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Group learning

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Instructors may include small-group learning opportunities for variety of purposes that range from on-the-spot assessments, to segmenting class time (e.g., to maintain students' attention), to developing collaboration skills, to developing collaborative problem-solving skills.  
Learning in small groups is most powerful when the assignments are designed to reach the five goals of Collaborative learning


  1. Formal Group Learning
  2. Informal Group Learning
  3. Online Group Learning
  4. Study Groups


  • Barkley, E.F., K.P. Cross, and C.H. Major. 2005. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning (CATL) has several copies of this book for instructors to borrow.  
  • Collaborative Learning Toolbox:  Design ideas, organized by purpose:  informal techniques to gauge student understanding in the moment, break up a lecture, or develop students' ability to self-assess their learning;  and Collaborative learning designs that, by design, require a group and therefore also tend to structure the group's work so that students must rely on each other.
  • Smith, M. (2016) Weekly Digest #26: Managing Group WorkThe Learning Scientists Blog.  Includes links to many resources for assigning students to groups, quick summaries of research on group designs (e.g., should groups be as diverse as possible? (short answer: probably no)), how to keep students accountable, etc. 

Hoskins, D. and Bazluki, M.  (2015). Group learning. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Grading Group Work

Most authors advocate a grading procedure that combines the evaluation of students’ individual learning/performance with a summary evaluation of the entire group learning/performance. Researchers stress that individual accountability is important in order to insure fair and equitable grading within the group. If you assign the same grade to all group members you run the risk of overrewarding students who don’t deserve it and underrewarding students who do.

The dilemma is how to devise a grading procedure that combines individual and group evaluation. If a group produces a paper, project or presentation it is not always obvious how to assign a grade to the group and then assign separate grades to group members. Here are several examples and approaches for grading group learning.

Grading scenarios

Individual + Group Grades on Tests:  Students work in study groups to learn and teach one another the course material. Students take a test individually and get an individual test score. Then they retake the same test in their groups, and receive a group test score (all members of the group receive the same score). The instructor decides how to weight and combine the scores into one grade, e.g., Overall grade = ⅔ individual grade + ⅓ group grade.

This approach combines individual grades with a group grade. This example illustrates a way to assess student learning individually and then overall group learning. But it is different than trying to assess individual contributions to a group project or presentation—which I think is much more difficult.

Collaborative work as “class participation:”  Give credit, but don’t grade it. This approach does not include individual accountability. But it is a low‐stakes way to give credit for CL work. In a class where students do group exercises or activities regularly, you can assign class participation credit. For example, students do a 15 minute exercise and must produce a written group summary to hand in. Based on the group summaries students receive full participation (good faith effort), partial participation (marginal effort), or no participation (poor effort). If you adopt this approach it is important to identify the characteristics of summaries that reflect a good faith effort, marginal effort, and poor effort.

Research team model: Some collaborative work is analogous to team‐based research. In research teams there may be differential contributions by group members which are reflected in terms of authorship when the work is published. In classes where students do group projects/presentations, group members could decide who deserves authorship for the work. Freeloaders could be excluded from authorship and receive no credit, and students who contribute very little might be a junior author. Joint authors receive the same grade for the work, junior authors receive a fraction of the grade and nonauthors receive no credit. Caveat: Need Plan B for junior and nonauthors, e.g., must complete a separate assignment.

Contract Grading for Group Projects:  Instructors might try “contract grading” for group projects. The instructor and students devise a contract that specifies “the content and group process learning activities to be undertaken, the criteria by which the work is to be evaluated, and the grade or amount of credit to be assigned upon completion” (Barkley, Cross, & Major, p. 89). The advantage of this approach is that it clearly describes what is expected of students and makes their involvement more transparent. Instructors can more easily monitor or trace the contributions of individuals to the final project. It also provides a more objective way for students to evaluate one another’s contributions if they can use a set of criteria that clearly identify what they were supposed to do.

