Group Setting, Structures, and Norms

There are several practices that can help make groups function effectively. The instructor should provide an opportunity for students to discuss their expectations for group work and to set group norms, including methods and expectations for communication, dealing with group members who don’t contribute, and dealing with conflict within the group. In addition, the instructor should provide structure that promotes interdependence. This can be accomplished by structuring tasks that require contributions from all group members for completion—often with group members playing different roles—and establishing a reward structure that includes both individual and group components. For group work that spans multiple days or weeks, providing opportunities for peer evaluation can a means for ongoing adjustments to group interactions as well as a tool to promote individual accountability. Finally, it is important to consider the physical environment, including available technology, making choices about physical interactions and technology use that promote collaboration.

Setting Group Norms
  • The instructor should provide an opportunity for students to discuss their initial expectations for group work in the course, including what they hope to get from interacting with their peers. This initial discussion allows students to express reservations, share prior experiences, and devise methods to express and remedy dissatisfaction as the group work proceeds.  It’s also important to help students understand that they have responsibility but also support, helping them understand that they should speak with groupmates who are not doing their part, but that they should come to the professor if the member does not begin to contribute. Creating a group contract for a project can aid in this process.
  • It is helpful to encourage students to consider the channels of communication they will use to interact with their groupmates, such as email, Facebook, in-person meetings, or phone calls, and it is important to make sure all the members are active and participating by spot-checking. For example, a shared document space on your classroom management system or on Google drive provides a tool that all students can access and that the instructor can readily check.

Chapman KJ, Van Auken S (2001). Creating positive group experiences: An examination of the role of the instructor on students’ perceptions of group projects. Journal of Marketing Education 23, 117-127. The authors surveyed students in marketing classes at 32 institutions about experiences with previous group projects in business courses and developed a path-analytic model relating the instructor’s role, work and grade equity concerns, perceived benefits, and attitude toward working in groups. Importantly, the instructor’s role had a significant positive influence on attitudes toward working in a group and on perceived benefits and a negative influence on work and grade equity concerns. They also found that students with positive attitudes toward group work reported more use of peer evaluations, meeting reports, and observation by the instructor and that students whose instructors discussed group dynamics had more positive attitudes toward group work.

Johnson DW, Johnson RT, Smith K (2007). The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educ Psychol Rev 19, 15-29. The authors review social interdependence theory, summarize the research validating the theory, and describe the five basic elements needed to operationalize the theory in the classroom: positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, and group processing, noting the importance of teaching students the needed social skills for group work and for providing opportunities and mechanisms for revaluating group processes.

Lerner, L. D. (1995). Making student groups work. Journal of Management Education, 19(1), 123-125. This reflection from an experienced instructor offers practical advice for setting group norms. The author describes an approach in which she provides students with descriptions of problem group members (e.g., Nola No-Can-Meet, Always-Right Artie), asks the students to reflect on whether they see themselves or former group members in the descriptions, and encourages them to identify strategies for dealing with potential problems. She also describes how she ties this exercise with other group activities to promote effective group participation.

Wenzel TJ (2007). Evaluation Tools To Guide Students’ Peer-Assessment and Self-Assessment in Group Activities for the Lab and Classroom. Journal of Chemical Education 84, 182-186. The author provides a rationale for using peer- and self-assessment processes and several examples of specific tools for use with class- and lab-based group projects.

University of Texas at Austin College of Natural Sciences Teaching Portal. This site provides an overview of group work, guidelines for implementing it, and links to examples of contracts and other useful documents.

Group Structures
  • Structured interdependence in group work requires that students communicate to promote each other’s learning. By structuring groups to include this interdependence, students will be able to both help their peers and be helped themselves. This can lead to higher performance by the group itself and the individual members. One way to structure interdependence is assign or have students select particular roles to play within the group. If each of these roles is essential for task completion, students will necessarily depend on each other, promoting cooperation.

Brewer S, Klein JD (2006). Type of positive interdependence and affiliation motive in an asynchronous, collaborative learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54, 331-354. These authors examined 289 undergraduate business majors enrolled in 47 course sections. Students worked together in small, fully online discussion groups that lasted for seven days. Although they found no significant differences in achievement gains, students in groups with assigned roles and rewards interacted significantly more frequently than students in groups with just rewards or students in groups without structured interdependence factors. Students given rewards felt that they benefited from working with others and that they generated better ideas as a group than they could have done as individuals. These same students also felt a greater concern for their teammate’s success.

