Informal Groups

Informal Task Structure

Informal cooperative learning utilizes temporary, ad-hoc groups that work on tasks/activities for a time frame from a few minutes to one class period. It can be an effective supplement to lecture, allowing learners to process information, and is often an essential part of or used in conjunction with classical active learning techniques.

Johnson DW,  Johnson RT,  Smith KA (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 25, 85-118.  Johnson et al. review the literature on the benefits of cooperative learning and the operationalization of formal cooperative learning and informal cooperative learning.  Formal cooperative learning involves students working together toward common learning goals on common assignments. The learning goals, assignments, and needed skills are defined by the instructor, as are the size and structure of the group, and the interaction lasts from a single class period to multiple weeks. In informal cooperative learning, ad-hoc student groups work together toward a common learning goal for a shorter period (a few minutes to a class period).

Kagan S (2014). Kagan structures, processing, and excellence in college teaching. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25:3 &4, 119-138. Kagan et al. discuss data that shows that students do not pay attention for long stretches during a lecture. Instead they switch between on-topic attention and off-topic thoughts in ever shortening cycles throughout the lecture. In fact, during every activity while we are awake, our mind wanders on average 30% of the time.  This is even worse in familiar situations like sitting in a lecture. The literature shows that lectures will produce more learning if they include frequent short processing activities that use student interaction.  Processing of information can clear out working memory, store information in long-term memory, increase attention, and improve recall.  Interactive (group) processing is superior to individual processing, especially when carefully constructed.  Kagan proposes four principles to employ processing with groups: positive independence, individual accountability, equal participation, and simultaneous interaction.  Kagen then details a couple of methods that adhere to these principles.

Brame C (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.  This guide describes defines active learning and reviews some of the literature demonstrating its efficacy. It also provides descriptions of more than a dozen approaches to active learning, most of which are well-adapted for informal group work.

Example Tasks

Instructors who are new to group work or need a more flexible approach may try implementing case studies, group discussions on clicker questions, or the think-pair share technique.

Case Based Learning (CBL)Clicker Question DiscussionsThink-pair share & jigsaw

Case studies are a very flexible pedagogy that covers a broad choice in implementation techniques and styles.  Case studies can be small, interspersed vignettes of a case, could span an entire or multiple classes, and could also be used with permanent groups in a more formal cooperative learning.

National Center for Case Based Teaching in Science (NCCTS) Contains peer-reviewed cases, teaching notes, and answer keys covering a broad range of scientific topics that are searchable by subject and education level. The teaching resource section also has links to essays about different case structures, teaching with cases, and writing cases.

Herreid, CF (2007). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press. Compilation of essays about different case structures, teaching with cases, and writing cases.

Lundeberg MA, Kang H, Wolter B, delMas R, Armstrong N,  Borsari B,  Boury N, Brickman P, Hannam K,  Heinz C, Thomas Horvath T, Knabb M,  Platt T,  Rice N,  Rogers B, Sharp J,  Ribbens E,  Maier KS,  Deschryver M,  Hagley R, Goulet T, Herreid CF,  (2011). Context matters: Increasing understanding with interactive clicker case studies. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59, 645-671.  This research study used an experimental randomized Solomon design across 11 institutions, to test learning gains comparing cases delivered in large lecture classes with clickers to a standard lecture format. They found that Clicker Cases increased student understanding more than PowerPoint lectures in large introductory biology classrooms, although there was variation across institutions and topics.

Clicker questions use audience response devises (low tech cards, specific dives, or smart phones) for students to answer questions interspersed in a lecture.  After individual response to a question, the instructor can invite students to work in groups to discuss their reasoning for picking a specific answer and then the group can revote on the answer.

  • To enable group work, make any questions used challenging enough to need groups to work together.  Avoid simple recall questions.
  • Try implementing a random call to report on their discussion.
  • Avoid showing the histogram of responses to clicker questions before the group discussion.

Knight JK, Wise SB, Sieke S (2016). Group random call can positively affect student in-class clicker questions. LSE 15, 1-11. Knight et al note that benefits from in-class clicker questions derive in part from peer discussion, and here they investigate whether modifications to the peer instruction approach could impact student-student interaction. Specifically, they asked if “volunteer call” and “random call” student reporting produced different discussions surrounding clicker questions. In both cases, student-selected, persistent groups of 3-4 were used. The results suggest that a higher proportion of discussions in the random call condition contained exchanges of reasoning, questioning, and both on- and off-topic comments compared with discussion in the volunteer call condition.

Levesque AA (2011) Using Clickers to Facilitate Development of Problem-Solving Skills. LSE 10, 406–417. Levesque used clicker questions to increase the ability of students to solve inheritance problems in a genetics course.  Multiple questions on the same topic/skill were used to encourage practice.  The paper text includes some example questions.  Between the individual response and subsequent questions students discussed their answers with others in small groups or as a class. Clicker question participation (not clicker question correctness) correlated with improved grades on the exam that included inheritance.  Levesque concluded that the attempt to solve problems in class allowed students to solve problems on the exam.

Perez KE, Strauss EA, Downey N, Galbraith A, Jeanne R, Cooper S (2010). Does Displaying the Class Results Affect Student Discussion during Peer Instruction? LSE 9(2), 133-140. Perez et al. compare two sections of a single course where one section was showed a histogram of individual clicker answers and another section where they didn’t show a histogram of answers.  Both sections discussed the question in a group and then re-voted on the correct answer. Students who saw the histogram were 30% more likely to choose the most common answer on the re-vote, indicating that displaying class consensus introduced some bias.

Think-pair share is a technique that prompts students to reflect on the question and come up with an answer individually, discuss the question/solutions with a partner, and then report your findings to the class. In the jigsaw approach, groups of students work in a team to become experts on one segment of new material, while other “expert teams” in the class work on other segments of new material. The class then rearranges, forming new groups that have one member from each expert team. The members of the new team then take turns teaching each other the material on which they are expert.

Tanner KD (2009). Talking to learn: Why biology students should be talking in classrooms and how to make it happen. LSE 8, 89-94. Tanner reviews the literature on the importance of student talking for engagement and learning in class. She identifies potential barriers to student discussion in class and offers solutions. Importantly, the article describes the classic, easy-to-implement informal cooperative learning approach called the think-pair-share.

Tanner K, Chatman LS, Allen D (2003). Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Cooperative Learning in the Science Classroom—Beyond Students Working in Groups. LSE 2, 1-5. Cooperative learning is defined in contrast to competitive and individualistic learning and provides benefits ranging from increased academic achievement to improved attitudes toward science. This article describes five essential elements of effective cooperative learning and specific approaches that instructors can take to use cooperative learning in their classes, including the classic informal cooperative learning approach called the jigsaw.

Return to Map

Cite this guide: Wilson KJ, Brickman P, Brame CJ. (2017) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Group Work. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from
  • Your feedback helps improve the site