How can I help students work well in small groups, so they are more likely to engage?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised July 5, 2017
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

Chapter 7: Small groups. This expert recommendation is part of a series on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms.

Most active learning techniques involve the creation of student groups, but groups do not always work productively, and not all tasks are suited to group work. Poor group dynamics, or ill-suited tasks, can reduce student engagement in active learning. This chapter focuses on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms through the type of tasks that are used, and support of productive group dynamics.

The goals of this project is to identify and disseminate strategies that instructors use to engage students in active learning classrooms. This project arose from the Framing the Interactive Engagement Classroom project, led by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder), with collaboration from Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky University) and Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington University). Many thanks to University of Colorado reviewers Rebecca Ciancanelli and Jenny Knight, plus undergraduate assistant Maya Fohrman. This work was generously supported by the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the University of Colorado Center for STEM Learning, via a Chancellor’s Award. Please contact Stephanie Chasteen with any comments or questions.

Click here to access the entire set of Expert Recommendations on productive student engagement. You may also download a zip file of all recommendations and activities (26 MB), a PDF of these articles, and a PDF summary of our recommended strategies.

How do group structures and tasks affect student engagement?

As you might imagine, not all “cooperative groups” actually work cooperatively. That is, students may be in a group, but not be working collaboratively towards a common goal that improves their learning. Students can come in with poor attitudes towards group work (Gillespie et al., 2006), including having a fear of loafers. Or the structure of the groups may be at fault: Often, what we think are cooperative groups are really traditional classroom groups (where some students work hard and others do not), or pseudo learning groups (where students have no interest in working together) (Moreno, 2009; Nokes-Malach, Richey and Gadgil, 2015). These types of learning groups often do not actually improve student learning when compared to traditional instruction. 

Students need to have a reason to work together (“positive interdependence”), be accountable as a team as well as individually for their learning, learn skills for working together productively, and have clear expectations for the outcome of group work (Slavin, 2010; Anderman and Dawson, 2010). Luckily, students typically find group work fun and motivating, and over time will typically have more productive learning experiences (Nguyen et al., in press; Bacon, Stewart and Silver, 1999).

Additionally, the benefits of cooperative learning are highly dependent on the task itself (Slavin, 1995). Students are motivated by interest: if a task feels stimulating, fun, relevant, authentic and novel, this will draw students in. Students are also attracted by the value of a task: A task that is useful, important, and challenging with high benefit and few costs will engage students (Pintrich, 2003; Boekarts, 2010; Engle and Conant, 2002; Moreno, 2009). Tasks that are less motivating are ones that can be completed using superficial memorization and without setting clear goals or involving any collaboration. A task may also be overly restrictive, offering little student latitude. Design authentic, collaborative, and fun tasks with the goal of sparking pleasure, pride, and satisfaction in students. Variety in group tasks is very motivating and tends to keep students engaged (Shekhar et al., 2015). A commitment to variety also allows you to address different student interests (Boekaerts, 2010; Pintrich, 2003; Tanner, 2013), and keep student attention as the semester progresses (Ertmer, Newby and MacDougal, 1996). See Chapter 3: Motivation for more on what motivates students.

Strategies for helping students work productively in groups

Below are some general strategies for helping to support productive group work. There are many books and chapters devotes to this topic. See Further Reading for many of my preferred sources. Below are some of the most salient strategies related to student engagement.

Hold students individually accountable for group work

Students must have some accountability for their individual learning in order for groups to work effectively (Slavin, 1995).

After students work together in a group, you might use a clicker question that addresses the objective of the group activity (which gives immediate feedback to students and the instructor as to the group’s success). You can also use a one-minute paper to ask students what they have learned and what is still confusing to them, or you can give a single individual assessment question on the topic at hand.

On group projects, you can mitigate “hitchhiking” (students who let others do all the work) by only giving credit to active participants, or using peer ratings to adjust team project grades for individual contributions (Felder and Brent, 2016; see details of such peer rating here).

Give groups a collaborative goal

It is also important to have the group working together to achieve a collaborative goal, and that the group’s success is dependent on the individual learning of all members (Slavin, 1995).

Students might work on a single assignment as a group (such as an activity sheet), and hand it in as a group for a group score (Slavin, 2010). Or, they might work in groups of 3 on a set of challenge problems, and share their results with one another (Ames, 1991). “Mutual goals” are also useful, where each member of the group can be responsible for one part of the overall task, but it is the group’s performance as a whole is evaluated (Slavin, 1999). Another option is for students to research different aspects of a topic, and teach them to one another (Moreno, 2009). Jigsaw activities (students complete parts of an assignment, and reorganize into different groups to build expertise) naturally include mutual goals.

