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Collaboration and Learning: Managing Groups

Module by: The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. E-mail the author

Summary: This document describes ways to implement structure in group projects for effective collaborative learning. Aspects of group membership, individual and group accountability, and grading group work are discussed.

Having students work in teams can offer opportunities for critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and leadership that are not offered when students work alone towards a goal. Also, in the workplace, scientists and engineers rarely work as the sole individual on a project. They work in teams to solve problems and receive feedback from team members and superiors as the project progresses. Practicing collaboration is therefore a necessary step to prepare students for their careers. However, to work effectively, group work in courses must be managed in a way that gives each member of the team fair access to these opportunities.

Group Work or Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning can be defined simply as what happens when a group of students work together towards a learning objective or goal. Simply employing this approach does not guarantee an effective group activity or assignment. Collaborative learning becomes effective only when student participation is balanced and members develop the ability to evaluate their own ideas.

Aspects of collaborative learning

For effective collaborative learning, at least some of the work must be done where students can interact, traditionally face-to-face, but more recently through video conferencing and instant messaging. A group project in which students divide tasks among members such that the portions of the project are not merged until the final draft promotes little if any connection of knowledge between group members. It also likely results in repetitious project sections because students have not compared their section’s information to what is included in other sections. Interacting with a group will require that students begin to develop the kinds of interpersonal skills that they will need for working with other professionals in their careers.

Collaborative learning should involve a group of students who dependent upon each other to complete an objective. Thus, each student is not only individually responsible for a share of work, but also for the entire final product. As a group, students are responsible for distributing work fairly and ensuring that each member contributes adequately. The group should evaluate its progress towards the goal and productively critique each component. As students comment on each other’s work or ideas, they are also evaluating their own knowledge or beliefs within a new context.

Collaborative learning activities

Collaborative learning can range from one-time class discussion to long term multi-component projects. Short collaborative learning not only asks students to think about their own knowledge, but also to report to the instructor about which concepts students struggle to understand. For examples, see Collaborative Learning Structures in the resources section at the end of this document. Implementing cooperative learning can be divided into steps as described below.

Step 1: Identify the goal. This is typically done by providing instructions or guidelines that students will use to complete an assignment or activity.

Step 2: Divide students into teams.

Step 3: Provide guidelines for the extent, style, or type of collaboration expected. Do you expect each member to fulfill a specific role within the group? Who selects the team leaders? What communication rules will be in place?

Step 4: Observe and/or facilitate group progress. For example, this can be accomplished with incremental deadlines, progress review meetings or reports. For discussion-based activities, the instructor might check in on group progress and add evidence or opposing viewpoints to stimulate additional discussion in stalled groups.

Step 5: Assess the final product. For discussion-based activities, it is important for students to value what they discussed. To conclude the activity, student groups could report their consensus or summarize their ideas for the group. The instructor may add comments or follow-up on new questions raised by the students.

Establishing Groups

Selection of group members influences the environment in which students learn. Team dynamics can also affect the quality of collaboration, thus affecting the final product.


To generate various ideas for discussion, the group must have some heterogeneity. Often when students self select group memberships, they do so based on common viewpoints or similar level of experience as compared with other members of the group. Ideally, a discussion group would be composed of members with diverse viewpoints so that multiple sides of an issue would be given consideration. For groups that produce a graded product, students with different levels of experience should be teamed. Novice students will learn from the group’s collective knowledge. Expert students will be challenged to explain their knowledge in new ways and to evaluate their ideas within the context of the group’s collective knowledge. Commonality between the group members is also important. The group should not be so diverse that students cannot make connections to foster their initial interactions.

Group size

Small groups are a good structure for collaborative learning because they offer opportunities for the majority of the group members to contribute. If using large groups for collaborative learning (such as a whole class discussion), it is important to monitor the progress of the group to ensure that students maintain engagement and interaction. In unmonitored large groups, students may feel left out of a discussion or they may feel that their views were completely covered by another student.

Group and Individual Accountability

For groups that will operate outside of instructor observation, what will be the group rules? Will the instructor create defined roles for group members, or will group members be allowed to set their own guidelines? Teams that work together on a long-term project or on a set of small projects might be asked to select from instructor-defined roles and rotate those roles during the course. Students might have roles such as organizer (establishes group meeting times), checker (proofs final document and turns it in), facilitator (keeps the group on track during meetings and ensures that all members understand details), timekeeper (keeps discussion on track so that full topic can be covered in allotted time), or others depending on the type of assignment. Alternatively, you may ask students to work with their teams to create their own roles and reasonable guidelines for attendance and participation at group meetings, individual preparation, and how the group will ensure that all members understand the work assigned.

Individual group members are accountable for contributing to a discussion or for producing their portion of a project. Because in the end, one grade is assigned for the group’s collective work, the individual is also accountable for the entire final product, whether it is a complete discussion of an issue or a document to be graded. How can group work be graded fairly if some group members contribute more or less to the discussion or graded product?

Grading Group Work

It is important to note that despite the best intentions of the instructor, a group’s graded project may not represent equal contributions from group members. A particular student’s contribution to a group project cannot be inferred from previous performance. When the project is composed or completed outside of class, the instructor must rely on teaching assistants as observers or on the group members themselves to evaluate each other’s performance.

Separating the final project grade into two components, group grade and individual grade, can help modify the ultimate grade in favor of hard-working students. The individual grade could either be obtained from observer comments or based on peer assessment forms. Another option is to normalize the grade for the group product using a factor related to group participation. This option is described in detail in downloadable forms from Richard Felder (see website in resources list). Using this technique, the final project grade will be higher for students who are rated by peers as major contributors and lowered for students who are consistently characterized as insignificant contributors.

References and resources:

Gokhale, Anuradha A. 1995. “Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking.” Journal of Technology Education. 7 (1), 22-30.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. 1991. Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, George Washington University.

Springer, Leonard, Stanne, Mary Elizabeth, and Donovan, Samuel S. 1999. “Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 69 (1), 21-51.

“Forms for Cooperative Learning.” Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. / Cooperative_Learning.html accessed on 10 Feb 2008.

“Collaborative Learning.” Srinivas, Hari. accessed on 10 Feb 2008.

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