Groups & Team-Based Learning

Students who work in groups learn more than just the course content; they learn important skills about how to cooperate with others to get tasks done, and they learn how to understand and incorporate differing viewpoints into their thought processes.

Group formation
Allowing students to self-select groups or randomly assigning groups can work fine for short in-class activities, but for longer-term projects it’s preferable for the instructor to create the groups. Try to create groups that take into account student skills (usually by mixing high-skill and low-skill students), but fairly distribute work. Try to form groups with odd numbers of students (3 or 5). A general rule of thumb: shorter projects = smaller groups.

If you use Sakai, you can set up a private online discussion for each of your groups or create a Resource folder to share information. You can also use Duke WordPress to allow groups to create a non-course site or create a a sub-site from a the course WordPress site.

Group roles
In formal group work, it’s often valuable to specify group roles, especially when students are group-work novices. Possible roles for group members (it’s not necessary to use all of these roles; choose those that make sense for the group size and purpose):

Facilitator: Responsible for getting the group started, keeping it on task, and involving all members.
Recorder: Responsible for keeping a record of what happens in the group meeting.
Spokesperson/Reporter: Responsible for summarizing group decisions for the larger class.
Timekeeper: Responsible for keeping group on task and on time (particularly with in-class activities).
Reality checker: Responsible for noting group decisions and whether they are realistic.
Devil’s advocate: Responsible for pointing out alternate viewpoints and asking tough questions.
Spy: Responsible for getting info from other groups when appropriate.

Tips to promote strong groups

  • Get group members to interact. Tasks should require consensus or concrete decisions based on analysis of a complex issue. Ideally, tasks require student interdependence – in other words, they can’t do it on their own.
  • Provide space for collaboration. Take advantage of mobile furniture, ask students to physically move around to find space to work together, or find alternate space that allows the group members to be physically proximal and able to have a comfortable discussion. For longer-term projects, also provide a virtual space in Sakai or other online tool, so that they can work seamlessly between face-to-face and online meetings.
  • Make student thinking visible. Provide ways to let groups physically document their work: whiteboards, laptops, big post-its, newsprint, periodic updates and reports on discussion boards, previews of work, etc.
  • Hold individuals accountable. Set the expectation that each individual, not the just the group, is accountable for completion of the task. This may take the form of requiring pre-class preparation before beginning group work, calling on individual students in class to report back to the whole class, collecting individual work or basing a significant part of individual grades on behavior that promotes team success.
  • Foster competition. Depending on your course structure, consider setting up ‘competitions’ for longer term group projects. Provide ‘awards’ based on different aspects of the assignment. For example, ask student groups to create websites that inform the public about global warming. When students present the sites, award the best communication plan, the best design, the strongest content, etc.

Suggested technologies for group work online

Use the Forums with permissions correctly enabled to create private group forums that group members can use to discuss and work on projects. Ask a ‘reporter’ from each group to post to a ‘main’ course forum that everyone in the class can see. Sakai also includes a wiki tool that allows groups to share links and work in a shared space.

Google Docs
Provides a simple, web-based way for students to work collaboratively on papers. As in Microsoft Word, students can see changes made to documents and comments made by others – but because it’s web-based, students can access the document online without emailing or downloading/uploading the document.

Wikis (Wikispaces, Google Sites, etc.)
Several free wikis are now available on the web. Groups can create entire web projects collaboratively building knowledge by pulling resources together, writing and re-writing content, and collectively designing the presentation of information. Wikis can also be convenient tools for groups to use to post updates on other projects, facilitate or schedule group meetings, and share other documents: WikiSpaces, Google Sites, and/or Duke Wiki

Suggestions for assessing group work
Specify and discuss with students the grading criteria you will use based on your objectives, and provide those to students as a rubric. Consider letting students have some input into these criteria before they are finalized, as student control increases the sense of ownership and responsibility the students will have for the group activities. Using rubrics can help better illustrate and communicate your expectations.

Use a “ticket in.” Require students to work individually outside of class on the group assignment (e.g., complete a worksheet, write and/or answer discussion questions) and to bring their individual work to class. This serves as their “ticket in” to the group work. Students without their ticket are not allowed to participate in group work that day.

Require a brief, written division of labor report from each group. How often did they meet? Who was present? Who did what parts of the group project or assignment? This reminds the students who is and isn’t doing their share and gives you information to use when grading.

Allow or ask groups to self-evaluate their group. Ask groups to write or report on how well their group is working. What’s working well? What could be done better?  Include peer input as part of the students’ grades (e.g., perhaps 20% of the grade is determined by peer ratings).

Team-Based Learning
Team-Based Learning is a course approach that makes extensive use of students working in consistent teams. A significant feature of TBL is that it requires students to come to class prepared and ready to actively engage and solve problems. From the Team-Based Learning website:

“Team-Based Learning is a very structured methodology for classroom instruction. It is not adding teamwork to an existing course, but a novel way to re-configure and deliver a course. The primary course objective shifts from content transmission to having the students solve problems using the course concepts. It has a series of instructional steps that synergize for a powerful effect on student learning.”

Further reading about student groups
Davis, B. G. Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams.

Felder, R. (2007). Resources in Science and Engineering Education (website.)

Ledlow, S. (1996). Using Jigsaw in the College Classroom. Arizona State University Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence. Available online:

Michaelsen, L. K., (2002). “Getting Started with Team Based Learning” in Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups, Praeger, Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A. B., and Fink, L.D. eds. (Available to borrow from CIT)



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