Group work

Published 6/11/2019

Group work is one of the most cringe-inducing terms in education and it’s not without good cause. Rifts in groups over marks and who did ‘the most’ has turned a lot of teachers off what can be a fantastic way for students to learn and gain new skills.

Group work can be integrated into a single unit or across a whole programme and can be embedded in a number of ways – we’re going to look at the four different types of group work and they can enhance your curriculum and your students’ experiences.

This toolkit covers:

  • The four types of group work activities
  • How to grade group work
  • Tackling concerns for staff and students
  • Group peer assessment and evaluation
  • Learning spaces

The four types of group work activity

You can break group work activities into four categories:

Creating; investigating; critiquing; games and more

Creating – asking students to demonstrate their knowledge through the creation of a new piece of material, whether it be a song, a computer program, pamphlet, etc, is both engaging and good for the development of skills needed in the workplace.

Investigating – students can work together to investigate a question, problem or piece of data and report back to the class or just their teacher. Students are both creating new material for the course as well as developing their research skills.

Critiquing – designing an activity where students have to work in groups to figure out what is wrong and find solutions flexes both their problem-solving skills and requires them to apply knowledge they already have. When doing this as a group, students need to reason with each other and present their arguments – a vital skill in many careers.

Games and more – the use of games in higher education is growing rapidly, with students engaging with difficult materials with more ease when presented as a game (see ‘Gamifying Histology‘). Setting up a game for your student can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be – contact the BILT team to find out more about games you can play with your students. Watch this TED talk on how gaming can make a better world.

How to grade group work

The grading of group work is one of the most fraught issues in a students’ academic career, with many students being anxious about not getting the grade ‘they deserve’ and having to do extra work in a group but not being credited for it. There are a number of ways you can use to grade group work – this useful table highlights the different methods of grading group work and its advantages and disadvantages.

We can’t promise that you won’t ever run into issues, but if you design your assessment and marking with a few key tips in mind then the number of issues should be greatly reduced.

  • Consider asking students to all give each other marks and provide rationale. If you think there may be tensions within the group,
  • Similarly, ask students to write a personal evaluation on their role in the team as part of the assessment.
  • Build in assessing the process, not just the product/ presentation.

Tackling concerns for staff and students

Students are often reluctant to complete group work, often believing that they won’t get as good a mark as if they do it on their own, or that they will end up doing all the work. There are a number of tactics you can employ and teach the students to avoid these situations.

A common issue with group work is when one or more member of the team lets the others down. This is especially concerning when group work relates to assessment. Tactics for avoiding these issues include:

  • Providing ample supported time for students to develop team working skills;
  • Directing students’ ownership and responsibility for their contributions to the group, through prompts, activities and templates;
  • Eliciting individual reflection on the reasons for success or failure of group work;
  • Framing group work activities in terms of professional practice, and how team working operates in the professional world;
  • Providing pathways to conflict resolution directly with teaching staff.

If your students are worried about undertaking group work, direct them to this Study Skills resource (in fact, why not ask all your students to complete it before they start to ensure they’re all on the same page) which includes guidance on the types of roles individuals might take within a group (e.g. leader, writer, maker, editor, analyst). Team-based learning can also be enhanced through careful planning and facilitation (see “twelve tips” developed by Gullo, Cam Ha & Cool 2015).

Group peer assessment and evaluation

Group work is often enhanced by using peer assessment templates that define relevant criteria for reflecting on the process and outputs of group activities. Suggested criteria include (drawn from Bailey, van Acker & Fyffe, 2012:55):

  • attendance at team meetings;
  • promptness;
  • calibre of preparation for meetings;
  • understanding of content and skills in interpreting and analysing data;
  • skills in diagnosing problems and issues;
  • enthusiasm and commitment;
  • teamwork and cooperativeness;
  • exercise of leadership within the group; and
  • share of the overall workload.

A sample peer evaluation template is available here:

To ensure the quality of peer review, you can consider the FFAARR acronym (Utschig, 2018):

  • Frequent
  • Formatted
  • Accountable
  • Accurate
  • Rated on a scale
  • Relevant

This framework helps direct the design of effective peer review and helps to set the boundaries of what should be considered. Such peer evaluations can be conducted in paper format, but programmes with large cohorts can consider digital submission options (see Ohland et al. 2013).

Learning spaces

When planning your teaching, you can consider dynamic learning spaces available on campus. Speak to the Timetabling Team in advance of the new teaching year to determine what spaces work with your requirements. For example, you might want to access spaces with collaborative tables and screens so that students can work in small groups effectively (see also Dytham 2017). BILT have also created a range of resources on how we’re rethinking spaces.