Group Work

Many students hate group work.... and they often have valid reasons. Invariably some students do all the work and others just mooch on the hard workers. The good students don't want to carry the slackers, and they definitely don't want the slackers to bring their grade down.

A reality of life is that people have to work together out in the real world. In most jobs, people have to communicate and work with other people... why should the classroom be any different? ....think of it as a life lesson. Daily we all have to work with, and get along with, people who's values are different from our own --- we are diverse. Although trying at times, ironically, diversity of thought is great fodder for great solutions! If we all think the same, wouldn't the world be a boring, unproductive place!

Furthermore, group work facilitates THE major learning outcome for most courses: improved communication skills. When working in groups, students have to communicate! Some students hate the communication aspect of their learning experience: they have grown up in a uni-directional education system where they sit and passively listen. Some student excel in this methodology see Going Solo --- but many do not!

FAIR GRADING: As an instructor, I try and put mechanisms in place to encourage analysis of real-world scenarios and communication and fairness when grading group work. These mechanisms take the form of worksheets, clear instructions and opportunities for 360 degree peer review both by the audience and their peers in the group . Peer feedback is part of overall student grade: for example in one of my classes, participation is calculated thus:

Peer Review of Facilitation Seminar using facilitation rubric (10%)

Quality and content of your Handout and facilitation notes (and presentation, if used) using the Reading Notes rubric (10%)

Thoughtful Active Participation in-class (10%) (using both verbal and written feedback)


Group Size: Research by Hackman and Vidmar (1970) experimented with groups that ranged in size from 2-7 members to assess the impact of size on group process and performance for various kinds of tasks. After the groups had finished their work, they asked participants independently to indicate the extent of their agreement with the following two questions: Question #1- This group was too small for best results on the task it was trying to do. Question #2- This group was too large for best results on the task it was trying to do. The chart below indicates the average answers to these two questions on the same graph. Not surprisingly, few people in the dyad thought it was too large and few in the 7-person group thought it was too small. What is noteworthy is where the two lines crossed; they discovered that the optimum group size was 4.6 members.

Group Dynamics: When groups of students are formed (no more than 4-6 students per group) remember that time is required until they reach optimum performance: it might help to remember the forming, storming, and norming concept. Thus early in the semester, you may want to include some ice-breaking exercises to build team trust and strength. Also as the facilitator, you should watch for personalities that quash or control

Group Exercises (many of these I use in large classes of #100 students)


A Carousel is a communicative and interactive activity which allows participants/students to get up and move around a room in a circular fashion (much like a real carousel might do), stopping intermittingly to comment, discuss, or respond (verbally or in writing) to probing headings/ questions/topics/themes posted by a facilitator/teacher that is related to a given topic/theme.

Write at least 4-5 headings/questions/topics/themes on chart papers that you will then post around the room/classroom. In a larger class, questions can be doubled/tripled up (i.e. 2 or 3 or 4 x question #1, 2 or 3 or 4 x question #2 etc.) Assign participants/students to collaborative groups, usually by either numbering or lettering off, i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 or A, B, C, D, and E. Each collaborative group is sent to one of the chart papers and asked to review and discuss the posed heading/question/topic/theme. After a brief discussion and sharing, each group is required to write a collective response on the chart. After a set time (say 5 mins) groups then move to the next chart/question, and repeat until they get back to their original chart/question. A collective discussion can end the lesson.

The carousel can also be done on large sheets (11x17) of numbered paper, with the paper moving between groups instead of the groups moving between the papers.

Four Quadrant poster session

Groups of 5-6 students are formed and each is given a large sheet of paper. The paper is divided into 4 squares/quadrants with the following headings (change these as appropriate):

1: The Good/Pros/Positives, The similarities, Paraphrase the theory

2. The Bad/Cons/Negatives, The differences. Historical happenings and influences

3: The take away message(s), The assumptions, limitations and criticisms

4: How it applies to me? Or my worldview

After creating their ‘poster’, the poster is stuck/hung on the wall and a group spokesperson is assigned. This spokesperson stays with the poster and ‘presents’ this poster. The remainder of the group moves to the next group’s poster and hears that spokesperson’s presentation. After a set time, (normally about 1½ -2 mins) the groups rotate again and hear the next presentation. Work around the room as time allows. The spokesperson who stays with the poster gains experience presenting and interacting with a small audience.

The 4 C's

A lot like the four quadrants, but more focused: Connections, Challenges, Concepts, Changes

Image result for 4c's

See for a downloadable handout.

Guided Worksheet combined using Google Docs

Using the underlying format of the Carousel or Four quadrant exercises, groups work together filling out a shared Google Doc that can automatically collate the answers. These collated answers can form the basis of an entire class discussion.