Gillies RM (2013). Structuring Cooperative Group Work in Classrooms. International Journal of Educational Research, 39, 35-49. The author provides an overview of five studies to demonstrate the importance of explicitly structuring small-group work in the classroom. The studies compared structured and unstructured groups, with the structured groups including included task interdependence, individual accountability, promoting others’ learning, and training students in small-group skills. Videotapes of group work were coded student behaviors, verbal interactions, and, in some cases, cognitive language strategies. Students in structured groups exhibited more cooperative behaviors, were less likely to work independently of the group, and demonstrated more instances of helping their peers.

O’Donnell, A. M. (1999). Structuring dyadic interaction through scripted cooperation. In A. M. O’Donnell & A. King (Eds.), The Rutgers Invitational Symposium On Education Series. Cognitive perspectives on peer learning (pp. 179-196). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. The author describes scripted cooperation, in which pairs of students adopt specific cognitive activities while completing work together. By adopting specified roles of listener and recaller, students use necessary cognitive processes for the task and avoid negative social processes that can limit learning. The author compares this approach to the potential benefits of unscripted cooperation and reviews research on its usefulness.

Environment and Technology
  • A group’s physical environment and the technology in it can promote or hinder group functioning by facilitating or obstructing conversation, collaboration, and non-verbal interaction. However, some aspects of design and technology are less important to performance and student attitudes than others. Optimizing the physical space for group work requires weighing the costs and benefits of available features to create an environment that encourages collaboration. In addition, certain approaches and technologies can facilitate group work in spaces that do not lend themselves to active learning:
    • Audience response devices allow reporting of group choice to the class as a whole.
    • Tablets or small dry erase boards can enable collaboration of the group on the task if a dedicated group work space is not possible (table, group computer, or mounted group dry erase boards).
    • In rooms with stadium seating, clearing every third row allows the instructor direct access to the groups. Students in the other two rows can form groups of 3-4 by those in the front turning towards those in the back.
  • It’s important to provide students with technology necessary to perform the task (learning resources, handouts, collaboration tools, etc.)
    • During class sessions students should have technology that allows them to collaborate within their group (tablet, computer, and/or whiteboards).
    • Sight lines within the classroom should allow students to easily see the teacher-provided information/presentation.
    • Adopting online collaboration space and tools, such as learning management software or GoogleDocs, can facilitate out of class collaboration and can allow groups to share their work with rest of the class.

Beichner RJ. The SCALE-UP Project: A student- centered active learning environment for undergraduate programs.  Beichner describes the SCALE-UP classroom designed for studio-style active learning for large classes, enabling collaboration between students and interaction with faculty.  This review describes development, affordances, and design features including circular tables, multiple sight lines for projected information, and technology that allows a group’s work to be shown to the class.

Soneral PA, Wyse SA (2017). A SCALE-UP mock-up: Comparison of student learning gains in high- and low-tech active-learning environments. LSE 16: ar12. Sonerel and Wise compared a specifically designed and technologically sophisticated SCALE-UP classroom to a more inexpensive and low-tech Mock-Up classroom to determine what classroom features impact student performance and attitudes.  Student performance was equivalent or better in the Mock-Up classroom compared to the SCALE-UP Classroom.  Students perceived that group interaction and whiteboards enhanced their learning.  In contrast students rated the technology as less important.  The paper suggests practical ways to adapt current classrooms to set the stage for collaborative and active learning.

Knaub AV, Foote KT,  Henderson C, Dancy M, Beichner RJ (2016). Get a room: the role of classroom space in sustained implementation of studio style instruction. International Journal of STEM Education 3, 8. doi:10.1186/s40594-016-0042-3.  Knaub et al. survey faculty, staff, and/or administrators at 21 institutions that have implemented SCALE-UP classrooms.  They review specific room features as helpful, non-essential, or unhelpful.  The article also provides practical advice on how to create SCALE-UP classrooms, faculty professional development/support, and the variations in implementation strategies.

Stoltzfus JR, Libarkin J (2016). Does the room matter? Active learning in traditional and enhanced lecture spaces. LSE 15: ar68. Stoltzfus and Libarkin compared traditional lecture hall to a SCALE-UP room for two different sections of an integrative biology course for non-majors.  Both sections had significant active learning in the context of the flipped classroom and had the same instructor.  A multiple-choice quiz of 8 items of course content was administered at the beginning of the course (pre-test) and at the end of the course (post-test).  There were no observed differences in each section’s performance on these tests. The students in both sections reported a similar amount of instructor-student interaction.  The authors  propose that this equality in interaction may explain the similar learning between the sections despite the differences in classroom environment.

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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
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