Skip to content
Notes on Teaching and Learning

How to Make Group Work Work

September 29, 2022
ND Learning

By Emily T. Smith

On the Monday after the second Notre Dame home-game, I foresaw low energy levels among my students. In addition to their regular reading assignments, many of them had spent their weekend working on an upcoming paper. To boost morale, I offered my students the chance to meet outside the classroom for their weekly small-group activity, and they leapt at the chance. I handed each group their assignment and told them to be back in the classroom in 30 minutes sharp.

I initially decided to integrate weekly small-group meetings into my course design, because of research linking positive group experiences to increased student learning and college success. Additionally, group learning helps students learn better by providing opportunities for them to make personal connections with classmates. From the second week of the semester, I have students meet in groups of three or four to review keywords and events, create timelines, and analyze primary sources. They remain in these same small groups for almost two months, changing groups halfway through the semester.  These small groups contribute to my goal of building a collaborative and relationship-rich learning environment.

When I invited my students to take their small-group discussions out of the classroom, I felt confident in their ability to manage their time, moderate their conversations, and stay on task because of how I’ve set up structure within the groups early in the semester. I have students in their small groups trade leadership roles, alternating responsibilities within their small groups. Assigning and rotating group roles—such as facilitator, recorder, spokesperson, and reflector—clarifies student responsibilities, encourages individual accountability, and allows students to strengthen their communication skills. At the end of class, I ask for an analysis of their time together: how would they summarize their work, what learning they will take away from their discussions, and what questions might they still have? This promotes metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking, and increases students’ awareness of themselves as learners and thinkers. Though the students were out of sight and earshot, I still gathered information on their individual roles and their group’s process of learning and working through their assignment.

Even if the small groups had met in the classroom, there is a limit to how much instructor person can monitor student preparedness and equal participation among group members.  Peer feedback and assessment on assignments has been shown to decrease classroom competition and to help students feel more knowledgeable and confident about the assessment process. Peer-assessment can also be used to evaluate the contributions of individual students to their small groups. At the midway and end of the semester, I require students to complete formal group-work assessments. They provide feedback on group members’ timeliness, participation, and willingness to take on leadership roles.  As a bonus, with student evaluation and peer-assessment, I am better able to recognize and address challenges to student learning that might otherwise have been hidden from my view. 

Returning from their small groups, my students looked a little less frazzled than when class had begun. Their submitted work reflected deep conversation and concerted analysis, even without my surveillance. Little did they know that whatever friendly conversations they might have had in addition to their required learning only furthered my goals of fostering a collaborative learning environment.  Having built in an appropriate assessment structure, I trust my students to complete their work and feel confident by giving them independence and ownership over their own learning.


So you want to incorporate small-group learning into your teaching?

  • Divide students into small groups of 3-6
    • Gather information on student personality, background, and learning preferences by administering a survey in the first week of class to build inclusive learning groups. Consider asking questions such as whether students prefer group work to be a collaborative process or whether they would rather divide and delegate responsibilities. 
  • Encourage students to take on different roles and responsibilities within their small groups
    • Have students assign themselves responsibilities of notetaking, timekeeping, class presentation, discussion moderating, etc., and alternate those roles
  • In addition to assessing the content of small-group activities and discussion, provide a means for the group to reflect on their time together.
    • Promote metacognition by requiring students to reflect on their learning and thinking, and on their roles as learners and thinkers, as part of the assessment.
  • Create opportunities for group members to evaluate their own participation and their group-members’ participation
    • Include peer-analysis and self-evaluation to promote inclusive assessment.