Task Structure

Task Features
  • It’s important to consider why you are using group work and how it meets your goals for your students.
    • As when choosing any learning activity, the instructor should articulate learning and skill objectives, considering what she wants her students to be able to do.
    • To help promote student buy-in and promote learning, instructors should share the goals with students and explain how the group work aligns with those goals.
  • Effective group work requires ill-structured problems or high-complexity tasks.
    • If the task is is less complex, groups will do worse than individuals when applying their learning. Tasks that involve recall, definitions, or looking up information shouldn’t be group tasks.
    • High-complexity tasks or ill-structured problems are good group tasks because they benefit from collaboration.
  • The students’ motivation (intrinsic, extrinsic) and the impact that the task has on it are key to success.  Tasks that are interesting to the student can increase student intrinsic motivation.
    • The judicious use of context, like using contemporary issues, can increase student interest.
    • The final product of the group work may also be motivating. Writing an article for publication or for popular press may increase student motivation.
Scager K, Boonstra J, Peeters T, Vulperhorst J, Wiegant F (2016). Collaborative learning in higher education: Evoking positive interdependence. LSE 15, 1-9. Scager and colleagues interviewed students who had participated in significant group projects identified as successful examples of collaborative learning by their instructors. The interviews revealed several design factors and process factors that students identified as important for promoting successful group interaction. Design factors included autonomy, the density and complexity of the task (meaning that it should be complex enough to require input from multiple group members), task relevance, the inherent value of the end product, and group size, with groups of 3 or 4 identified as optimal by students. Process factors included student-led team and task regulation, a sense of positive interdependence, the need for student-student promotive interaction (e.g., discussion, critical questioning), support, and motivation.
Kirschner F, Paas F, Kirschner PA (2011). Task complexity as a driver for collaborative learning efficiency:  The collective working-memory effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology 25, 615-624. Kirschner et al. compare low-complexity and high-complexity tasks for groups and for individuals.  For high-complexity tasks, groups performed better than individuals on genetics inheritance problems and during task-transfer tests. In contrast, for low-complexity tasks, groups performed worse than individuals on task-transfer tests. The authors discuss cognitive load theory and how students working in a group have a distribution advantage for the limited working memory capacity that increases learning for high-complexity tasks.  They also discuss how the cognitive effort involved in communicating information and coordinating group efforts can reduce learning in groups for low-complexity tasks.
Allchin D (2013). Problem- and case-based learning in science: An introduction to distinctions, values, and outcomes. LSE 12, 364-372. Allchin considers the many choices to be made in designing group tasks by comparing several task types. He discusses contextualized vs decontextualized tasks, knowledge-applying or knowledge-generating orientations, open-ended vs close-ended solutions, ill-defined or well-defined problems, single- vs multiple-prospective tasks, and the use of historical vs contemporary issues.  The effects of these pedagogical choices on learning goals and student motivation are discussed.
Schmidt HG, Rotgans JI, Yew EHJ (2011). The process of problem-based learning: What works and why. Medical Education 45, 792–806. Schmidt et al. describe some theoretical models to explain the positive effects of problem-based learning which may be applicable to group work in general.  The situational interest hypothesis states that the problem or task itself can provide motivation for further investigation, increased concentration, and increased wiliness to learn.  They present a literature review showing that a student’s interest over the course of an activity spikes when the problem is presented and wanes as the knowledge gap decreases.  In addition to interest and motivation, the authors discuss the cognitive role of prior knowledge activation and elaboration, or explaining of the problem, and its role in learning.  They suggest that a problem or task should be authentic, be adapted to student’s prior knowledge, promote student discussion, and be interesting.
Formalized Pedagogies

Formal cooperative learning has students work together for an amount of time ranging from one class period to several weeks in order to complete a specific task or assignment (eg. writing a report or solving a problem).  In contrast to informal cooperative learning,  decisions like the objectives of the task, size of group, method of assessment, and roles students will play, are determined by the instructor, who will then monitor and assess group function and task completion.

