Collaborative assignments and projects have been identified as one of the high-impact educational practices (HIPS) that have a significant impact on student success.  Group work has the potential to provide students with a number of important learning opportunities: 

  • Learning through conversation with other novices can help students to overcome “bottlenecks” – aspects of a discipline that are consistently difficult for novices. 
  • Group work often requires students to engage in higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • Group work motivates students by giving them more responsibility for their own learning. 

In the video above, Professor Bianchi’s Research Methods students are exploring fundamental questions about research design by working in groups to identify and analyze information about acting awards. 

Image of students working on laptops in groups.
Well-designed group work is necessary because, without certain interventions from the instructor, group dynamics can disadvantage low-status group members.  Professor Bianchi encourages instructors to:
  • thoughtfully design heterogeneous groups.  As students learn how to work collaboratively, engineered groups may no longer be required later in the semester.    
  • encourage students to think reflectively about past and future experiences with group work.   Professor Bianchi’s students brainstorm a Pro/Con list and then work in groups to develop a set of guidelines about how their group will function.  Professor Bianchi does this in the first week of class, and then her students revisit these guidelines and revise them throughout the semester. 
  • instruct students in how to navigate the various skills required in collaborative work.  Early in the semester, Professor Bianchi assigns students specific roles such as Manager (in charge of facilitating the group); Skeptic (in charge of considering alternative possibilities); and Recorder (in charge of organizing the group’s notes and reporting out to the whole class).  Instructors can create other roles that suit the requirements of the class or the activity.  Roles are rotated throughout the semester.  As students participate in these roles, they learn that all of these activities are crucial.  By the end of the course, Professor Bianchi no longer needs to assign the roles because the students have internalized them. 
  • observe groups to ensure that they are functioning appropriately.  Instructors can then intervene in groups that are having difficulty.