Supporting Effective Group Projects and Teamwork

Both group and teamwork are effective teaching strategies to engage students in collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. Group work generally applies to short-term collaborations among students to complete a classroom assignment. Group work can be an effective short-term strategy to engage students in specific activities. An example of group work is students working together in small groups during one class session to add ideas to a Padlet or Miro Board. In contrast, teamwork applies to long-term or ongoing collaborations in which groups of students work together towards a common goal, purpose, or outcome. An example of teamwork is a final project for a class that students complete together over the course of several weeks. 

Teams work together towards a common goal, purpose, or outcome; they also exhibit trust and encouragement, feel a sense of shared ownership of the work they’re producing, and leave vital space to express ideas and opinions.  This online resource is mainly focused on teamwork, but many of the principles (transparency, staying involved, prompting reflection) are applicable in any teaching setting, including group and teamwork. 

Students often have negative feelings towards group assignments, for a variety of valid reasons, but when designed deliberately, teamwork can be an enjoyable, empowering, and effective learning experience for students and instructors. 

Teamwork assignments should: 

  1. Align with the course learning outcomes outlined in the syllabus, either through process or products; and 
  2. Necessitate effort from multiple individuals who each perform different roles and responsibilities. 

Ultimately, students should know why they are doing teamwork, and how they are drawing on previous lessons and skills to succeed. 

Benefits of Teamwork

How do students benefit from engaging in teamwork? Teamwork: 

  • Cultivates a sense of community and connection among the students 
  • Stimulates and encourages student creativity 
  • Allows for sharing of diverse perspectives and approaches, both intra- and inter-group 
  • Leads to more thoughtful, nuanced, complex products which integrate the input of multiple perspectives 
  • Helps students build collaboration, organization, and communication skills valued by employers

Types of Team Projects 

Consider formats other than a research paper or presentation for delivering the findings of a project. Ideas include: 

  • A short film or video 
  • A board game 
  • An art installation 
  • A website or blog 
  • An advertising campaign 
  • A mural 
  • An interactive map or timeline 
  • Analysis of a case study 
  • An issue of a news/literary magazine 
  • A short performance 
  • A poster presentation 
  • An edited collection of essays 
  • A radio broadcast (think NPR) 
  • A podcast with several “episodes” 

Setting Student Teams Up for Success 

Let’s review four strategies to support student thriving in teamwork: 

1. Deliberately number and arrange teams 

Select a number for team size that aligns with the format and needs of the relevant assignment. Teams should be composed of 2 to 5 students, with 6 as an absolute maximum. A team of 2 to 5 ensures that every student has a meaningful role and opportunities to contribute their perspectives; any more is likely to ‘stall’ the group or leave one or more students on the sidelines. Instructors can set team size limits on such platforms as Canvas and Zoom.  Visit this resource for a guide on making student groups in Canvas. 

Consider the team size that would best align with each project: 

  • An essay or paper typically requires a small group, preferably 3 or fewer students. A larger group can result in students circumventing collaboration by each claiming a different “portion” of the writing, which they then combine into one non-cohesive product. 
  • A short video may require a larger student group, such as 4 to 6 students, as there can be several distinct roles associated with filming (for example: writer, producer, director, performer, editor). 

You can also provide students with a list of roles from which they can choose after forming teams. This helps students stay on-task, as each student knows exactly what they should be doing to contribute. Since every student has a clear direction or set of tasks based on their role, it is clear for each student, as well as you as instructor, what work among their individual responsibilities has been completed. Some examples of team roles include recorder, mediator, skeptic, and reporter. You may also offer roles based on the specific project they are completing, such as the video project roles described above. Students can rotate roles so that they each practice different skills and leave the course with multiple teamwork tools. 

Forming Student Teams 

You may choose to assign students to teams or allow students to select their own teams. Consider asking students for their thoughts on how to form teams; you can use an anonymous poll to learn whether students prefer being assigned teammates or selecting their own teammates. One ‘middle ground’ option is to encourage students to form teams based on a shared interest or topic. You can offer students topics to choose from and let them cluster in teams around what is most interesting to them. Discourage students from selecting teams based on existing friendships. Students may struggle with the transition from ‘friend’ to ‘teammate,’ and it is harder for students to provide critical feedback within their friendship group. 

If assigning students to groups, consider their prior knowledge, experience, and skills; a shared sense of motivation among the team; and students’ familiarity with each other.  

Most importantly, avoid randomizing teams. Randomly assigned teams will likely lack anything that binds them together, such as shared goals, interests, or approaches to classwork, meaning they are unlikely to feel a sense of responsibility to each other or the assessment. 