  • Formalized pedagogies have specific criteria that allow instructors to implement group work
  • The instructor should consider forming a team of instructors, administrators, and/or staff to implement formalized pedagogies to address the inherent difficulties in terms of time and resources.
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. This review describes cooperative learning, its basis in social interdependence theory, and the conditions that produce cooperation: positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, and group processing. The authors provide a meta-analysis of university studies comparing efficacy of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning, reporting moderate to large benefits of cooperative learning for student achievement and other measures. The authors also provide information about implementing this pedagogy, including descriptions and suggestions for formal and informal cooperative learning. They define formal cooperative learning as students working together toward common learning goals on common assignments, where the learning goals, assignments, needed skills, and size and structure of the group are defined by the instructor, and where the interaction lasts from a single class period to multiple weeks. They define informal cooperative learning as ad-hoc student groups working together toward a common learning goal for a shorter period (a few minutes to a class period). The authors conclude by describing ways in which cooperative learning can serve as the basis for other forms of active learning.
Eberlein T, Kampmeier J, Minderhout V, Moog RS, Terry T, Varma-Nelson P, White HB (2008). Pedagogies of engagement in science: A comparison of PBL, POGIL, and PLTL. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36(4), 262-273. Eberlein et al. compare and contrast the student-centered active learning pedagogies of problem-based learning, process-oriented guided inquiry learning, and peer-led team learning, to help instructors decide which approach would be best for specific learning situations. They compare classroom characteristics, the nature of the problem or activity, textbooks and resources, assessment and grading, scalability, outcome assessment, and faculty and student acceptance. Overall, each of these active learning pedagogies that involve problem-solving discussions are more effective than traditional lectures. Instructors should select the most appropriate pedagogy based on these factors.
Michaelson LK, Davidson N, Major CH (2014). Team-based learning practices and principles in comparison with cooperative learning and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 57-84. Michaelson et al. discuss strategies to effectively teach large groups of students a wider variety of knowledge and skills. In team-based learning (TBL), students are actively engaged in solving problems in groups using course concepts. TBL activities are designed so that every aspect fosters the development of self-managed teams.  The authors assert that TBL is different from cooperative learning (CL) or problem- based kearning (PBL)  because TBL is a clearly defined set of practices and principles in which the teams are self-managed and every activity and assignment must include immediate performance feedback, while CL and PBL include a much larger range of practices for using group work.
Problem-Based Learning (PBL)Team-Based Learning (TBL)Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL)Case Based Learning (CBL)Peer Lead Team Learning

Problem Based Learning (PBL) uses study problems to engage students in the material and provide motivation for learning.  The problem is generally ill-structured and open-ended where students need to examine the problem, determine what they know about the problem, identify required information, find the information, develop and evaluate solutions, and report their findings.  PBL assignments can be modular and short in duration or can take an entire course.

  • Establishing group norms and group roles are especially important for these ill-structured problems.  Students can take different roles or divide up the work of finding information amongst themselves.  Please see the group norms node.
  • The instructor should consider incorporating scaffolding or warm-up exercises to allow students practice with aspects of problem solving and allow them to practice working with their peers.
  • Ideally, the problem should be authentic; that a student could encounter in their careers or lives.  For example, asking students to describe a patient and decide how the patient needs to be treated mimics a task they may encounter in later careers.
  • The instructor should consider forming a team of instructors, administrators, and/or staff to implement formalized pedagogies to address the inherent difficulties in terms of time and resources

Klegeris A, Bahniwal M, Hureen H (2013). Improvement in generic problem-solving abilities of students by use of tutor-less problem-based learning in a large classroom setting. LSE 12(1), 73-79. Klegeris et al. compared a large enrollment biochemistry class that incorporated PBL sessions to other junior level courses in a variety of disciplines.  They used an assessment to test problem solving ability that was not subject-specific, administering the assessment at the beginning and end of the semester.  Students in the course with PBL demonstrated a statistically significant increase in general problem solving ability, while students in the other courses that did not have PBL did not demonstrate an increase in general problem solving ability.  These results suggest that PBL increases problem-solving skills in general, not just those related to solving problems in a specific class or discipline.

Hung W (2011). Theory to reality: a few issues in implementing problem-based learning. Education Tech Research Dev, 59, 529–552. Hung describes the critical elements of PBL including the problem, self-directed learning, and collaborative learning.  Hung also explains instructional design and implementation variables that affect the success of PBL and that can result in mixed results on PBL assessment.  Hung describes different modes of PBL implementations that vary the learning process by changing the cognitive demand and level of engagement.  Since PBL is a collaborative learning technique, both student behaviors and facilitator behaviors can affect success.  Lack of motivation and effort on the student’s part can undermine or defeat learning of subject content, development of problem solving, and self-directed learning skills.  Facilitators can fail to guide students and model problem-solving methods or can give too much guidance.  Hung compiles recommendations on how to address these implementation issues to allow students to get the most out of PBL.

