Professor Bianchi teaches some of her classes in the University of Iowa’s active-learning TILE classrooms, which have round tables to facilitate group work.  Instructors in other kinds of classrooms can encourage students to manage their physical space by moving desks, chairs, or themselves so that all group members can work face-to-face with every member contributing. 

Students will be motivated to participate when group assignments are deliberately calibrated to require real collaboration.

Groupwork is most appropriate when the task requires higher-level conceptual thinking that requires the skills and ideas of multiple students.

Image of students discussing assignments in small groups.
Individual projects masquerading as group projects can result in a single student either taking over the work or having to pick up the slack from other students.  Collaborative writing is particularly difficult for students (and difficult to grade.) 

Group work conducted during class prevents scheduling issues (especially problematic for students with significant work or familial responsibilities), or concerns about students simply parceling out parts of the project without any real collaboration.

Professor Bianchi encourages instructors to give thoughtful instructions for group activities.  Students may need to be taught how to interact effectively as a group with discussion – rather than simply engaging in majority-rules voting or dividing up parts of the activity with no communication.  Assigning students certain roles (such as Skeptic, Reporter, and Manager) early in the semester can help students learn to use all of these skills as a group member. 

During group work activities, students benefit when instructors use open-ended questions about process, obstacles, and next steps. Simply stopping by to ask “how are things going?” usually does not encourage students to engage with the instructor.

Professor Bianchi explains the importance of observing groups and intervening in groups that are not functioning well.  If a group is ignoring the useful comments of one individual, the instructor can “assign competence to low-status students” by explaining why the student’s contributions were valuable, which alters the group dynamic for the future.  

Some instructors emphasize the importance of students’ individual preparation through a “readiness assurance” test or quiz that students complete individually before engaging in groupwork. 

Most scholars and practitioners recommend assigning a significant portion of a students’ grade to the student’s own individual work.  Some instructors ask for student input in determining the ratio. 

Reflective writing and other exercises in which students assess each other’s and their own contributions can help students to process the experience and improve for the next time.