Five Things to Consider in Making Student Group Work More Effective and Fun

By S. Benson, Centre for Teaching and Learning Enhancement

At a recent e-learning conversation a number of academic staff mentioned their interest in using group work and the challenges therein.   There is much written about group work, its advantages and challenges, and tips and tools for using group work.   The Faculty Focus newsletter has a number of articles about student group1 work and you can access them at the following link,

1. Assigning Students to Groups

A critical aspect of student group work, is how do you assign students to groups? There are several approaches; allow students to self select, assign students randomly to groups, and the instructor assigns students to groups.  My experience is that for academic projects that carry significant grading points it is best to assign student to groups. It is my experience (this is supported in the literature) that allowing students to self-select often leads to problems that are both time-consuming and froth with social complexities.   In the real world one seldom gets to choose their work team and career success demands that one has the skills to work with a variety of different people.  One of the benefits and reasons for using group work is that it provides an opportunity for students to develop and hone their teamwork skills.

My colleague Robin Wright at the University of Minnesota has been using group work in her biology classes for more than a decade and has developed an effective system for managing group work and assigning students to groups. Based on Robin’s work2 I use a simple rapid procedure to assign students into groups of 3 to 5 for class projects. At the start of the course I asked each student to fill out a 4 x 6 index card collecting the following information; name, gender, university year, GPA range, and major. This demographic information is useful for assigning students into groups.  The key however is the following; I asked each student to write one word or phrase on the card that their friends would use to describe them. It is important that they understand the word or phrase is what their friends would use to describe them rather than how they would describe themselves. Based on this I am able to identify what is commonly referred to as type A-personalities, individuals who have leadership skills, are driven, high standards, and tend to take over.  The key is to anchor each group with a type A-personality and avoid the problem of two type A-personalities in the same group. Once each group is anchored the rest of the group members are assigned based on gender, major, GPA, etc. I try to ensure that each group is diverse with respect to these traits.  Using this approach 40-80 students can be assigned to groups in a matter of a few minutes.  My experience using this approach is that it is rare (less than 10% of the time) that a group is dysfunctional, in contrast random assignment or allowing students to self select in groups results in a higher percentage of dysfunctional groups, where members don’t get along, there is infighting, or the group simply does not have the necessary skills to be successful.

2. Free Riders

One of the most often heard complaints from students regarding group work is that some groups members “free riders” don’t contribute.  To help address the issue of “free riders”, I routinely set aside 15 to 20% of the group project points as peer assigned points where each member distributes a fixed number of points among all members of the group including themselves.  A brief guideline for assigning peer points are provided.  For example, if there are 20 peer points and there are four group members and everyone works equally each member of the group would receive five points.  In reality what generally occurs, is that one or two members the group will receive slightly more than five points, and a member the group that doesn’t contribute receives very few points.  A copy of the peer evaluation form is attached below4.

3. Individual Points

In addition to group points it is useful to include some individual points that recognizes and rewards individual work.  One way to assign individual effort, is to set aside some percentage of the project points as individual points.  For example, if the group project is worth 200 points I routinely allocate 30-40 points, as individual points.  These points are based upon individual work not group work. One easy way to do this is to use peer-review, where students receive individual points for review of a project of a different group.  To help with consistency it is important provide a rubric which they used to rate the group project.

4. Scaffolding

Many students, especially first and second year students do not know the purpose or how to do group work.   When assigning a significant group project, it is important to scaffold student work.   One way to do this is to ask for certain deliverables at fixed dates.  For example, the topic and title of the project a few days after the assignment is released, task table indicating who in the groups is responsible for with task and a timeline indicating when they are to be completed, that is due at the one third point, and project draft at the two thirds point.  I assign a few points to each deliverable totaling less than 10% of the total project points.  If the group turns in the deliverable on time and it’s shows reasonable effort they receive all of the points.   If it is turned in late or clearly lacks effort than they receive 50% of the points.  Having a scaffolding system where intermediate products are due helps to keep the groups in task and prevents them from putting off the project until the last minute.

5. Class Time

To help student understand that their project is an important learning activity I generally set aside at least one class period where groups can meet and work on their project.  This allows me to individually check-in with each group and see their progress, answer questions and identify if there are problems or issues that can be easily solved by a short meeting.  I generally do this a few class meetings before the due date.

Reference Materials

1Faculty Focus Group Work articles.

2Wright, R. Boggs, J. 2002, Learning cell biology as a team: a project-based approach to upper-division cell biology. Cell Biol Educ.  1:145-53.

3A short PPT from GRSC804 Introduction to University Teaching I Fall 2015 download

4Template for collecting Peer-Evaluation Scores  download

By |2017-08-07T15:31:31+00:00March 15th, 2016|T&L Blog|2 Comments


  1. CTLE March 16, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    UM Staff are welcome to leave comments on this blog. Please contact CTLE at or 8822-4574 if you would like to post comments and continue the discussion.

  2. CTLE March 22, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    In Moodle there are several activities that work well with ‘groups’, e.g., advanced forums (standard forum for general use), OU Wiki, database and workshop. More information on how to set up an activity can be found at or

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