Additional grading ideas:  Students should know and understand the learning goals, criteria and standards for collaborative work before they start their work.

  1. Always define the learning goals, criteria and standards for collaborative work.
  2. Put the learning goals, criteria and standards for collaborative work in writing.
  3. Review the learning goals, criteria and standards for collaborative work with students.

Cerbin, B. (2010).  Grading group work.  In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Brief Description 

Collaborative learning or Cooperative learning (CL), is instruction that involves students working in teams to accomplish an assigned task and produce a final product (e.g., a problem solution, critical analysis, laboratory report, or process or product design), under conditions that include the following elements (Johnson et al., 1998).

Collaborative learning, or group learning, activities vary widely, but more center on students' exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher's presentation or explanation of it. Students working in small groups tend to learn more that what is taught and retain it longer when the content is presented in other instructional formats such as group learning.   

Establishing a culture of collaboration to solve problems and share knowledge not only builds collaboration and communication skills, it often leads to a deeper learning and understanding of the material.  This collective wisdom empowers students to take more ownership of the learning thus creating a mindset of that a joint intellectual effort is and can be a valuable resource. 

While in-class group learning isn't for everyone or for every situation, properly structured the groups appropriately can lead to a successful learning experience. These learning experiences provide educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned leading to deeper learning.


  1. Encourage positive interdependence. Team members are obliged to rely on one another to achieve the goal.  If any team members fail to do their part, everyone on the team suffers consequences. 

    • One activity that could be used to facilitate this type of in-class group learning is jigsaw group projects.  In jigsaw projects, each member of a group is asked to complete some discrete part of an assignment; when every member has completed his assigned task, the pieces can be joined together to form a finished project. 

  2. Plan for face-to-face promotive interaction. Although some of the group work may be done individually, some must be done interactively, with team members providing mutual feedback and guidance, challenging one another, and working toward consensus.

    • Stump your partner - Students take a minute to create a challenging question based on the lecture content up to that point.  Students pose the question to the person sitting next to them.  To take this activity a step further, ask students to write down their questions and hand them in. These questions can be used to create tests or exams. They can also be reviewed to gauge student understanding.

    • Case Study - Create four to five case studies of similar difficulty. Have students work in groups of four or five to work through and analyze their case study.  Provide 10-15 minutes (or adequate time to work through the cases).  Walk around and address any questions.  Call on groups randomly and ask that students share their analysis. Continue until each case study has been addressed.

  3. Pay attention to appropriate use of teamwork skills and individual accountability. Students are encouraged and helped to develop and exercise leadership, communication, conflict management, and decision-making skills. All team members are held accountable both for doing their share of the work and for understanding everything in the final product (not just the parts for which they  were primarily responsible).

    • One activity that could be used to facilitate this type of in-class group learning is the use of panel discussions.  Panel discussions are especially useful when students are asked to give class presentations or reports as a way of including the entire class in the presentation. Student groups are assigned a topic to research and asked to prepare presentations (note that this may readily be combined with the jigsaw method mentioned above). Each panelist is then expected to make a very short presentation, before the floor is opened to questions from "the audience". The key to success is to choose topics carefully and to give students sufficient direction to ensure that they are well-prepared for their presentations. You might also want to prepare the "audience", by assigning them various roles. For example, if students are presenting the results of their research into several forms of energy, you might have some of the other students role play as concerned environmentalists, transportation officials, commuters, and so forth.

