hands holding two jigsaw piecesStudents who work in together have opportunities to assess their knowledge of the course content in conversations with other students. They can try out their own explanations and can ask for clarifications in a non-threatening smaller group.

Informal student groups of two or three are great for quick activities. Students may be asked to compare answers during peer instruction or use think-pair-share; see more ideas under Active Learning.  Student groups can be formed quickly (“turn to your neighbor”), and are very useful for quickly assessing student conceptual understanding during the class, as well as giving students an opportunity to find out for themselves what they know during class.


Teams that work with each other over the course of a project or a semester, in addition to practicing with course content, learn about cooperating with others, good communication, and how to understand and incorporate differing viewpoints.

Well functioning teams generally outperform individuals and can effectively address projects that Four jigsaw piecesrequire more knowledge, skills and critical thinking. Providing some scaffolding for students to work effectively in a team will help students.

Task design  Teams should be assigned tasks that are too difficult or time-consuming for an individual student to do on their own. If a task is possible for students to do individually, they will do so and will not learn from collaborating with others. If the task is possible to split up into individual pieces that are later assembled by the group, students will only accomplish their individual piece and will not take advantage of the learning in all parts of the task. Therefore, an effective team task will require input from all students for all parts, and all students should be held accountable.

Assign students into teams  Students can be assigned randomly, but a more effective method is to consider student skills and preparation for the course, and distribute these skills evenly across the team. For suggestions:

Promote interaction  Assigned 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. One way to accomplish this is to assign roles.

Potential roles include:

  • 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.

Hold individuals accountable  Set the expectation that each individual, not the just the group, is accountable for completion of preparation and of the assignments. 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.

Suggestions for assessing team work

  • Create a rubric based on your learning objectives and share this with the students.  Consider soliciting student input on the rubric and on how credit is assigned.
  • Use a “ticket in.” Require students to work individually outside of class (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 class. Students without their ticket do not credit for class work that day.
  • Require a brief, written division of labor report from each group, with a form agreed upon by the students.

Team-Based Learning

Team-Based Learning is an approach to designing a course in which students use course concepts to solve problems in teams that persist and rely on each other through the semester.  See the Learn TBL website,  Team-Based Learning website and the CIT blog for examples.

Further reading about student teams

Ciston, S.  (2014) Building Teamwork Process Skills in Students. The Berkeley Teaching Blog

Pursel, B. (2012)   Working with Student Teams. Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence Self Paced Modules, Penn State University

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

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.

Oakley, B.; Felder, R. M.; Brent, R.; and Elhajj, I. (2004) Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams. J. Student Centered Learning, 2 (1), 9–34. Available online:

Sibley, J. & Ostafichuk, P. (2014). Getting Started with Team-Based Learning Sterling, VA: Stylus.


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