Give each team a certificate or other reward for meeting a certain benchmark (Slavin, 2010), such as when their average quiz scores reach a minimum threshold (Moreno, 2009). You could use a tournament structure, where each team might compete with members of other teams to win points for their team (Slavin, 2010). Some instructors use Jeopardy-style games for this purpose.

One strategy which explicitly draws in both group and individual accountability are group, or two-stage, exams; students first complete an exam individually, and then again as a group, with the group exam score potentially boosting their individual score. See Group Exams for details.

Use productive group structures

The structure of groups is also important for success and engagement. The group size should be well suited to the task, and so that each student will be able to contribute. A group might benefit from having roles assigned to each student, especially early in the semester, to facilitate productive collaboration.

You might assign roles to each student in the group, such as facilitator, scribe, reporter, data manager, materials manager, time manager, coach, encourager, question monitor, etc. (Moreno, 2009).

Groups should include fewer than 8 people, and the best group size is 3-6. If the group is too small, there won’t enough diversity of student perspective. If the group is too large, it will take longer to manage diverse tasks (Moreno, 2009). It is prudent to remember that with groups that are larger (or projects that are larger in scope), there are more opportunities for “social loafing,” where students don’t participate equally (Aggarwal and O’Brien, 2008). So, keep group sizes small, especially when you are first implementing active learning.

The research is not clear on the best strategy for group selection. Below are some considerations for both approaches (Moreno, 2009; Anderman and Dawson, 2010; Slavin, 2010; Bacon, Stewart and Silver, 1999). Students tend to prefer staying with the same group during the semester, as they become used to one another and changes can be perceived as jarring (Gillepsie et al., 2006). However, you might consider switching groups a few times to reduce the risks of poorly functioning groups and connecting students with a broader social network. After the first such change, students will anticipate the group changes.

 

Instructor created groups

Student created groups

Pros

Can support greater group diversity. Reduces anxiety of non-native speakers, who are less likely to be excluded from groups.

Students, especially those with experience in groups, prefer this. Can be very motivating.

Cons

Students may not prefer this approach.

Social issues may impinge on the work (such as personal disputes, or students feeling like a “3rd wheel” in a group of friends)

Tips

Avoid having a single minority in the group. Aim for diversity in student achievement, gender, culture and ethnicity. Can use CATME’s online team maker to form teams based on such criteria.

 

Techniques

By test scores, random number generation, and then balance by race/gender.

By student choice (nearest neighbors, friends) or by characteristics (e.g., high school attended, mutual interests).

Help groups collaborate effectively and monitor their performance

Students are likely to need some help in working together well. Below are several strategies for helping students to start out on the right foot, and keep working together well. There are also several helpful suggestions for dealing with dysfunctional teams in Felder and Brent (2016).

Especially when students will be working together in the same team for a long time, build in some time for them to get together as a group and socialize with each other. (Bacon, Stewart and Silver, 1999). Some of the icebreaker activities in Chapter 4: Class Community may be useful. CATME provides several online tools for teamwork training and effective meeting support. Additionally, see our Group Skill Building activity for suggestions on forming the first groups, and supporting discussion about group roles.

Monitor student discussions, especially at the end of the discussion to help them frame their ideas. For shy students, you might learn about their interests and use those interests as the basis for future learning activities to draw them in. You might also assign them a peer partner who is more outgoing (Moreno, 2009). If you notice a student who did a particularly good job of planning a project, assign him the role of leading his group during the next planning phase of the project (Moreno, 2009). Or, if you notice a group who did a particularly good job of a group task (such as answering a clicker question, or providing a project outline), call on them to share their thinking or outcome with the class. As an instructor you can also model effective processes, such as modeling group decision making by having the whole class brainstorm ideas, as you write them on the board, along with pros and cons of each idea. Then, you can coach the class through making a decision among the ideas as a group (Moreno, 2009). See also useful training and supports for productive team-work at CATME.org, including team member preparation documents, team charters and sample team agendas.

You may consider a group “contract” with rules to be determined by the group on how to handle assignments or non-participation. Once again, see support documentation at CATME.org. Additionally, have students develop mastery goals for the team as a whole (see Chapter 2: Metacognition and Mastery) by asking them to individually identify their learning goals. Next have teams discuss how they plan to address individual learning goals (Linder et al., 2010). Such a discussion could be framed in an assignment, for points, or as an informal check-in.

