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Handling Problems with Groups

What is group work?
Ideal Assignments
Helping Students Get Started
Learn More

First of all, what exactly is group work?

Group work is “a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, specific performance goals, a common working approach and mutual accountability” (Oudtshoorn, G., & Hay, D. 2004).

Why do we engage in group work?

It is important to recognize the classroom, with the exception of labs and field work/trips, is a closed session, apart from the real world and experiences that follow. Student involvement in actual disciplinary practice is a challenge, even at a learn-by-doing university. A major learning outcome for students is to know how to do the disciplines their professors teach and to apply that knowledge outside the university in their daily lives. Cooperative learning provides students an opportunity to engage in positive interdependence and individual accountability which are skills needed for productive group research. Group projects offer an impetus for real world problem solving by putting students in situations similar to that of their professors. Real world questions that arise in group projects encourage students to make the types of decisions required of them outside of the classroom. There are some aspects of group work that we all despise, but that does not mean students will not effectively learn the course content and develop their interpersonal skills.

Tips for Designing Excellent Group Work Assignments

Get started by having students engage in a synchronous group activity such as singing or dancing. Activities such as these create a social bond where students are more likely to cooperate in future tasks (Wiltermuth and Heath 2009).

Projects should ask complex questions that require students to analyze multiple pieces of evidence, use concepts derived from that discipline, and reach a consensus after weighing each other’s arguments. Sufficiently complex projects encourage students to draw from each other’s knowledge and skills, making students dependent on one another.

Ideal assignments

  1. Create Interdependence: Limit resources, assign roles, and create shared goals that can only be completed through effective communication.
  2. Emphasize the Practical Importance of Strong Teamwork Skills.
    1. Address negative/incorrect preconceptions about group work.
    2. Teach and reinforce conflict resolution skills.
  3. Build in Individual Accountability: In order to evaluate your students understanding and mastery of the subject, it may be necessary to develop criteria for assessing their learning.
    1. Quizzes, independent write-ups, weekly journals, etc.
    2. Individual submissions - you may request your students to write a summary of the project. The process from start to finish could emphasize their decision making process, the challenges the group came across, a synthesis of lessons learned, and a description of each student's’ contributions.
    3. Individual accountability helps remove the “free rider” phenomenon from group projects.
    4. Self-evaluation, as proposed by (Hoover 2002), in four general areas: substantive, procedural, interpersonal, and ethical.
    5. Peer assessments allow group members to rate each other on areas such as leadership, organization, ideas/suggestions.

From Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center

Helping Students Get Started

  • There is a process through which students collaborate to create their finished work.
  • The four R’s of process
    • reason (why you are completing the assignment)
    • roles (different responsibilities of group members)
    • rhythm (flow within group work)
    • response (explicit reflection)                           (Mallard 2002)
  • Notify students of common difficulties.
    • Most students will have an assortment of experiences with doing group work and will be aware of the many challenges you will bring up. It is still best to address some of the pitfalls that can occur - time constraints, gathering of research materials, preparing for presentations etc.
    • Allow some class time to work on group work/use available technology.
  • Share expectations.
    • Clearly explain the parameters of the assignment. (Carnegie)
    • Clarify what students can/cannot do.
    • Have a clear grading system.
    • Be open to providing rubrics beforehand.
    • Have examples.
    • Set deadlines to examine progress.
  • Provide a forum where students can voice their preconceived notions on the effectiveness of group work.
    • If students are voicing negative or inaccurate notions on group work, you may want to mold your assignment by providing clear deadlines. Breaking down the project into steps may help groups become more organized.
    • Sometimes students suffer during group projects because their own strengths are not being utilized. It may be necessary to encourage students to begin by reevaluating their skills and weaknesses among group members to consider which skills they can use to contribute most to the completion of the project.


  • The dominating group member
    • Speak to the class about the pros/cons of dominating members.
    • Allocate group roles.
  • Tasks not being completed by the deadline
    • Have students submit progress reports.
    • Encourage group members to work together to complete assignments on time.

Learn More about Handling Problems with Groups

Getting Started


  • A case study on student perceptions of group work indicated that, of the total respondents, 73% felt group learning contributed to an increased understanding of the subject material (Oudtshoorn et al. 2004).
  • A study on learning outcomes from cooperative versus competitive tasks reported cooperative environments as the overarching impetus for higher quality individual problem solving (Qin et al. 1995).  
  • Another study assessing competitive and cooperative learning situations reports higher student development of social skills in cooperative rather than competitive or individual spaces (Johnson and Johnson 1989).
  • A study described how acting in synchrony with others can lead to cooperation between group members which mitigates the free rider problem (Wiltermuth and Heath 2009).

Literature Cited

Johnson, D., and R. Johnson, Cooperation and Competition, Theory and Research, Edina, MN:Interaction Book Company, 1989.

Mallard, K. S. 2002. Group work that works. The Teaching Professor 16(8):4.

Oudtshoorn, G., & Hay, D. (2004). Group work in higher education: A mismanaged evil or a potential good? South African Journal of Higher Education.

Qin, Z., Johnson, D., and Johnson, R., “Cooperative Versus Competitive Efforts and ProblemSolving,” Review of Educational Research, Vol. 65, No. 2, Summer 1995, p. 129.

What are best practices for designing group projects? - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2015.

Wiltermuth, S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony And Cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1-5. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x