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Faculty Development Center

Designing and Managing Effective Group Learning

While engaging students in classroom discussions is an excellent pedagogical strategy, we know that not all students participate (or even pay attention), especially in larger classes. One logical extension of discussion, then, is to divide students into groups and have them work together, for example, to solve a problem, answer a question, create a report or presentation. Lecturing may be a good way of communicating information, but group work, both in and out of class, is probably the most effective way of developing students' skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making.

Five UMBC faculty members discussed their use of student groups at a brownbag session sponsored by the Faculty Development Center and the New Media division of OIT. This session, archived at OIT's brownbag site, highlights the work of professors from four different disciplines who use groups in a variety of ways (both in and out of class). Professor Mark Perks explains the new format for Chemistry 101 classes in which lectures are complemented by weekly formal group-work sessions led by TA's and overseen by Dr. Doug Papenmeier. Professor Marilyn Goldberg of Ancient Studies discusses her use of less formal in-class group work to develop critical-thinking skills, and Professor Linda Oliva of Education describes a group role-play exercise on academic integrity. Finally, two Mechanical Engineering faculty, Professors Uri Tasch and Tony Farquhar, describe examples of structured project work outside of class and lab work in class.

These examples illustrate the variety of ways groups can be used, including some of the principles of organizing, monitoring, and grading student group work. The key issues are easy to describe, though working out the details often requires time and attention.

  • If you are considering adding group work to your class, outline the learning goals that will be achieved by the activity-goals that would not be achieved fully or partially by any other teaching strategy. How will the student interaction better promote the development of critical thinking or teamwork skills, for example? Will the students have a clear sense of the purpose of the activity and how to monitor their work?
  • Don't assume that students know how to work together, how to structure their time, or how to delegate tasks. While your learning goals may focus on a discipline-specific skill (as in a chemistry lab), teaching with groups also requires us to teach students how to work productively as a group. Procedures for how to organize the group, including how to divide up the roles (if appropriate) need to be spelled out and discussed before the groups begin their work.
  • Prepare clear and explicit instructions for what the students are supposed to do in the time allotted for group work. If the work takes place in class, what questions are to be answered or what problems are to be solved? If the work takes place outside of class over a period of time, what are the deadlines? Are their guidelines for measuring progress?
  • Develop a grading rubric and give it to your students. What is being graded in the group work you assign? Will you be grading the students' ability to interact productively? If so, how will you measure this? Will students also grade their own work as a group, including their own contribution to the final product (as well as the contribution of all members of the group)?

Of course, because so many faculty at UMBC have experimented with student group work, ask colleagues for advice about their experiences with in-class exercises or long-range projects. And please contact me at the Faculty Development Center for information on or suggestions about using group activities in your class. As the faculty on our brownbag panel in November would attest, students enjoy and greatly benefit from well-designed collaborative tasks, so be assured that the time invested in developing new activities will produce better learning and more engaged students.

Web Resources

"Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams," Barbara Gross Davis in Tools for Teaching:

Active Learning:
look under Teaching Tips for Active Learning section

Books (available at the Faculty Development Center)

Cooper, James L., Robinson, Pamela, & Ball, David. (eds.) (2003). Small Group Instruction in Higher Education: Lessons from the Past, Visions of the Future. Stillwater, OK: New Forums.

Hurd, Sandra N. & Stein, Ruth Federman. (2004). Building and Sustaining Learning Communities: The Syracuse University Experience. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Jaques, David. (2000). Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Improving Group Work. 3rd Ed. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Laufgraben, Jodi Levine & Shapiro, Nancy S. (2004). Sustaining & Improving Learning Communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McManus, Dean A.. (2005). Leaving the Lectern: Cooperative Learning and the Critical First Days of Students Working in Groups. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Michaelsen, Lary K., Knight, Arletta Bauman, & Fink, L. Dee. (2002). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Millis, Barbara J. & Cottell, Philip G. Jr. (1998). Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx.

Stein, Ruth Federman, & Hurd, Sandra. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker.