Group work or cooperative learning is a method of instruction that brings students together to work in groups. Employers value a person's ability to work cooperatively. Indeed, studies show that they value it more highly than the ability to work independently. This is because, in most contemporary workplaces, people work in teams, which are often cross-disciplinary and quite diverse (DETYA, 2000). The value to students of cooperative learning has long been well recognised.
This page discusses the use of group work as a teaching strategy that requires students to engage in learning activities within the same group over a period while working on a substantial task with a shared outcome (such as a report or a project).
When to use?
Group work is used in a wide variety of contexts that can be broadly grouped into two types:
- in small, usually ad hoc, discussion groups in lectures and tutorials
- as a teaching strategy that requires students to engage in learning activities within the same group over a period while working on a substantial task with a shared outcome (such as a report or a project).
This page discusses the latter use of group work.
A number of IT tools are available to support group work. To help you decide which of the more popular ones may suit your needs, visit the page Blog, wiki or forum – which should you use?
Research shows that group work:
- allows students to become active participants in their learning
- helps students develop skills valued by employers (such as problem-solving, negotiation, conflict resolution, leadership, critical thinking and time management)
- exposes students to diverse ideas and approaches
- acknowledges and uses individual students' strengths and expertise
- through discussion, helps students articulate their ideas, refine concepts and develop interpersonal and communication skills
- allows students to experience situations that resemble the workplace (through the use of authentic projects such as simulations), and
- facilitates a deeper understanding of course content.
Although group work can encourage positive student learning experiences, research suggests that this potential is not always realised. Although some students report that their group work projects or tasks are the best learning experiences of their time at university, others find them the worst, and feel reluctant to work in groups again.
- Some students (particularly those who do not feel confident about their ability to communicate, or those who are neurodivergent) prefer to work independently, and may find group work, with its requirement for interaction and its built-in ambiguity, confusing, challenging and confronting.
- Many students have complained about "free-riders" – group members who don't contribute to the group (or don't contribute at the same levell), and yet receive the same mark as those who do (or whose lack of contribution lowers their groupmates' marks).
- Students may divide up the tasks within a group project in a way that prevents all the students from achieving all the learning outcomes.
Teachers may also find some aspects of guiding and assessing their students' group work probematic.
- It can be difficult to determine individual students' achievement of the learning outcomes.
- Athough group work can at first glance appeal to teachers struggling with increasing class sizes and staff workloads, significant effort is involved in organising and assessing effective group work.
- The teacher should expect to need to manage disputes among group members (particuarly regarding "free-riders").
The page Ideas for Effective Group Work is a useful quick guide to some group work strategies you might use.
For more in-depth resources, consult the following Teaching Gateway pages:
- Preparing for Group Work
Expectations, group setup, the first meeting, group dynamics, and dealing with uncertainty and change
- Developing Students' Group Work Skills
Help students learn how to identify group issues, listen reflectively, give constructive feedback, structure discussions, manage their groups, give group presentations and compile reports; review individuals' contributions and deal with common group work issues
- Facilitating and Monitoring Group Work
Your role in facilitating and monitoring group work
- Helping Students Reflect on their Group Work
Encouraging your students to monitor their development, reflect on their performance and identify how they can improve.
For advice on using group work for assessment, see Assessing by Group Work in the Assessment Toolkit section of this website.
For how to embed group work in your course and incorporating reflection into skills development, see Integrating Group Work in the Curriculum Design section of this website.
In these videos, Dr Christine Van Vliet from the School of Medical Sciences discusses her experiences in teaching with team-based learning. (Transcript of videos.)
- Assessing Group Work, University of Melbourne, Centre for the Study of Higher Education
Elmassah, S., Bacheer, S. M., & James, R. (2020). What shapes students' perceptions of group work: personality or past experience?. International Journal of Educational Management, 34(9), 1457-1473.
Poort, I., Jansen, E., & Hofman, A. (2019). Intercultural group work in higher education: Costs and benefits from an expectancy-value theory perspective.
International Journal of Educational Research, 93, 218-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2018.11.010
Reddy, P. (2022). Groupwork in Undergraduate Research: Turning Bane into Boon. African Journal of Inter/Multidisciplinary Studies, 4(SI1), 129-141. https://doi.org/10.51415/ajims.v4i1.1013
Shermin, A., De Silva, B., Wesumperuma, A. (2019). Groupwork Assessment Development (GAD): A framework for developing an effective group work assessment. Australasian Conference on Information Systems, Perth.
Şule Betül Tosuntaş, S. B. (2020). Diffusion of responsibility in group work: Social loafing. Journal of Pedagogical Research, 4(3), 344-358. http://dx.doi.org/10.33902/JPR.2020465073
Wong, F. M. F., Kan, C. W. Y., & Chow, S. K. Y. (2022). From resistance to acceptance in small group work: Students' narratives. Nurse Education Today, 3, 105317. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2022.105317