Group Work and Collaborative Learning

Group Work and Collaborative Learning

Why use group work?

As you think about functional and effective ways to transition collaboration and group work online, consider the primary goals for collaborative learning in your course. For example:

  • Are groups working together to support each other’s learning? To build community? To create a product?

  • How will your assessment(s) reflect the value you place on the group-related parts of the course?


Collaborative learning

Work together to solve a complex problem or produce a creative product.


Share and contribute knowledge about course content.

Formation. Use a survey to assign groups based on student availability.


Communication. Groups meet on their own in a weekly synchronous text chat or video chat.


Shared notes. Students contribute notes with a shared document (synchronous or asynchronous).


Discussion and problem solving. Assign each group a problem or discussion prompt. Groups can solve an individual problem, then share with larger class synchronously or asynchronously.

Communication. Group members record a series of short, asynchronous videos to communicate with each other or post on discussion boards (such as with Piazza, Collab Discussions, or VoiceThread).

Jigsaw. Each group member is assigned a reading or topic. These “experts” teach their topic to their group members with a recorded lesson or assignment that they create (synchronous or asynchronous).

Using this practice, how do I...

create equitable and inclusive learning experiences for my students, particularly in difficult and uncertain times?
  • Be intentional with group formation. In most cases, it is better to assign groups than to let students self-select. Create a Collab/Canvas survey or use a tool like CATME to allow you to group students. If you intend for students to meet with their groups synchronously, use their schedule availability as the primary grouping characteristic. Other characteristics such as interests or familiarity with the topic can be important to consider. Avoid further isolating students who may be marginalized based on their identities.
  • Provide examples of productive and supportive interactions. Explain the importance of individuals’ voices being heard and acknowledge the different lived experiences of group members. Have groups plan for how they will ensure inclusion of group members who may not be able to attend a synchronous meeting or identify when one of their group members is unable to participate due to personal reasons.
  • Assigning roles can alleviate uncertainty and ensure everyone has something to contribute.
acknowledge students as whole people and design for their social, emotional, and intellectual development?
  • Recognize that students will have a range of prior knowledge and experience with collaboration. Don’t assume that they already know how to productively work together. 
  • Enable group members to get to know each other. Use structure assignments or discussion prompts. Remote circumstances make this especially important, as no face-to-face impromptu discussions are possible; all synchronous interactions must be intentionally scheduled.
  • Make use of student motivations. Allow students to decide on acceptable modes of communication and accountability with their group members, such as through group work contracts that they create and agree to.
allow students to make connections and organize their knowledge in meaningful ways, recognizing their prior learning and addressing any inaccuracies?
  • Design opportunities for students to authentically work together. The best collaborative assignments require students to work together on a "group-worthy" task. Use shared slides or documents (like a Google Doc, digital whiteboard, or VoiceThread) where groups of students can collect their thoughts (e.g., synchronously in breakout groups), and then, if applicable, present to the instructor or larger group.
  • Be cognizant of the number of tools students are being asked to use and learn in order to engage in group work. The cognitive energy it takes to engage with the technology may take away from the intended learning.
enable students to acquire and practice skills and receive feedback?
  • Be intentional with activity design. The collaborative activities should align with and enable students to make progress toward the course objectives.
  • Set purposeful, incremental check-ins for groups. This is important, particularly for larger complex assignments, to ensure students are on track. With no opportunities for in-person, informal conversations, these accountability checks are crucial to students' success with the project. These check-ins may also identify any groups or individuals who are struggling.
  • Provide opportunities for group members to give and receive feedback. The feedback should originate from each other and from you and should address both content and group dynamics.
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