Allen D, Tanner K (2003) Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Learning Content in Context—Problem-Based Learning. LSE, 2, 73-81. Allen and Tanner provide a practical stage-by-stage description of PBL, illustrating both the instructor’s and the student’s roles during a PBL session.  They discuss implementation challenges and possible solutions.  They also provide a list of cases as well repositories to find cases.

PBL@UD (Problem-Based Learning at University of Delaware) Website Provides a PBL clearinghouse of problems from biology, chemistry, physics, social sciences, business, and beyond. This website also has a collection of resources including sample syllabi, and videos of group in action that could serve as teaching examples.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) Website by Don Woods Legacy website that contains books to help implement PBL, including books on How to Gain the Most from PBL, Resources to Gain the most from PBL, and Helping Your Students Gain the Most from PBL.  These offer practical advice in setting course objectives, assessment, helping students with process skills, and setting up self-directed small groups.

Team based learning (TBL) consists of individual preparation, a quiz to test individual preparation (readiness assurance test), a group quiz, and then a group task.  The group tasks are application problems that are classified by the “4 S” principles: significant problem, same problem, specific choice, and simultaneous reporting.

  • The individual and group quizzes should both be graded, and groups should be allowed to appeal quiz questions.  This provides incentive to learn materials before class and to work together as a team.
  • Students should receive frequent and immediate feedback.

Haidet P, Levine RE, Parmelee DX, Crow S, Kennedy F, Kelly PA, Perkowski L, Michaelsen L, Richards BF (2012). Guidelines for reporting team-based learning activities in the medical and health sciences education literature. Academic Medicine 87, 292-299. Haidet et al. describe the essential design features for implementation of TBL.  TBL is a technique where multiple small groups work in a large group setting.  It allows for efficient use of resources as only one instructor is required and it involves students in active learning. This article articulates the terminology and instructor decisions that can impact the success of TBL.  While primarily written for people researching and reporting on TBL, it could be a valuable resource when planning to implement TBL.  The list of design and context features could be used as reflection questions on which to base instructional choices about team formation, preparation for teamwork, in class discussions, group tasks, group grading and peer review.

Haidet P, Kubitz K, McCormack WT (2015). Analysis of the team-based learning literature: TBL comes of age. J Excell Coll Teac, 25(3-4), 303-333. Comprehensive review of TBL literature across many disciplines including social sciences, heath, and business education.  The appendix contains a list of papers with reported benefits including knowledge acquisition, participation/engagement, and team performance.

Team-Based Learning Collaborative Website Has list of references and membership dues allow you access to a resource bank including TBL modules in the basic sciences, health disciplines, and others.

Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) includes a cycle of exploration and concept application using materials that guide students to construct new knowledge.   The materials present data and/or information followed by leading questions that promote the use of the scientific method.  POGIL highlights process skills that students could develop  like information processing (evaluating, interpreting, manipulating or transforming information) and self assessment/metacognition (being aware of one’s knowledge).

  • The instructor should consider adding questions that request students’ prior knowledge about the topic and then allow students to build knowledge by recognizing patterns and relationships.  This would help students to construct knowledge by building on what they already know.
  • It may also be helpful to consider what roles students could take that  would work for the specified content, learning goals, and students and to have roles rotate weekly. Examples of roles:
    • Manager- actively participates and keeps students on task, delegates responsibilities, and ensures participation/understanding of group members.
    • Spokesperson- actively participates and presents to the class.
    • Recorder- actively participates, keeps records, and prepares a report with consultation.
    • Strategy analyst/reflector- actively participates and identifies methods for problem solving, reflects on what group is doing well and what the group needs to improve. Can also prepare a report with consultation.
    • Librarian- actively participates and seeks information in text or online.
    • Quality Control- actively participates and guides consensus building to show that all individual group members agree on responses to questions and are consistent on paper.
    • Process analyst- actively participates and observes group dynamics and behaviors.

