Teaching Students to Work Well in Groups

At the beginning of a market research project, 79 percent of students chose to participate in a group project rather than complete a similar one alone (Ryan & Ogilvie, 2005). Unfortunately, only 52 percent maintained this preference by the end of the semester-long experience. In addition, project quality often does not meet student hopes and expectations. Many instructors, at least occasionally, have seen similar outcomes in their own attempts to assign group projects. Given the appealing nature of group work for both instructors and students (at least initially), we wish to offer some strategies that can improve group process and performance. First and foremost, teachers must establish students’ learning objectives before deciding what type of group project will best achieve them.
Groups are distinguished by project length (five minute interactions through year-long), type of task, and teachers’ learning objectives. Groups also are distinguished by members’ investment in and motivation for the task. For example, in some groups, teachers assign tasks in which students have no inherent interest (pseudogroups), and in traditional work groups, student interest is higher but the primary motivation for collaboration involves individual grades. Finally, effective groups “focus on maximizing all members’ learning” (Johnson & Johnson, 1997, p.17). To ensure students’ best learning experience, teachers must work to transform pseudo or traditional work groups into effective ones by emphasizing the group’s process (e.g., reduction of social loafing and development of group skills) and meeting the project’s objectives. It is unrealistic to expect that all student groups will be or will even start out as effective groups; however, careful monitoring and occasional intervention by teachers can nurture effective groups.

Tips for Creating Effective Groups
Reduce Social Loafing
Creating effective groups is a process. Social loafing and more specifically the “free rider effect” (Kerr, 1983) occur when some group members do less than their share of the work but earn the same rewards as more conscientious individuals. Social loafing can be minimized with careful preparation of group assignments and group members.

Members Do Real Work Together
Real work is more than sharing information. All members must be responsible for working together to create observable outcomes (Johnson & Johnson, 1997). Specifically, “real work” is not dividing a complex task among group members, but instead involves each member contributing to each part of the project.

Real work in groups rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, one student conducts the literature review, another collects data, and a third enters and analyzes data, etc. Those students consistently responsible for a certain type of task across several projects may never learn the intricacies of all aspects of a research project, making them “specialists” unable to complete an entire project individually.

Solution 1: Educate students about normative group development.
Before assigning projects or members to groups, teach students what to expect during each stage of group development. We describe the forming, norming, storming, performing, and adjourning stages (Tuckman, 1965) and explain that when groups first form, members experience some uncertainty associated with working with new members or a new task. We advise students to expect to spend considerable time addressing procedural issues such as who is responsible for what task or how it should be completed. We also warn students that these discussions often contribute to conflict (storming) when groups can have difficulty integrating members’ ideas into a cohesive approach. Once group members combine their individual suggestions into a group plan or approach, they enter the norming stage. These group strategies and techniques lead to the performing stage where the product is presented to the teacher, class, a conference or to the editorial board of a publication.
Solution 2: Prepare students for probable conflicts.
Students report the most stress and confusion in the storming stage, especially in long-term groups, because students believe any disagreement indicates future, sustained conflict. We educate students about intragroup conflict to help them differentiate between controversy (beneficial conflict) and conflict of interest (negative conflict). Controversy occurs when members have differing ideas for approaching or solving the problem. It is related to creativity in problem solving and is often a characteristic of effective groups (Johnson & Johnson, 1997). Conflicts of interest, however, can be detrimental. Instead of disagreeing about ideas, members have incompatible goals. Effective groups resolve rather than avoid conflicts of interests. Knowing conflict is normative is usually enough to encourage students to deal with conflicts on their own.
If intragroup conflict still impedes group productivity, there are several things teachers can do. You can monitor the group process. If this is an in-class group activity such as Think, Pair, and Share (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005), walk around, listen to group interactions, and comment when students seem off-task or confused. When students see us focused on group process, they conclude it is important. For long-term group projects, meet with students at key decision points such as choosing a topic, method, or data coding scheme. The more interested professors are in the group’s process, the more likely students will express their concerns. If conflicts continue some teachers allow groups to “divorce,” forming two groups or with single members joining other groups or working alone.

