to learn 10 ways to incorporate effective group work online. 

1. Provide structure and set clear expectations

For students to be successful in group work they must have a clear understanding of both what is expected and the mechanics of how group work online will work. By this clarity in multiple ways students understand. For example, go over the expectations in class time where students can ask questions while also providing a written description and outline of the assignment.

Providing structure around group work is also important so that students will be able to easily divide the work amongst themselves. Be mindful of the group size when setting the expectations; if there are more individual tasks involved it makes sense to have more group members, but if there are only 1-2 larger tasks then it is easier to have fewer group members.

2. Having stages and checkpoints throughout the work process

To ensure students stay on track and have an opportunity to receive feedback throughout the process, set checkpoints. This type of assignment format is called staged or scaffolded work, where groups build the final assignment in stages. For each stage, the instructor can engage the groups depending on the class format. For example, for a smaller class, the instructor will be able to check-in with each group during class time to see how they are progressing. For larger classes,  the instructor can address specific questions that are submitted before class, and pair groups together to share their approach and learning. Peer assessment is also an effective strategy to help students iterate through each stage.

Dr. Ellen Pullins, from the University of Toledo has experience incorporating group work with Kritik in her courses.

“Students saw so many examples and had to think critically to decide what is important. On top of that, students were accountable, not only for me but to each other … We created an exercise for students to engage with each other at every point in the [activity] process. Before Kritik, that idea was not viable, and Kritik made it happen."

3. Provide opportunities for groups to share their process and learning with other groups

This process may be built into the various stages, but the objective here is to create cross-group collaboration to expand student learning. During group work, students often think they are confined to their individual group in terms of ideas, inspiration and the direction of their work. Open up the doors to student collaboration and have students share ideas and thinking. The key here is to provide structure, so there is a clear objective for the interaction.

4. Make use of a rubric

Part of the process to set clear expectations should include a rubric. A rubric makes it clear how students and groups can be successful in a given assignment. Students will often use the rubric as a checklist during an assignment to make sure they meet all criteria. 

Co-creating a rubric can be empowering to students by putting them in the driver’s seat of their own learning. Additionally, when they have a say in terms of what elements matter for an assignment they are more likely to be successful in achieving those elements. Keep in mind this approach is best suited to smaller to mid-sized groups. Instructors should only collaborate with the class on certain assignment criteria to ensure a smoother process and consistency among the various work in a course.

5. Use the appropriate group size relative to the scale of work

When it comes to group work, more is not always better. Group size should be reflective of the work required. Start small at first and increase over time to provide students with the opportunity to develop rapport with their peers. Checkpoints and student reflections are a valuable way to get a sense of how students are experiencing group work and to know where corrections or realignments are necessary. No assignment is perfect, however, checking in and seeking student feedback regularly will ensure assignments improve over time. Continual improvement is the benchmark for the success of this and any learning style.

6. Assign pre-work

Particularly for larger assignments, pre-work is an effective way to provide clarity on a course topic and to deliver a method or best approach. The pre-work doesn’t necessarily need to take place within the actual assignment groups. It can be an individual task done during or outside of class time. 

7. Remove competition for grades within the group

As much as possible, it’s important to remove the focus of individual grades of group work. Students should be focused on working together to achieve group success, rather than worrying about securing their own individual grades. Creating strategic working partnerships amongst students can help to avoid ineffective feedback. There are different ways to achieve this, but an important aspect is the assessment design. Ensure the focus is on collaboration rather than individual success. Contract grading is an effective way to establish roles and responsibilities while keeping the focus on group success. With contract grading, students establish rules, responsibilities and timelines for each group member. The group is graded as a whole, but if there is a group member who doesn’t fulfill their individual responsibilities, this becomes clear and this can be addressed on an individualized basis. 

8. Use peer-assessment during and post assignment 

Peer assessment can be used to engage students, enhance learning and encourage iteration throughout the assignment process. Peer assessment can be incorporated through assignment checkpoints, or once the assignment is complete. Kritik is a peer learning platform that helps professors incorporate peer assessment seamlessly into their classes -  large or small. 

Dr. Nada Basir from the University of Waterloo has used peer assessment to facilitate collaborative learning in business pitch assessments.

The students are put into groups, and they need to pitch an idea to the class. Kritik allowed each team to receive feedback from all of their classmates. In other years, students were only getting feedback from me, and students love using Kritik because they receive so much personalized feedback”

9. Reflect on the assignment and identify takeaways

Once the assignment is turned in, it’s important to take time to reflect on the process and identify takeaways. Without these steps, students may fixate on the grade rather than their learning. This reflection is not only beneficial to the students but the instructor can reflect on the process from their own perspective and collect ideas to improve for future assignments.

10. Have students present their findings to the class when applicable

When applicable, it can be an effective culmination of an assignment to students, in their groups, presenting their work and findings. This gives students an opportunity to own their individual sections and the groups can learn from each other. Additionally, having students present to their peers allows them to build valuable life skills. When students know they will be presenting work to their peers, it often motivates them to produce high-quality work. Learning is a multifaceted, interactive, peer-based activity that can be achieved online, using group learning, peer assessment and self-management.

Justin DeMarchi
Content Marketer and Education Consultant