Supporting student group work

Advice and further resources for teaching staff, to help you plan effective student group work.

Students work in groups in most subject areas and when it is going well, group work is really valuable for students’ understanding of their subject matter and their preparedness for the future. That said, group work can also be one of the most challenging things to get right, especially if it is assessed. Here are some ideas to help you plan group work that is more likely to go well:

Advice for supporting succesful student group work

Start small and build up through a programme

A good way to introduce group work is to start with small and low-stakes tasks and then build on those throughout a programme, increasing the challenge over time. You might begin as simply as asking students to discuss a question in pairs, join up the pairs into groups of four, and then ask each group of four to report back one point.

Making the value of student diversity really clear

Sometimes students can be unsupportive of students from different backgrounds to theirs, or who find speaking English more difficult. One way to address this is to set group tasks that explicitly benefit from diverse groups, such as needing knowledge of different communities to complete the group work. Another option can be to remind students that most global challenges in the world need responses that work across different communities, stakeholders and value positions. So diverse group work is excellent preparation for the future.

Developing group ground rules and roles

Iit can be really helpful to get groups to start their work together by developing shared ground rules for their group. You could give some examples as well, like ‘don’t interrupt people when they are speaking’. For longer group work, it can be really helpful for groups to assign tasks and roles to different members of the group and agree deadlines for completion. This could take the form of a group contract and you could give students templates for this.

Think through the teachers’ roles

Student group work is unlikely to go well without some structured support from teachers, especially when students are less experienced. Can you give students a clear framework for the task with some interim deadlines? Can you build in a formative feedback opportunity for each group? Could you do some of the group work in class time so you can circulate? Have you given students guidance on how to get help if their group is struggling?

Think about how the groups are formed

It can be helpful to assign students to groups rather than letting friends get together, which might increase the marginalisation of some students. Can you mix the groups so they have good diversity? Could you put different disciplines together to spark interdisciplinary creativity?

Have options for struggling groups and students

Be ready to mediate with struggling groups and have process for moving students to a new group if need be. Be aware that some disabled students, for example, may have very good reasons not to engage with group work and they may need an individual option.

Further resources for group work

AdvanceHE group work guidance

IAD online group work tips for students - communication (PDF)

StudyHub group work advice for students

LearnHigher group work resources

The University’s Dignity and Respect Policy (PDF)

Online Etiquette and Expectations for Engagement | The University of Edinburgh

The Living Together as Equals course (Learn - EASE log in required)

School of Informatics Towards Changing Attitudes and Developing Teamwork Skills in a Computer Science Course Short talk from Cristina Alexandru, from 28 minutes on this video

Christina Starko Teaching Matters blog