Solution 3: Require cross-training.
In industry, cross-training requires everyone to be familiar with all aspects of the task, ensuring that group members do real work together. Consider the traditional research project: the individual responsible for the introduction completes the literature review and educates other members on how and why certain articles were chosen. The member responsible for statistics does the same. Other group members can offer ideas on how to improve each part of the project. This involvement is not the same as having all members equally involved in all aspects of the project, but it is more consistent with “real world” group work. In order to encourage cross-training for long-term projects, professors can usually determine who is responsible for what task and generate questions targeted to all areas of the project. In those projects requiring just one class period, we use post-test questionnaires (all students individually answer questions about the main idea, procedure, etc.) to evaluate group members’ familiarity with the entire product. A third strategy involves requiring one member, chosen at random, to present the project in class. This process is especially effective for group tasks completed in large lecture classes as long as all members know that they could be the one presenting their group’s findings.

Solution 4: Consider task type.
Many assigned projects are not designed for groups, so task type is important. To encourage group interaction consider the type of task you are assigning and whether it is complex enough and structured enough for an interactive group outcome. Build assignments so members communicate their findings and complete a collaborative product. Examples of inappropriate tasks include activities that are easier to complete alone than with others (e.g., worksheets) or are too vague for students to follow. Appropriate tasks include well-structured complex activities where members can contribute equally and labor can be divided fairly (Barkley et al., 2005).
Some of the most productive group projects occur within a single class period. Large lecture halls can become group work havens when we stop talking and have students collaboratively complete a task related to the points we have just made. Make the task detailed and relevant to class content to encourage interdependent work.

Social Skills
Teachers assigning group projects often assume the students have worked in groups that have prepared them for their current assignments and have communication skills appropriate for group interactions.

There is no guarantee that students’ previous group interactions were successful or enjoyable. This becomes particularly important in light of findings suggesting previous group work experiences are predictive of subsequent group satisfaction (Forrest & Miller, 2003). As a result, they are often uncomfortable discussing issues and could benefit from more practice in listening, presenting ideas, and learning to accept and give constructive criticism.

Solution: Have students practice communication.
Give students an opportunity to talk about past group experiences and current expectations within their groups, ideally after you describe the stages of group development. Social loafing is an excellent place to start. Group members reminded by their peers about the possibility of social loafing are more likely to report the behavior. Reminders from an authority figure, similar to an instructor, did not increase such reporting (Balcetis, Forrest, Preuss, & Benz, 2007).
Emphasize the importance of students’ listening to each other in each stage of the group process by operationally defining listening (e.g., paraphrasing or restating comments by others and asking questions to clarify what has been said). Students also should have opportunities to practice expressing feelings and opinions while at the same time recognizing that these do not represent facts. Teaching students rules of good communication such as using personal “I” statements assists them in establishing voice. When each group member’s contribution or voice is recognized, rapport and cohesiveness develop.
Members also must be willing to give information and express opinions about how the purpose of the group might best be fulfilled. When students fail to use encouraging words or communicate in ways that may be harmful, instructors can address the problem directly. Teachers can assist by monitoring group interaction, personally or through course management programs such as Blackboard. During the storming or conflict stage, group members must clearly and unemotionally express their opinions and reasons for disagreeing. Because the extensive practice of a newly learned skill is vital to mastery, having groups meet early and often facilitates these cooperative communication skills. By having groups complete several kinds of complex tasks, or increasingly more difficult tasks students gain opportunities to implement these skills.

The shy or withdrawn student.
Although shy students appear unwilling to participate in group discussion, in fact they may feel inhibited from doing so (Crozier, 2004). Sharing information about normative group development and providing opportunities to practice social skills reduces such inhibitions. Require each person to speak at least once. Online discussions are easily monitored by instructors and can foster contributions from shy and anxious students. This forum encourages continued debate among peers, develops writing and critical thinking skills, and often allows for decreased feelings of anxiety.

Members Hold Themselves and Others Accountable
Being accountable means students understand their responsibilities toward the group’s project (process and performance) as well as their timelines for completing it.

Problem: Students are not always successful in holding themselves and others accountable.

Solution 1: Evaluate and grade both individual and group contributions.
Individuals who believe their efforts cannot be evaluated once their work is combined with others are more likely to loaf (Harkins & Jackson, 1985). Consider a split or modified grading system. For example, group members who are rated by others as having made fewer contributions receive a lower score than other members. Those rated as contributing more or being more crucial to the project success can be graded accordingly. Students are comfortable with peers’ ratings and take these ratings seriously. Also, when peers rate one another, there is less social loafing and students often do a more accurate job of rating themselves. Peer ratings are never shown to other members. We liken this promise to attorney-client privilege. We also consider all members’ ratings when deciding whether to increase or decrease the group average for one individual. There must be general consensus from the group before we consider a grade adjustment.
Tailor individual and group ratings to the assignment (e.g., attended meetings regularly, completed tasks, timeliness, and work quality). Grading rubrics with varying criteria are available in Barkley, Cross, and Major (2005). Use them in the group orientation process so students know at the beginning of the semester how group behaviors will be evaluated.