Use checkpoints during activities, or every few weeks, where students must stop and reflect on questions, such as “How are we doing as a group? What is working well? What is something we may need to change?” This can be done as an exit activity or a survey. See our assortment of Self-Assessment Worksheets for possible group evaluation worksheets. CATME also provides several tools for self- and peer evaluations.

Build motivating tasks

Build “motivational embellishments” into your activities, leveraging students’ psychology to draw them in naturally to the task and make them want to engage due to intrinsic interest and value for the activity. Motivational embellishments include the insertion of specific challenges, material based on student interest, or giving students perceived control over the outcome of the task.

One common mistake made by teachers starting to use active learning is trying to implement too much at once. Reduce the number of tasks or activities, so that you can carefully design each one and consider the best facilitation techniques for a given situation. Good preparation helps you create an excellent learning task that is truly beneficial for student learning. Student confidence will increase when the tasks that you give feel well-developed (Slezak, 2014).

Try techniques such as jigsaws, role-play, clickers, group investigations, and worksheets. Examples of several instructional techniques can be found on PhysPort and at this succinct list from U. Minnesota, and in Tanner, 2013.

The way that you frame the task has important implications for student engagement. Do students understand what they need to do? Are all questions clear? Do students understand the purpose of the exercise? Clarity will help teams to work productively and know what is expected of them (Bacon, Stewart and Silver, 1999), even if the task itself is complex. Additionally, using language focused on effort and improvement can orient students towards more mastery rather than performance-based goals (see Chapter 2: Metacognition).

Relate subject matter to potential student careers, and motivate the problem at hand before introducing the formalism. Make sure students know why someone would care about the answer to this problem. For example, a group objective might be to create an engineering project that addresses a particular need of the local community. One strategy for including interest and relevance is to use case-based instruction (Ertmer, Newby and MacDougal, 1996). See PhysPort’s collection of productive questions for clickers and peer instruction, guidance on designing good group activities and activities for small group discussions..

It’s too easy to forget about fun! Making tasks connected to real-life or about interesting real-life scenarios can inject true pleasure and pride into tasks. For example, ask students to identify all the forces acting on their feet as they walk backwards. If it feels appropriate, you may inject some silly or quirky aspects into your activities. You might get students up out of their seats to act something out, or allow them to create their own activity. Feel free to get creative.

It is very motivating for students to feel challenged, but then be able to successfully complete a task, and see how much they have learned (Pintrich, 2003; Ames, 1991). It can be hard to pitch a task at the right level of difficulty, so that students feel challenged (see Chapter 2: Metacognition and Mastery), but not overwhelmed by feeling incapable of completing it (see Chapter 3: Motivation). Diagnostics or other assessments can also help you determine the ability level of your students. You can also structure your task so that students can be successful, by starting with easier items and then ramping up the difficulty, including “bonus challenges” at the end for those who finish early.

Perceived control is an important aspect of task interest, whether that control is related to how to students will accomplish something, or which topic they choose to explore (Ames, 1991). You might choose tasks with multiple pathways to the solution. Another factor in autonomy is time: Don’t rush students through an activity. Give them a chance to work at their own pace and feel in control of their learning (Redish and Hammer, 2009; Reeve, 2009).

Summary and Action Items

Most active learning techniques involve the creation of student groups, but groups do not always work productively, and not all tasks are suited to group work. Poor group dynamics, or ill-suited tasks, can reduce student engagement in active learning. This chapter focuses on helping students engage productively in active learning classrooms through the type of tasks that are used, and support of productive group dynamics.

General approaches

Specific strategies

Hold students individually accountable for group work

Students must have some accountability for their individual learning in order for groups to work effectively.

  • Follow up group work with individual assessments of learning.
  • Use assessments of individual effort to adjust grades.
Give groups a collaborative goal

It is important to have the group working together to achieve a collaborative goal, and that the group’s success is dependent on the individual learning of all members.

  • Give students goals as a group.
  • Use achievement rewards.
  • Use group exams.
Use productive group structures

The structure of groups is important for success and engagement. The group size should be well suited to the task, and so that each student will be able to contribute.

  • Use team-building exercises.
  • Coach students and model effective behavior.
  • Help teams develop productive goals.
  • Require groups to self-reflect.
Help groups collaborate effectively and monitor their performance
Students are likely to need some help in working together well.
  • Use team-building exercises.
  • Coach students and model effective behavior.
  • Help teams develop productive goals.
  • Require groups to self-reflect.
Build motivating tasks

Build “motivational embellishments” into your activities, leveraging students’ psychology to draw them in naturally to the task and make them want to engage due to intrinsic interest and value for the activity. Motivational embellishments include the insertion of specific challenges, material based on student interest, or giving students perceived control over the outcome of the task.