Bailey CB, Minderhout V, Loertscher J (2012). Learning transferable skills in large lecture halls: Implementing a POGIL approach in biochemistry. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 40(1), 1-7. This case study demonstrates the use of process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) in large enrollment course taught in a traditional lecture hall. Large enrollment courses presents a unique set of challenges and the authors chose to use clickers and think-pair-share in addition to POGIL. Special attention was paid to creating buy-in for the approach by linking the students’ classroom behaviors to the teacher’s ability to complete a strong recommendation for individual students. Teams were self-selected, consisted of three to four students, and each student had a specific role. Overall, student feedback was positive and assessment data shows student learning gains in several areas.

Brown PJ (2010) Process-oriented guided-inquiry learning in an introductory anatomy and physiology course with a diverse student population. Adv Physiol Educ, 34, 150–155. Brown implemented POGIL in the second half of a two-semester anatomy and physiology course sequence, replacing 50% of the lectures with POGIL activities.  Course grades increased by 13% and final exam grades rose by 20% over three semesters of implementation. In addition, Brown observed a much lower fail rate (D/F) and high student satisfaction.

POGIL Project Website This website that is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education includes implementation advice, curriculum, workshop information,  and publications.  Of special interest is the Instructor’s Guide to Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning by DM Hanson that provides a practical approach for POGIL including examples of reports and a discussion of instructor roles.

Case Based Learning (CBL) can be used in both formal and informal group activities.

  • The instructor should consider the length of the case to be used.  Multiple cases can be used together in a course or  cases can span many class session or the entire course.

Chaplin S (2009). Assessment of the impact of case studies on student learning gains in an introductory biology course. Journal of College Science Teaching 39, 72-79. Student performance in lecture-based versus case study-based instruction was compared in this study. Case-based teaching that emphasized problem solving and discussion significantly improved student performance on exams throughout the semester and enhanced students’ abilities to correctly answer application- and analysis-type questions.

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.

Rybarczyk B J, Baines AT, McVey M, Thompson JT, Wilkins H (2007). A case-based approach increases student learning outcomes and comprehension of cellular respiration concepts. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 35(3), 181-186. This study investigated the learning outcomes of 155 introductory biology or biochemistry students using a case-based approach that focused on cellular respiration. Students who used the case study, relative to students who did not use the case study, exhibited a significantly greater learning gain, and demonstrated use of higher-order thinking skills.

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 recourse 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.

Peer Lead Team Learning (PLTL) consists of a workshop where a student who has previously completed the course leads a group of current students in the discussion of a set of problems.  The workshop is outside of regular class time. If done well, PLTL can lead to improved grades, increase retention (especially of women, minorities, and first generation students), and improve outcomes after graduation.

  • Consider mandatory attendance or optional election into a PLTL workshop then mandatory attendance
    • Many of the benefits are dependent on establishing group dynamics so intermittent attendance may not show positive effects.
  • Consider workshop length relative to the amount/difficulty of problems.
    • While between 90 and 120 minutes is normal for workshop length, this could be decreased as long as the number of problems is limited to allow more time for discussion and debate.

Kudish P, Shores R, McClung A, Smulyan L, Vallen EA, Siwicki KK (2016). Active learning outside the classroom: Implementation and outcomes of peer-led team-learning workshops in introductory biology. LSE 15(3), ar. 31. Kudish et al examined a peer-led team-learning model as an intervention to improve the success of URM students in biology. Comparing four years of grades, persistence, graduation rate, and outcome data of students who attended voluntary Peer Lead Team Learning (PLTL) seminars, they found a minimal effect on grades. They did, however, find that URM students have graduated with biology majors or minors at the same rate as non-URM students since implementation of the program, suggesting an impact on student persistence.

Wilson SB, Varma-Nelson P (2016). Small groups, significant impact: A review of peer-led team learning research with implications for STEM education researchers and faculty. J Chem Educ, 93(10), 1686-1702. The authors provide a comprehensive review of PLTL literature across many disciplines including chemistry, biology, math, engineering, and health.  They discuss reported benefits like grades, retention, critical thinking, standardized test scores, student perceptions, and affects on peer leaders.  They also compare PLTL implementation features like group size and workshop duration in the success of these measures.

Peer-Led Team Learning  International Society Website- PLTLIS  This website contains a broad scope of resources including articles about implementing PLTL, student leader training, information about conferences, and has an extensive  list of relevant publications.  It also has citable PLTL modules for anatomy/physiology, computer science, introductory biology, and calculus.

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Cite this guide: Wilson KJ, Brickman P, Brame CJ. (2017) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Group Work. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from http://lse.ascb.org/evidence-based-teaching-guides/group-work/
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