How to Improve Group Work: Perspectives from Students

Many college courses today incorporate some form of group assignment, such as a project, presentation, or a collaborative paper or report. However, instructors are frequently met with resistance from students who don’t like working in groups and don’t want their grade to be affected by peers who may not pull their weight. Nonetheless, research shows that there are many benefits to group work, in terms of both active learning and expanding teamwork skills. Other benefits include better communication skills, critical-thinking abilities, time management, problem-solving skills, cooperation, and reinforcement of knowledge (Forrest & Miller, 2003; Hammar Chiriac, 2014; Kilgo, Ezell, & Pascarella, 2015). Furthermore, since the use of work groups and teams in the workplace has increased, it is important for students to have prior experience in group work. Certainly, a collaborative attitude and the ability to work with others are important at most places of employment.

However, an important question is whether students recognize these benefits and see the connection between group work in the classroom and the ability to collaborate in the corporate world. In a study I conducted, it was clear that students were unaware of the benefits of group work. The purpose of the study was to investigate student attitudes about group work, as well as to solicit student suggestions for implementing better group assignments. A total of 130 undergraduate students, most of whom were psychology, family sciences, or teacher education majors, completed the survey.

More than half (57%) indicated that they did not like group work, and most of them based it on previous experiences related to social loafing (group members not doing their fair share) or difficulty getting together outside of class. The students who were in favor of group work indicated that they liked the ability to socialize with others and divide up the workload. Unfortunately, if students merely divide up the tasks, work in isolation, and then assemble the pieces at the end (either for a presentation, a project, or a paper), the benefits of group work may be lost (Burtis & Turman, 2006).

Importantly, three-quarters of the students indicated that they had never been told of any specific benefits of doing group work in their classes. Thus, despite the general acknowledgement by teachers as to the value of group assignments and other active learning activities, many apparently do not take the time to disseminate this information to the students.

Based on the results of the study and the specific advice from the students, here are some suggested tips for creating more effective and positive collaborative learning experiences.

  1. Explain the purpose of the group assignment, specifically pointing out the benefits for student learning and growth, both at an academic level and as a preparation for the workplace.
  2. Have a class discussion about past group experiences in order to allow students to voice their concerns and hear about other students’ experiences. This may allow them to alter their perceptions and learn new strategies for collaboration.
  3. Explain the difference between cooperative learning and collaborative learning strategies, including the pros and cons of each approach, and describe the best strategies for approaching the project as a group effort.
  4. Set aside class time for the groups to meet, thus ensuring that most group members will be present, and introduce online technologies that allow students to interact and share files more effectively outside the face-to-face interactions.
  5. Check in with groups periodically to assist them with their collaborative projects and provide guidance should any conflicts arise.
  6. Consider giving students the opportunity to evaluate each other, as this can increase accountability and performance as well as make the students feel that the process is more fair in case there is social loafing in the group.

College and university faculty are expected to prepare students for life after graduation—specifically the workplace. Many employers indicate that the ability to work in groups, communication skills, and a good work ethic are among their top priorities when selecting job candidates. Thus, it is important that we teach students how to be better team players and how to deal with any adversities that come up during the group collaboration process. One way to do that is not only to help students understand the importance of group work, but offer a framework to guide a successful experience.

Burtis, J., & Turman, P. (2006). Group communication pitfalls: Overcoming barriers to an effective group experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Forrest, K., & Miller, R. (2003). Not another group project: Why good teachers should care about bad group experiences. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 244-246.

Hammar Chiriac, E. (2014). Group work as an incentive for learning: Students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-10.

Kilgo, C., Ezell Sheets, J., & Pascarella, E. (2015). The link between high-impact practices and student learning: Some longitudinal evidence. Higher Education, 69, 509-525.

Brigitte Vittrup is an associate professor of child development at Texas Woman’s University.