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Vary group learning methods.
  • Give clear, written instruction.
  • Focus on authentic, real world scenarios.
  • Allow for fun.
  • Give tasks that are just above student ability.
  • Give students choice and autonomy.

Further reading on this topic

Reading List

  1. Ames C., Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation, Journal of Educational Psychology. 84 (3), 261-271 (1991).
  2. Maier, M., McGoldrick, K.M., and Simkins, S., Cooperative Learning and Disciple-Based Pedagogical Innovations: Taking Advantage of Complementarities, In Cooper, James. Ed. Small group learning in higher education: Research and practice. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. (2011).
  3. Millis, B. J., Cooperative learning in higher education: Across the disciplines, across the academy, Sterling, VA: Stylus Press. (2010).
  4. Seidel, S. B., & Tanner, K. D., What if students revolt?—considering student resistance: origins, options, and opportunities for investigation, CBE-Life Sciences Education. 12(4), 586-595 (2013).
  5. Slavin R. E., Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work? In The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, H. Dumont, D. Istance, and F. Benavides (Eds.), Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. (2010).
  6. Tanner, K. D., Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity, CBE-Life Sciences Education. 12(3), 322-331 (2013).
  7. Teed, R., McDaris, J., Roseth, C., Cooperative Learning, Science Education Resource Center.
  8. Felder, R. and Brent, R., Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA (2016).

Keywords to search in the literature

Sociocultural theory, social constructivism, positive interdependence, accountability, cooperative learning

References

  1. Aggarwal P., O’Brien C.L., Social loafing on group projects: structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction, J Market Educ. 30, 255–264 (2008).
  2. Ames C., Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation, Journal of Educational Psychology. 84 (3), 261-271 (1991).
  3. Bacon, D. R., Stewart, K. A., & Silver, W. S., Lessons from the best and worst student team experiences: How a teacher can make the difference, Journal of Management Education. 23(5), 467-488 (1999).
  4. Boekaerts, M., The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. 91-111 (2010).
  5. Engle, R.A., Conant, F.R., Guiding principles for fostering productive disciplinary engagement: Explaining an emergent argument in a community of learners classroom, Cognition and Instruction. 20(4), 399-483 (2002).
  6. Felder, R. and Brent, R., Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA (2016).
  7. Gillespie, Rosamond and Thomas, Grouped Out? Undergraduates’ default strategies for participating in multiple small groups, J. of General Education. 55(2), 81-102 (2006).
  8. Newmann, F., Student engagement in academic work: Expanding the perspective on secondary school effectiveness. In J. R. Bliss & W. A. Firestone (Eds.), Rethinking effective schools: Research and practice, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 58-76 (1991).
  9. Newmann, F., Wehlage, G. G., & Lamborn, S. D., The significance and sources of student engagement. In F. Newmann (Ed.), Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools, New York: Teachers College Press. 11-39 (1992).
  10. Nguyen, K., Husman, J., Borrego, M., Shekhar, P., Prince, M. Demonbrun, M., Finelli, C. J., Henserson, C., Waters, C. (in press). Students? Expectations, Types of Instruction, and Instructor Strategies Predicting Student Response to Active Learning, International Journal of Engineering Education.
  11. Nokes-Malach, Richey and Gadgil, When is it better to learn together? Insights from research on collaborative learning, Educ. Psychol. Rev. 27, 645-656 (2015).
  12. Pintrich, P. R., Schunk, D. H., Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications (2nd ed.), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. (2001).
  13. Shekhar, P., Demonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Finelli, C., Prince, M., Henderson, C., & Waters, C., Development of an observation protocol to study undergraduate engineering student resistance to active learning, International Journal of Engineering Education. 31(2), 597-609 (2015).
  14. Slavin, R. E., Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice(2nd ed.), Boston: Allyn and Bacon. (1995).
  15. Slavin R. E., Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work? In The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, H. Dumont, D. Istance, and F. Benavides (Eds.), Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. (2010).
  16. Slezak S., Flipping a class: The learning by doing method, American Chemical Society 2014 Spring Conference on Computers in Chemical Education. (2014).
  17. Tanner, K. D., Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity, CBE-Life Sciences Education. 12(3), 322-331 (2013).

Image courtesy of PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder