Group Work / Collaborative Learning

A significant body of evidence suggests that regardless of the subject matter or content area, students learn more, and retain information longer, when they work in small groups. Students who work in collaborative groups also appear more satisfied with their classes, complete more assignments, and generally like school better.

Collaborative learning provides students an opportunity to work together to complete specific tasks. Sometimes these tasks are developed by the teacher, and other times these tasks are initiated by students. Regardless, collaborative learning tasks offer students an opportunity to work together to solve problems, discover information, and complete projects.

The best collaborative learning tasks allow students to apply what they have learned in a focus or mini lesson, and/or through guided instruction. Less effective collaborative learning tasks are those that are disconnected from the course of study or topic.

Key features of collaborative learning:

  • Positive interdependence. The first feature focuses on the interconnectedness of the learning situation. Each member of the group must be important for the overall success of the endeavor. Collaborative tasks are not simply individual work completed with peers. The structure of the task should require that each member of the group offer a unique contribution to the joint effort. In this way, students consolidate their thinking, explain processes to one another, and learn as they do so.
  • Face-to-face interaction. Students have a number of opportunities to collaborate with one another in the digital and virtual worlds, but it is important that the classroom provide students an opportunity to interact with one another face to face. In these interactions, students should teach one another, check each other's understanding, discuss concepts and ideas, and make connections between the content and their own lives.
  • Individual and group accountability. As noted before, individual and group accountability are critical components of effective collaborative learning. Students must understand the products that are expected from the collaborative learning event. One of the ways to ensure that students remain focused on accountability is to keep the size of the group small. The smaller the size of the group, the greater the individual account ability is likely to be. In addition to individual accountability, groups should be accountable for completing tasks. These tasks can vary from something as simple as rewinding the videotape at the completion of the viewing to something as complex as writing a group summary of the information learned during the lesson.
  • Interpersonal and small-group skills. For groups to work effectively and efficiently, each member must possess and use the requisite social skills. Often, specific skills such as leadership, decision making, trust building, turn taking, active listening, and conflict management must be taught.
  • Group processing. A final feature involves the group members themselves discussing their progress and what they might do to improve their productivity or working relationships. This is a critical, yet often neglected, component of

Strategies for collaborative learning:

  • Planning before group work and prior to the lesson:
    • Establish norms and routines for collaboration so that group work becomes a habit (including roles during group work)
    • Provide a basis for self-assessment (a rubric) describing effective group work, orient students to the criteria
    • Plan group work as part of a cohesive lesson structure. Plan tasks that are worthy of group work (sufficiently interesting, challenging, and complex). See types of tasks below.
    • Plan groups purposefully (see flexible grouping). You might organize groups heterogenously or homogenously by interest, academic skill level, collaborative skill level, multiple intelligences, or by allowing choice of different tasks.
    • Develop a graphic organizer to guide group work.
  • Before group work in the lesson:
    • In the lesson (especially in the mini-lesson of the workshop model or the modeling phase of a 5 part lesson structure) provide sufficient background knowledge, needed skills, or other guidance necessary for engaging in the collaborative work.
    • Clarify roles for each group member during group work
    • Clarify the task and expected outcomes
    • Remind students of the procedures for effective group work
    • Clarify the time allotted for group work
  • During group work:
    • The teacher may use group work as an opportunity to provide intensive support to a specific group of students while other groups work independently (i.e. guided reading in the reader's workshop). This can also be an opportunity for differentiated instruction - providing the teacher an opportunity to reteach concepts that some groups of students did not master in prior lessons.
    • If the teacher is going to engage with students during group work as opposed to working intensively with one group, the teacher has two main roles during group work, coaching and formative assessment:
      1. Coaching: As a coach during collaborative work, the teacher seeks to provide feedback on performance that helps students see their current level of work, understanding, knowledge or skills and directing them towards the next level of effectiveness. The goal is that group functioning and student learning improves over the course of the group work based on teacher feedback. Some tips:
        • Rounds: Make an effort to visit each group briefly in rounds, distributing the coaching and ensuring that each group gets attention and guidance.
        • Redirect: There is a tendency for teachers to spend the first several rounds of checking in with groups on focusing them on the task ("Where are you?" "What number are you on?" etc.). Instead, redirect students to content ("What is the setting of the piece?"). Redirecting students to the content serves the same function as redirect them to the task, but it fosters a learning orientation rather than a compliance orientation.
        • Provide feedback: Feedback is one of the most powerful tools for student improvement. Very briefly tell students what you are currently seeing and some guidance on how they can improve.
        • Interim Goals: Leave a group with a next step that pushes their performance, knowledge, or understanding forward from where they are ("I'm going to make a round of the groups and I'll be back to you in about ten minutes, when I get back, I would like to hear your groups thinking about..."). Again, avoid giving task/compliance oriented guidance (do not say, "I would like to see your group on #3").
        • Additional instruction: Either using the "catch and release" method for the whole class (see the workshop model) or with individual groups, the teacher can use group work as an opportunity to clarify concepts, provide additional insights, respond to need to know questions, etc. Teachers should exercise caution that the additional instruction does not turn student centered group work into defacto teacher centered instruction.
        • Time checks: Provide a countdown clock, provide progress warnings ("we have x minutes left, if you haven't moved on to y part of the task you need to make the transition).
      2. Formative Assessment: Group work also provides the teacher an opportunity to collect evidence of student learning by listening, making notes, and gathering other information. Effective assessors take advantage of student work time to allow students to do the work while the teacher makes observations about what students know, can do, and understand. The teacher may use this information to provide realtime feedback or instruction (see coaching above), identify themes that inform future lessons (i.e. the teacher may realize that students as a whole are struggling with a particular concept and that may become the basis for a future lesson or mini-lesson), or to identify differentiated needs (i.e. the teacher may notice that a sub-group of students is struggling with a concept or is in need of a greater challenge, and may use this as the basis for future grouping or tasks). Tips:
        • Use a clip board: It is very difficult to monitor and remember each students learning through informal observation. Develop a clip board method that lists each students name and the outcomes - providing you a structure for evaluating and tracking student progress towards the outcomes. (see, for example, this sample Formative Assessment Data Collection tool).
        • Avoid points and grading: While it is tempting to use grading or points as an accountability tool during group work, this tends to undermine effective group work. Collaborative work should be considered practice. Well structured tasks should involve risk taking, failure, and improvement. To foster these, it is important that "getting the right answer" or "getting a reward" are de-emphasized in favor of genuine engagement in learning. There are other ways to measure knowledge/skills demonstration (culminating projects, tests, etc.) and group work should be considered preparation for those demonstrations. If you wish to include collaborative work as an outcome, consider ways to assess this while distinguishing practicing/improving collaborative skills from evaluating collaborative skills.
    • Provide a warning to groups that the work time is coming to an end and that they should consolidate their thinking and prepare for the debrief/closure phase of the lesson
    • Provide an opportunity for groups to self-assess their performance.

Types of tasks student may engage in during collaborative learning:

  • Summarizing is a brief written or oral review of the main points of the text. Text can be summarized across sentences, paragraphs, or the selection as a whole. When students first use reciprocal teaching, they are typically focused on sentence- and paragraph-level summaries. As they become skilled with procedures, they begin to summarize at the paragraph and passage levels.
  • Questioning focuses students on inquiry and investigation. As students generate questions, they identify the type of information that is important enough to provide the basis for a question. They then pose this information in question form to their peers. During the questioning portion of a reciprocal teaching discussion, students often answer each other's questions and thus engage in conversations that extend beyond the text. Over time and with modeling and practice, students can be taught and encouraged to generate questions at many levels of complexity. For example, students might learn to ask the four types of questions common in question-answer relationships, including "right there," "think and search," "author and you," and "on your own."
  • Clarifying is a metacognitive activity in which students learn to notice things that they don't understand. During the discussion about the text, they ask for clarification on components of the text that blocked their comprehension. Early in the use of reciprocal teaching, students often seek clarification on individual words. Over time, they will also clarify ideas that confuse them, missing background information that others might have, and unfamiliar experiences discussed in the text. In addition, with modeling and practice, students will incorporate another comprehension strategy—visualizing—into their clarifying. One of the ways that readers clarify confusing information is to "make a movie" in their mind as they read.
  • Predicting is a process of making an educated guess, based on the best information available, about what might happen next. To make predictions successfully, students must activate both background and prior knowledge, pay attention to what the author has said, and make inferences. Predicting also keeps readers engaged with the text as they want to read further to determine whether their predictions are correct.


Cohen, E. G., Lotan, R., Scarloss, B., Schultz, S. E., & Abram, P. (2002). Can groups learn? Teacher College Record, 104(6).

Cohen, E. G., & Lotan, R. A. (2014). Designing groupwork: Strategies for the hetergeneous classroom (Third ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Cohen, E. G. (1994). Restructuring the Classroom: Conditions for Productive Small Groups. Review of Educational Research, 64(1), 1-35. doi:10.2307/1170744

Fisher, Douglas; Frey, Nancy (2010). Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Everlove, S. (2009). Productive group work: How to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd Edition. Columbus, OH: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Tompkins, P., & Ward, C. (2016). Teaching to learner differences knowledge brief. Lebanon, NH: Upper Valley Educators Institute.

For more see:

  • Closing group work: