March 4th, 2015

Different Types of Group Work: Clearing up the Confusion


The emergence of different kinds of group work is a welcome outgrowth of the move away from lectures. There’s still plenty of lecturing going on, but there’s less than there used to be. In its place are a variety of activities that more effectively engage students; one of the most common being the use of group work.

As regular readers will know from previous posts, the evidence that students can learn from and with each other in groups is plentiful and persuasive. Group work is fast becoming one of most researched instructional approaches and use of it is widespread. I regularly find articles on groups in all of the 80 or so discipline-based pedagogical periodicals I read.

Four types of group work are best known and most researched: collaborative learning, cooperative learning, problem-based learning (often known by its acronym, PBL) and team-based learning (also known by its initials TBL). From the get-go, definitional confusion about these types has prevailed. Collaborative and cooperative learning labels are still being used more or less interchangeably, or it’s assumed that one is a subset of the other. PBL and TBL are regularly described as forms of collaborative or cooperative learning, which they are not.

A recent issue of the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching does a masterful job of clarifying the definitional differences between these forms of group work. As guest editors Neil Davidson, Claire Howell Major, and Larry K. Michaelsen explain, “we attempt to outline key characteristics and important similarities and differences among these instructional methods.” They do with two synthesis articles, and three articles apiece on each type of group work. Article authors are a who’s who of group work researchers and advocates. The ongoing confusion is of concern to the issue editors because of its “implications for research and the development of the field of teaching and learning in higher education, but also for the day-to-day practices of higher education instructors.” (p. 2)

The confusion and co-mingling of these different types of group work diminishes what makes each distinct. Collaborative and cooperative learning, for example, emerged from different philosophical traditions. The design, formation, and assessment of group activities for each are not the same. PBL and TBL, too, operate from different premises and involve different practices. These distinctions are advantageous because they make it possible to use group work to accomplish different instructional objectives. They also mean that some group structures are more suitable for some kinds of content. With a basic understanding of each, instructors can design group learning experiences that better fit their goals, content, and students’ learning needs.

In the first synthesis article, which compares collaborative, cooperative learning, and PBL (highlights from this article appear in the February issue of The Teaching Professor) authors Neil Davidson and Claire Howell Major make clear that their intention is not to advocate for any of the three. They propose that champions of each brand of group work have much to learn from each other, and their hope is that their descriptive analysis will encourage “border crossing.”

For the most part, classroom practitioners are not purists. They’re after what works with their content and for their students. They also don’t particularly care about nomenclature. They’ve taken features from the various kinds of group work and created their own brands. From collaborative and cooperative learning, PBL and TBL have sprung a huge family of related offspring, and that’s good news. The bad news is that these new iterations are using the four family names, which means confusion about the types of group work continues. You could even make the case that the confusion is growing.

If you use group work, want to do so in an evidence-based manner, and would like to accurately label what you are doing, this issue can be your guide. It’s a scholarly analysis of group work, long overdue and done by the best. And the editors of the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching are giving Teaching Professor blog readers free access to the issue for two weeks. That’s a real gift. (Thank you, Milt Cox and Gregg Wentzell.) By the way, if you aren’t familiar with this journal, do make its acquaintance. I never miss an issue.

To access the journal, please go to and click on Free Sample Issue: Small Group Learning. This will take you to the “Special Focus Issue: Small-Group Learning in Higher Education – Cooperative, Collaborative, Problem-Based, and Team-Based Learning.”

  • Jean Fuller-Stanley

    While I find this piece illuminating, I am still not convinced of the overall goal. I often use PBL in a collaborative classroom environment! Are you saying this is an oxymoron? What is most important is the effectiveness of the methodology.

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  • Perry Shaw

    Many thanks for pointing us to this article Maryellen. It certainly stimulated my thinking about what exactly we are trying to accomplish in group learning. I tend to agree with Jean's posting (above) that the distinctions drawn in the article are too "neat" and in reality different forms of group learning by their very nature generate multiple outcomes.
    I would see it more in terms of interlinking sets with certain distinctives but much in common. Rather than trying to separate different forms of group learning I would prefer to affirm all forms, and seek to maximise the effectiveness of whatever form we are applying.
    In addition, I think it too limiting to divide all group learning into PBL and TBL. In the article no comment is given on group size, nor on the role of the affective dimension in the group dynamic. These elements are highly influential in both the shape and outcome of group learning, and from my experience some forms don't fit into either PBL or TBL.
    The article has, however, forced me to consider more deeply what exactly is going on in group learning. And so again, my thanks.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    It would have been more useful to tell us what the different labels "really" mean, so we could judge whether there was any good reason to explore this matter further. I have been using groups for over 25 years, to accomplish a variety of goals successfully, and I have never used any labels.