Circle of Voices

This method involves students taking turns to speak. Students form circles of four or five. Give students a topic, and allow them a few minutes to organize their thoughts about it. Then the discussion begins, with each student having up to three minutes (or choose a different length) of uninterrupted time to speak. During this time, no one else is allowed to say anything. After everyone has spoken once, open the floor within the subgroup for general discussion. Specify that students should only build on what someone else has said, not on their own ideas; also, at this point, they should not introduce new ideas (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999).

Comments: Some shy students might feel uncomfortable having to speak. Lessen their fear by making the topic specific and relevant or by giving each person a relevant quote to speak about. A variation to this method, which encourages students to listen more carefully to each other, involves requiring each person to begin by paraphrasing the comments of the previous student or by showing how his or her remarks relate to those of the previous student. For this variation, students will need less preparation time before the “circle” begins, but they may need more time between speakers.

Snowball groups/pyramids

Like a Think/Pair/Share on a larger scale, a snowball involves progressive doubling: students first work alone, then in pairs, then in fours, and so on. In most cases, after working in fours, students come together for a plenary session in which their conclusions or solutions are pooled. Provide a sequence of increasingly complex tasks or questions so that students do not become bored with repeated discussion at multiple stages. For example, have students record a few questions that relate to the class topic. In pairs, students try to answer one another’s questions. Pairs join together to make fours and identify, depending on the topic, either unanswered questions or areas of controversy or relevant principles based on their previous discussions. Back in the large class group, one representative from each group reports the group’s conclusions (Habeshaw et al, 1984; Jaques, 2000).


This strategy involves students becoming “experts” on one aspect of a topic, then sharing their expertise with others. Divide a topic into a few constitutive parts (“puzzle pieces”). Form subgroups of 3-5 and assign each subgroup a different “piece” of the topic (or, if the class is large, assign two or more subgroups to each subtopic). Each group’s task is to develop expertise on its particular subtopic by brainstorming, developing ideas, and if time permits, researching. Once students have become experts on a particular subtopic, shuffle the groups so that the members of each new group have a different area of expertise. Students then take turns sharing their expertise with the other group members, thereby creating a completed “puzzle” of knowledge about the main topic (see Silberman, 1996). A convenient way to assign different areas of expertise is to distribute handouts of different colors. For the first stage of the group work, groups are composed of students with the same color of handout; for the second stage, each member of the newly formed groups must have a different color of handout.

Comments: The jigsaw helps to avoid tiresome plenary sessions, because most of the information is shared in small groups. This method can be expanded by having students develop expertise about their subtopics first through independent research outside of class. Then, when they meet with those who have the same subtopic, they can clarify and expand on their expertise before moving to a new group. One potential drawback is that students hear only one group’s expertise on a particular topic and don’t benefit as much from the insight of the whole class; to address this issue, you could collect a written record of each group’s work and create a master document—a truly complete puzzle—on the topic.

Rotating trios

This strategy involves students discussing issues with many of their fellow classmates in turn. Beforehand, prepare discussion questions. In class, students form trios, with the groups arranged in a large circle or square formation. Give the students a question and suggest that each person take a turn answering. After a suitable time period, ask the trios to assign a 0, 1, or 2 to each of its members. Then direct the #1s to rotate one trio clockwise, the #2s to rotate two trios clockwise, and the #0s to remain in the same place; the result will be completely new trios. Now introduce a new, slightly more difficult question. Rotate trios and introduce new questions as many times as you would like (Silberman, 1996).

Interview or Role Play

Members of the class take the part or perspective of historical figures, authors, or other characters and must interact from their perspective. Breakdown the role play into specific tasks to keep students organized and to structure them so that the content you want to cover is addressed. Preparation work can be assigned for outside of class, so clearly communicating your expectations is essential. Advantages include motivation to solve a problem or to resolve a conflict for the character, providing a new perspective through which students can explore or understand an issue and the development of skills, such as writing, leadership, coordination, collaboration and research.


Engaging in collaborative discourse and argumentation enhances student’s conceptual understandings and refines their reasoning abilities. Stage a debate exploiting an arguable divide in the day’s materials. Give teams time to prepare, and then put them into argument with a team focused on representing an opposing viewpoint. Advantages include practice in using the language of the discipline and crafting evidence-based reasoning in their arguments.


Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Habeshaw, S., Habeshaw, T., & Gibbs, G. (1984). 53 Interesting Things to Do in Your Seminars & Tutorials. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Jaques, D. (2000). Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Improving Group Work, 3rd ed. London: Kogan Page.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No.4. Washington, D.C.: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.

Race, P. (2000). 500 Tips on Group Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.