CATL Teaching Guides

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Brief Description 

Group learning in an online classroom can take the form of discussion among the whole class or within smaller groups. Online courses offer the opportunity to create a highly social learning environment, characterized by participation and interactivity for both students and instructors. One of the biggest concerns students have when it comes to online education is losing the experience of interacting with their peers and professors because collaboration is often so integral to success in their future workplaces. As education continues to shift towards online learning, a collaborative environment becomes more and more important for a number of reasons. Specific pedagogical benefits of collaborative learning include the following:
  • Development of critical thinking skills,
  • Co-creation of knowledge and meaning,
  • Reflection,
  • Transformative learning. (Palloff & Pratt, 2005)
  1. Create Transparency of Expectations and Purpose: Make the activity relevant for students by describing how and why working within a group will help them [the students], and be of benefit. Clarify what is expected in the syllabus. Outline the requirements for participation and the process for participation that includes a description of the online tool(s) students will use for facilitating group communication. Identifying the tool will also allow time for students to become familiar with the application as needed.
  2. Provide Clear Instructions: Barriers to successful group work include lack of clear objectives and vague directions. Taking the time to explain the purpose of the activity, providing clear due dates, and outlining instructions is essential. Also, a due date that is near the end of the course is recommended as this allows students to complete the orientation phase and establish relationships within the group.
  3. Form Small Groups: Small groups are most effective for online activities – three or four students is ideal. With larger groups [over five participants] students can lurk in the background and not contribute. There is literature for online instruction that suggests it is beneficial to have students create their own groups, though as a student I always preferred that the instructor create the groups.
  4. Monitor and Support: It’s important that the instructor be available to answer questions and ‘be there’ for groups, especially for those that are struggling. Holding synchronous video sessions with groups is an effective method of instruction. I experienced this type of support as a student with a difficult group project; it was helpful and appreciated.
  5. Include Etiquette Guidelines: Create guidelines for students that outline how to  participate effectively in an online group. Highlight the difference between cooperative work and collaborative work, cooperative is individuals giving input to peers, yet collaborative is group work where ONE product is created, submitted and graded as whole.

Tips to Implement Online Group Learning Effectively

  • Facilitate learner readiness for group work and provide scaffolding to build skills.
    Scaffolding is important in preparing learners for small group projects. This can be accomplished through instructional design (sequencing activities within the course that build on previously learned skills) and positioning small group activity later in the course when students have acquired the confidence and skills to be successful. Students need to be taught the necessary skills for effective online collaboration, particularly those skills that will help them succeed in a group environment, such as planning and negotiation skills (Curtis & Lawson, 2001). Chapman, Ramondt, and Smiley (2005) recommend using ice breakers, seeding, and statements about expectations regarding participation, etiquette, and guidelines for behavior, and Smith (2003) discusses uses of interaction standards, tools, and techniques. Learners often need help with acquiring information literacy skills (how to retrieve, evaluate, apply, and source information effectively) and with using the technology effectively.
  • Establish a healthy balance between structure (clarity of task) and learner autonomy (flexibility of task).
    The instructor should provide guidelines for team member performance in conducting the group project (Palloff & Pratt, 1999) and ensure that the task is achievable, sustainable, and properly timed within the course (Bouchat, 2007). Juwah (2006) has found that allowing learners to form their own groups and select their own topics facilitates socializing within groups and positive group dynamics. Effective course design will make the purpose and parameters of group tasks and the learning goals clear and explicit while still allowing students flexibility, such as choice of group membership, member roles, and specifics of the topic. When students have personal control over the task (content, process, intentions, goal setting, consequences, outcomes, group partners), their engagement, responsibility, and sense of the relevance of the task are heightened.
  • Monitor group activities actively and closely.  During the collaborative process, the instructor needs to be available for feedback, general information, and private counsel. In addition, the instructor needs to intervene as required to keep discussions on track, support and animate dynamic conversation, help students stay focused on the task, assist with relationship building, and provide reassurance.Although this paper does not advocate formal assessment, continuous feedback is a type of formative evaluation that helps students develop specific skills and deepens the learning process.
  • Make the group task relevant for the learner.  Research by Curtis & Lawson (2001) has found that the more interested a student is in a group topic, the more motivated the student is in participating in the collaborative effort. Allowing learners to pursue topics according to mutual interest sets groups up to share and co-create knowledge. Authentic, real-world environments and relevant content provide motivation for collaborative learning. Enabling students to control and direct their learning to the greatest extent possible helps them to achieve a purpose that is specific to their needs and challenges their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, as cited in Lin, 2008).
  • Choose tasks that are best performed by a group.  Individual learners make compromises regarding flexibility of study in order to participate in a collaborative exercise. Engaging in tasks that benefit from teamwork will increase their sense of purposefulness and motivation to participate.
  • Provide sufficient time.  Course design should allow sufficient time for collaborative learning activities, including time for scheduling, planning, and organizing.  Most importantly, time is required for the discussion and exchange of ideas that are crucial to deeper learning.


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