Team Formation Activities 

Consider assigning students to craft norms or guidelines as a team. You may prompt them by asking such questions as: What values and practices should we prioritize as a team? What do we each want to accomplish by working together? When something goes wrong, how will we compassionately hold each other accountable? Here are some questions to prompt students in team formation, which you can ask them to collaboratively answer and submit before beginning their shared project: 

  • What are the most important elements of successful teamwork? 
  • How will we ensure that all team members’ ideas are heard and integrated into our project? 
  • What are our preferred modes for communication (email/text/group messaging app/calls, etc.)? What times are okay to communicate? How quickly should people respond to messages? 
  • How do we want to complete the work (i.e. are we ok waiting till the end or do we prefer to complete aspects before they are due?) How will we communicate and set these expectations? What will we do if these expectations are not met? 
  • Who will upload this team formation document? Who will submit or upload the final project to Canvas? 
  • What are we worried about with respect to group work and/or this project? How can we alleviate any of those worries? 

Equity in Team Formation 

If assigning students to groups, instructors may feel tempted to diversify student teams by ‘distributing’ marginalized students among various team formations. For example, if there is only a handful of BIPOC students in class, the instructor may want to assign one BIPOC student to each team of white students, to help ‘diversify’ the identities and perspectives of otherwise racially homogenous teams.  

This is likely, however, to leave marginalized students feeling isolated and tokenized. Student teams are unfortunately a venue in which discriminatory behavior and microaggressions are often expressed against marginalized students. Marginalized students are much more likely to feel safe and a sense of belonging when they are in a group with at least one other member that shares aspects of their identity.  Additionally, student identities are much more complex than what we might visually register from interactions, and even what they have shared with us in class. Allowing students to cluster based on a topic of interest circumvents this concern, as students will be already unified by their shared interest. 

“It is important to make sure that there is critical mass in every group so that lone members of a particular social category (e.g., race, gender) do not find themselves isolated in a group.” —Eberly Center, Carnegie Mellon University 

Instructors can prompt student teams to include a diversity of perspectives, regardless of the composition of student groups, by building such reflection into project criteria. For example, you may ask students to explain how different populations or identities may be included in, or impacted by, the work they produce, or to reflect on how their respective identities play role in the work they generate. 


2. Practice Transparency 

Following backward design, the assessments of your course should feed into the course’s learning outcomes, meaning assigned teamwork should clearly connect back to course learning outcomes. Students should not be assigned to teams simply for the sake of less grading on the part of the instructor. Keep in mind that, as instructors, we cannot assess anything that we do not teach. Before evaluating or providing feedback on student work, we must practice the relevant skills as a form of active learning. Just like we would not grade students on content that’s never been covered in class, we wouldn’t assess students’ collaboration skills without discussing and exploring those skills first as a class. 

Students should understand why they have been put in teams and the course skills they are meant to practice when working together. Why are they completing this assessment with others, and not alone? If it isn’t clear how teamwork will connect back to course outcomes and the skills that students are meant to practice, you might reconsider the assignment. You should also make it clear to students how they are meant to conduct themselves throughout teamwork and how they will be evaluated on their work.  

It’s important that, from early on, students establish guidelines for conducting themselves professionally in the context of their group. Prompt students to generate these guidelines together. To frame this activity, explain the importance of such team skills as: 

  • Respect 
  • Good communication skills 
  • Reliability 
  • Knowing one’s role 
  • Self-reflection 
  • Flexibility 
  • Conflict management 

Depending on students’ prior experience with team projects and the complexity of the assignment, you may need to devote class time early on to teaching and reinforcing these skills. 

Most group projects require students to work together outside of class at least part of the time. Provide students with an estimate of approximately how much time they might need outside of class for the project. In constructing this estimate, consider how the group project is integrated into your course. If there are other assignments, such as readings, essays, or tests, will students have enough time to complete those assignments and this project? Students can complete one of the team formation activities described in the previous section to define how and when they will work together on components of the project. 

Addressing Challenges within Teams 

It is vital that students know early on what to do in case their team is not functioning well: When is it appropriate for them to come to you for advice?  What strategies do you want them to try when problems arise?  Consider, for example, what you want students to do if a student is not responding to emails about setting up group meetings. What if a student in the group is not doing their part, and this is preventing other students from being able to complete their parts? If a group member voices a concern to you, guide them in appropriate ways to communicate these concerns to the group. 


3. Stay Involved 

Instead of evaluating a team’s success solely from their final submission, team projects should be scaffolded so there are multiple opportunities for minor submissions or check-ins along the way. Scaffolding for group projects means breaking down the assignment into steps and providing feedback along the way. Each step builds on the skills of the previous one, while potentially introducing new techniques or skills along the way toward the completion of the major tasks. Students can submit outlines, project plans, and drafts for feedback from you and/or your peers. They can also ask questions and share ideas with you and/or peers. Students can incorporate answers, others’ ideas, and feedback into their project as they develop it, making for a stronger and more collaboratively constructed project overall. This breaks the evaluation of the project down into multiple smaller components, instead of one overarching grade. This also cultivates an opportunity for ongoing metacognition by students as they witness their own growth and reflect on feedback.  

You can establish communication pathways for students to share updates on their progress, as well as to share if they have concerns about the group, such as struggles to collaborate or microaggressions directed from one student to another. You can use a Canvas quiz to do this by making it an ungraded survey, and potentially also selecting to make submissions anonymous (students may still self-identify if they choose to). You can also direct students to an anonymous Google survey. 

Using class time can ease some of what students often feel is a burden of group work, namely finding time when everyone is available. Additionally, allotting time during a few class sessions for students to work together enables you to observe group dynamics and serve as a resource to students. 


4. Include Opportunities for Assessment and Reflection 

Encourage students to monitor their development and reflect on their performance as they work together. How successfully are students practicing relevant course skills? Where is their group encountering successes and challenges? How can they improve the aspects of collaboration in which they are not so strong? 

Here are some opportunities you can offer for students to assess their own progress: 

  • Checklists of project components or tasks, and/or skills they are practicing 
  • Learning journals, with regular entries 
  • Peer review 
  • Reflective papers 
  • Student portfolios of their process with the assessment, such as examples of their brainstorming, work drafts, etc. 

Here are some questions you can ask students to answer when reflecting on their performance in their team. You may ask students to answer some or all of these questions and submit them after the final project is completed: 

  • How much time was spent as a group (group meetings, discussing the paper, practicing, etc.) working on this presentation? 
  • How much time did you personally spend on this project (both group meetings and individually)? 
  • Did everyone attend the meetings? If not, who missed meetings? Do you know why? Did they do anything to ‘make up’ the missed meetings? 
  • Did your group practice the presentation (not summarizing what you intend to say, but saying it like you plan to present it)? If not, what did you do? 
  • How did your group communicate? Did anyone not communicate well or appropriately? If so, who? Describe the situation a bit more. Did anyone always initiate communication (emails, texts, group messages)? If so, who? 
  • Did anyone dominate the discussions to the detriment of others? If yes, who, how so exactly, and why do you think that happened? 
  • Did anyone lack critical contributions to the presentation (you felt they were invisible and did not add anything specific to the project)? If yes, who, how so exactly, and why do you think that happened? 
  • What were your specific responsibilities in putting this presentation together? 
  • If you had 100 points to distribute to all members of the group (including yourself), how should the points be distributed? For example, if everyone in a 5-person group contributed equally, each person would receive 20 points. 
  • Is there anything else you would like to share regarding the group presentation or how your group worked together? 

Grading Group Work 

How can we grade group work in a way that minimizes student anxiety and is fair and equitable to individual student effort? 

The answer is to assess both group and individual contributions. To conduct individual contributions, you may ask students to use tools such as individual reflections, self-assessment rubrics, individual quizzes, and/or journal entries. As always, you should make your grading scheme and criteria for the project clear; for example, share a rubric with them. Even if you don’t work with rubrics, students will need a clear set of criteria for what constitutes a quality finished product, how you define effective teamwork, and how you characterize an effective team member. 

When assigning teamwork, instructors may be worried about a lack of contributions from less engaged students. Similarly, dedicated students may feel deeply demotivated by team projects if their success is dependent on team members who may not perform their share of the work. In this way, teamwork can discourage effort from highly engaged students.   

Part of students’ anxieties regarding group work stem from their uncertainty around whether they are being evaluated on their team’s final product (a design, report, presentation, etc.), the collaboration among students in a team (their practicing of organization, communication, the balancing of individual contributions, etc.), their individual contributions of the team, or any combination of these. It is important to assess each team’s process as well as their final product. This reinforces the value of teamwork in completing the assessment, and helps students grow in those teamwork skills. Your grading scheme should reflect your goals for student learning as well as seek to motivate the kind of work you want students to create.  

Here is an example of scaffolding a team project into smaller graded components: 

  • Final Team Project: 30% of final course grade 
  • Team/Topic Selection: 5% 
  • Topic Introduction/Project Outline: 5% 
  • Final Team Presentation: 10% 
  • Final Team Paper: 5% 
  • Self & Group Reflection: 5%

The Importance of Classroom Culture 

Students can only build trusting and collaborative cultures within teams when the class itself has a trusting and collaborative culture from the beginning of the semester. As one of the CTRL Student Partners explains, “Teamwork is rooted in the culture of the classroom…So much of that is dependent on the tone that the professor has and how they try to create a strong classroom climate. It’s really helpful to create that community and also make people comfortable with the idea of group work.” Here are some strategies for cultivating such a classroom atmosphere, suggested by CTRL Student Partners: 

  • Facilitate students getting to know each other, including in low-stakes ways that are not graded; this can include in-class, short-term activities that help build trust and communication 
  • Cultivate a conversational and casual dynamic in class 
  • Integrate active learning to complement lecture 
  • Promote discussion and collaboration before assigning group work  
  • Allow students to assign roles and tasks within the group, based on instructor suggestions or prompts