Preparing Students for Group Work

Active learning graphic

Successful group learning requires more than just dividing students into effective groups and designing a well-tailored activity. It is also important to prepare students for group work more generally so that they commence collaborative learning with an understanding of the expectations, structure, and rationale behind team-based learning. This will allow students to enter the experience better prepared to be productive members of a team. There are many ways to prepare students to succeed in a group environment. Many faculty often devote time to doing the following with their students.

Provide an Introduction

Many students may not have learned in a collaborative setting before. Most students will approach a typical college class expecting a lecture-based approach. Start with what group work involves and the different forms it can take. Then provide them with a rationale for why the class will utilize group learning. You might discuss how students can benefit from a diversity of opinions, backgrounds, skills, and education. Point to the connection between in-class group work and future careers that require inter-personal skills. In this regard, group learning is both good preparation and a marketable skill. 

The sooner you can provide this introduction, the better prepared your class will be to succeed in groups. While the first day of class is a good time to expand on the ideas above, all students should be given enough information in class descriptions to appreciate what will be generally expected of them when registering.

Provide the Specifics

Once they know they will be working in groups, students will immediately want to know certain things. Below are a sample of common student questions. Try to answer these early on, to create clear expectations and allay any anticipatory anxiety:

  • Will the work be graded? If so, will it be graded individually, collectively, or will there be some combination of the two?
  • If it is not graded, will students be held accountable in some other way?
  • Will there be prescribed roles for group members?
  • Will students be expected to work with their groups outside of class?
  • What happens if a student misses a class?
  • What should students do if there is a problem within the group?

Give the Students a Chance to Meet Each Other

Before giving students a task and expecting them to dive right in to their group work, consider giving them a chance to become comfortable with one another.  Ice breakers can be used to give every student a chance to become comfortable talking. Providing a mechanism for students to interact on a level playing field will help prevent the development of unequal roles, such as more assertive students sidelining the quieter students.

Encourage Engagement Early On

Try to include some sort of activity in the first class so that students can get accustomed to group work early on. If you will be using in-room tools, such as whiteboards or monitors, develop an activity that lets students use them early so they become comfortable with using them later on.