Tips to Implement In-Class Group Learning Effectively

  • Proceed gradually when using cooperative learning for the first time. Cooperative learning imposes a learning curve on both students and instructors. Instructors who have never used it might do well to try a single team project or assignment the first time, gradually increasing the amount of group work in subsequent course offerings as they gain experience and confidence.
  • Form teams of 3-4 studentsTeams of two may not generate a sufficient variety of ideas and approaches, teams of five or more are likely to leave at least one student out of the group process.
  • Instructor-formed teams generally work better than self-selected teams. Classroom research studies show that the most effective groups tend to be heterogeneous in ability and homogeneous in interests, with common blocks of time when they can meet outside class. It is also advisable not to allow underrepresented populations (e.g. racial minorities, or women in traditionally male fields like engineering) to be outnumbered in teams, especially during the first two years of college when students are most likely to lose confidence and drop out. When students self-select, these guidelines are often violated. One approach to team formation is to use completely random assignment to form practice teams, and then after the first class examination has been given, form new teams using the given guidelines.
  • Give more challenging assignments to teams than to individuals. If the students could just as easily complete assignments by themselves, the instructor is not realizing the full educational potential of cooperative learning and the students are likely to resent the additional time burden of having to meet with their groups. The level of challenge should not be raised by simply making the assignments longer, but by including more problems that call upon higher level thinking skills.
  • Help students learn how to work effectively in teams. Some instructors begin a course with instruction in teamwork skills and team-building exercises, while others prefer to wait for several weeks until the inevitable interpersonal conflicts begin to arise and then provide strategies for dealing with the problems. One technique is to collect anonymous comments about group work, describe one or two common problems in class (the most common one being team members who are not pulling their weight), and have the students brainstorm possible responses and select the best ones.
  • Take measures to provide positive interdependence. Methods include assigning different roles to group members (e.g. coordinator, checker, recorder, and group process monitor), rotating the roles periodically or for each assignment; providing one set of resources; requiring a single group product; and giving a small bonus on tests to groups in which the team average is above (say) 80%. Another powerful technique is jigsaw, in which each team member receives specialized training in one or another subtask of the assignment and must then contribute his or her expertise for the team product to receive top marks.
  • Impose individual accountability in as many ways as possible. The most common method is to give individual tests. In lecture courses, the course grade should be based primarily on the test results (e.g., 80% for the tests and 20% for team homework), so that students who manage to get a free ride on the homework will still do poorly in the course. Other techniques include calling randomly on individuals to present and explain team results; having each team member rate everyone’s contribution and combining the results with the team grade to determine individual assignment grades, and providing a last resort option of firing chronically uncooperative team members.
  • Require teams to assess their performance regularly. At least two or three times during the semester, teams should be asked to respond to questions like "How well are we meeting our goals and expectations? "What are we doing well?" "What needs improvement?" and "What (if anything) will we do differently next time?
  • Survey the students after the first six weeks of a course. As a rule, the few students who dislike group work are quite vocal about it, while the many who see its benefits are quiet. Unless the students are surveyed during the course, the instructor might easily conclude from the complaints that the approach is failing and be tempted to abandon it.
  • Expect some students to be initially resistant or hostile to cooperative learning. This point is crucial - students sometimes react negatively when asked to work in teams for the first time. Bright students complain about begin held back by their slower teammates; weaker or less-assertive students complain about being discounted or ignored in group sessions; and resentments build when some team members fail to pull their weight. Instructors with experience know how to avoid most of the resistance and deal with the rest, but novices may become discouraged and revert to the traditional teacher-centered instructional paradigm, which is a loss both for them and for their students.


  • Clarke, J. 1994. "Pieces of the Puzzle: The Jigsaw Method", in Sharan, ed. Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods.
  • Felder, R.M.,and R. Brent. 1994. Cooperative learning in technical courses: Procedures, pitfalls, and payoffs. ERIC Document Reproduction Service, ED 377038.  
  • Johnson, D.W., R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith. 1998. Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom, 2d ed. Edina, MN: Interaction Press.
  • Millis, B.J., and P.G. Cottell, Jr. 1998. Cooperative learning for higher engineering faculty. Phoenix: Oryx Press.
  • Collaborative Learning Toolbox:  Design ideas, organized by purpose:  informal techniques to gauge student understanding in the moment, break up a lecture, or develop students' ability to self-assess their learning;  and Collaborative learning designs that, by design, require a group and therefore also tend to structure the group's work so that students must rely on each other.
Bazluki, M.  (2015). Collaborative learning. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from