Solution 2: Increase group cohesiveness.
Group cohesiveness is commonly defined as the degree individuals see themselves tied or belonging to a group (Forsyth, 1999). Students belonging to cohesive groups work together because they want to. Group members are more likely to hold themselves accountable because they are working with individuals they like or respect. If one member’s contribution is poorly done or late, it negatively affects the others, similar to letting down a friend. Teachers should let students choose their own groups to relieve the instructor of any responsibility (blame) associated with assigning members to groups. Too much cohesiveness can occur when group members are good friends or significant others, and those who fail to make timely contributions may believe their lapses will be forgiven. However, friends are often the first to report these lapses.

Solution 3: Group size.
Groups should have three to five members to equalize individual effort. Although social loafing can occur in any size group, it is significantly more obvious to the instructor when the group is small.

Provide Clear Project Goals and Rubrics for How Student Performance is Evaluated
A common group work problem is that students do not understand how their performance will be evaluated. This ambiguity contributes to their inability to understand how individual inputs will relate to their group’s performance as well as their difficulty in monitoring group progress.

In a rush to design or assign group projects, professors often fail to clarify their goals for the project or a typical timeline for completion.
Solution 1: Explain the purpose of the assignment.
Instructors with firm, clear, and systematic expectations for what constitutes a successful group project will have less difficulty in getting students started and finished. Students need clear connections between what they are doing and how that process is related to the final product.

Solution 2: Be clear about expectations.
Provide successful and unsuccessful project examples for students to examine to assist them in doing a good job. Write and distribute a grading rubric with points given for specific categories. Instead of saying the group’s final project is an in-class presentation, let groups know the criteria (e.g., concise, jargon free literature review, active-learning, and media clips). Grade participation so all students are present and active on demonstration day. To help students do well, provide exemplars of (anonymous) student examples of previous successes and failures.

Solution 3: Set a realistic timeline.
Provide students a realistic time frame for project completion. These guidelines help in letting students know whether they are completing their individual contributions in a way that is beneficial or harmful to the group.

Solution 4: Develop contingency plans.
Students are unrealistically optimistic when predicting how quickly they, or a group will accomplish a task. This bias is even more pronounced when the group discusses the timeline (Buehler, Messervey, & Griffin 2005). To avoid this fallacy, have groups develop contingency plans in case deadlines are not met. Groups might brainstorm a timeline for successful completion, but also predict pitfalls along the way.

While employers are begging for job candidates capable of working with others, instructors continue to struggle with how they can make group work more effective and still teach content. Is there time to do both successfully? Yes. Success in the group-oriented lesson, project, or course is related to effective planning, a willingness to rethink the nature of group work, and an energetic emphasis on group process and outcome.

References and Recommended Readings
Balcetis, E.E., Forrest, K.D., Preuss, G., & Benz, J. (2007). Combating social loafing in groups: Members must first acknowledge the problem. Manuscript submitted for publication. A copy is available from forrestk@unk.edu
Barkley, E.F., Cross, K.P, & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques. San Francisco: Wiley.
Buehler, R., Messervey, D., & Griffin, D. (2005). Collaborative planning and prediction: Does group discussion affect optimistic biases in time estimation? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 97, 47-67.
Crozier, W.R. (2004). Shyness and students’ perceptions of seminars. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 4, 27-34.
Forrest, K.D., & Miller, R.L. (2003). Not another group project: Why good teachers care about bad group experiences. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 244-246.
Forsyth, D.L. (1999). Group dynamics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Halpern, D.F. (2004). Creating cooperative learning environments. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 2). (pp. 165-173). Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.
Harkins, S.G., & Jackson, J.M. (1985). The role of evaluation in eliminating social loafing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 11, 457-465.
Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, F.P. (1997). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Kerr, N.L. (1983). Motivation losses in small groups: A social dilemma analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 819-828.
Ryan, M.M., & Olgilvie, M (2005). The preference for group work — not always the case: A case study. In E. Manalo & G. Wong-Yoi (Eds.), Communication skills in university education: The international dimension (pp. 150-158). Auckland, New Zealand: Pearson Education Limited.
Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequences in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.


I never really thought about having to “undo” past bad group experiences. Lots of things to think about as we develop our groups. It’s more than just “push your desks together.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.
In the interest of transparency, we do not accept anonymous comments.
Required fields are marked*