What Components Make Group Work Successful?

There’s lots of research documenting the positive effects of group experiences on learning outcomes. Less is known about the specific aspects of group experiences that contribute to their overall positive impact. Thomas Tomcho and Rob Foels decided to explore this question by looking at the research on group learning in the field of psychology, as reported in the journal Teaching of Psychology.

In order to conduct a meta-analytic review of that research, they needed to identify those specific aspects of group work that might affect how much and how well students learned in groups. They looked at research on group processes and at studies of collaborative learning both inside and outside psychology. From the group processes research and literature, they identified three components believed to influence learning outcomes in groups: the size of the group, how long the group interacted, and the complexity of the task completed by the group. From the collaborative learning research and literature, five aspects of group experiences with potential positive effects emerged: pre-activity preparation (group members coming to the activity after having done something to prepare for it, such as completing a worksheet or answering a set of discussion questions); participant interdependence; peer assessment; group accountability (as illustrated by having to do something jointly, such as a group presentation); and individual accountability (as shown by something such as a written assignment accompanying the group experience).

Given the general consensus in the literature that these specific features of group work positively affect learning outcomes, the next question is how those effects on learning were measured. To be considered in this review, the impact on learning had to have been assessed in one of the four following ways: via a pre- and post-test knowledge measure with a control and experimental group; a self-reported change in attitude or belief; a change in skill or behavior (perhaps the quality of a writing sample); or the relation of the activity to exam, assignment, or course grades.

The findings of this meta-analysis are based on a comparison of the results in 37 studies published between 1974 and 2011 in Teaching of Psychology. To be included in the analysis, studies had to meet the five criteria of methodological rigor explained in the article.

And the findings contained some surprises—some results did not confirm these researchers’ hypotheses. “Despite deriving predictions from the group processes and collaborative learning literatures regarding several potential moderators, we found that only group duration, participant interdependence, peer assessment, and group accountability predicted learning outcomes (with the latter two in a negative direction)” (p. 2012, 165). In other words, the size of the group didn’t affect learning outcomes, nor did the complexity of the task completed by the group. Learning outcomes were also not influenced by whether students prepared beforehand for the group activity or by individual accountability. If a peer assessment procedure was used and groups had to make presentations, that had a negative effect on learning in those groups. As for group duration, the strongest positive effect was found for groups that met for a comparatively brief period of time, as in one to three class sessions.

Why wouldn’t having to do something such as making a presentation increase the learning potential of those within that group? The results don’t answer the question, but the researchers wonder if that result might be explained by the fact that when a presentation must be done, groups often simply divide the presentation into parts and assign each member a different part. In that case, students learn their part but not the parts being presented by others. That problem can be addressed by designing group projects that cannot be partitioned into independent parts—something the researchers recommend.

This article reports the analysis of research on group work in one field, and the authors identify some empirical issues that may implicate these findings. Pedagogical scholarship does not systematically follow a line of research, with findings related and building on each other, and that makes integrating a collection of studies challenging. So the value of this work is not its generalizability across disciplines but in the questions it raises about why group work promotes learning and what design features do and don’t influence the learning outcomes. When most faculty design group activities, decisions about group formation and duration, the nature of the task, final products, and assessment methods are based on assumptions—what we think might help the groups be successful and enrich the learning experience. If nothing else, this research should encourage us to explore the premises on which those assumptions rest and consider how we might assess the impact of these features of group work on the learning experiences of our students.

Tomcho, T. J., and Foels, R. 2012. “Meta-Analysis of Group Learning Activities: Empirically Based Teaching Recommendations.” Teaching of Psychology, 39 (3): 159–169

Reprinted from What Components Make Group Work Successful?, The Teaching Professor, 26.9 (2012): 6.