Developing Students' Group Work Skills

How to assess group work and build effective teams

Based on articles Kerner (2009); Black, Gach, & Kotzian (2007); Chadwich (1989); Winter, Lemons, Bookman, & Hoese (2001)

Develop individual accountability and collaboration

A successful team is one in which everyone contributes to getting the work completed. If work is being done in the classroom, pay attention to group dynamics to see if one team member participates fully. Encourage the team to work together by:

  • Decide ahead of time how you will assign teams. The most effective groups consist of two to four students. There are several ways to assemble teams. 
    • Self-select. The advantage of this approach is that students like to work with people they know, and friends will often self-select creating a relaxed classroom atmosphere. The disadvantages are that social teams may focus more on being social than being productive, and you may need to monitor their behavior to ensure they complete their work. In addition, self-selection may mean that certain students are left out. 
    • Randomly assigned. This has the advantage of providing a balanced mix of skills that approximates real-world work experience. It has the disadvantage of possibly creating a group with conflicting personalities or work styles that will need you to help them work through their difficulties. 
    • Designated by criteria. This has the advantage of ensuring a balance of skills or interests on each team in the class. The downside is that you need to spend time gathering data on your students before you assign the teams.
  • Determine how long teams will be together. It is important to be clear with the students how long they will work with their team. In some classes, students stay with the same team for sessions; while other students change teams more frequently. Remember that effective teams need time to learn to work together and that most teams go through “storming” of negotiating roles and responsibilities before they begin to operate effectively. Switching teams frequently will prevent team members from learning how to work together. If a team does not seem to be able to negotiate their differences, you should step in helping them solve the problem, or suggest how to restructure the group roles or level of participation. If nothing else works, then reorganize the team.
  • Assign team roles to ensure that everyone participates. Roles might include a manager to organize the activities, a technician to set up equipment, a recorder to record outcomes, and a group process monitor determines whether everyone contributes and the work gets done on time. Support each team role with guidance in your overview at the beginning of the activity. Try to have team members change roles for each new assignment to prevent role repetition. Ask questions to the disinterested student. This requires the disinterested student to respond to the group and not you: “Hey John, can you share two sources of error in the data with your team?”; “Amelia, what do you think Carlos should do next?” Ask each group member to summarize ideas. This gets each team member to describe a concept or the progress that they have made. It encourages them to interact with each other around ideas or to make it clear you are paying attention to each person’s contribution.

Help groups develop problem-solving skills

In a group, students need to develop problem-solving skills with their team. Beginning instructors have been observed making two common mistakes when working with groups: they step in and tell students what to do or how to get the right answer instead of encouraging students to interact with each other, and they spend unequal time supporting group progress in class (Winter, Lemons, Bookman, & Hoese, 2001). You can help groups develop problem-solving skills by using the following strategies:

  • Don’t just tell students if an answer is correct or incorrect. Instead of providing a quick answer, encourage the team to tell you how they got their answer first. This helps you see their thought processes, misunderstandings, or where they are making a mistake. When they tell you their answer, note what was right before prompting them in a new direction.
  • Move around the room. Make contact with each group with a simple question like “Is everything going okay with this part of the activity?” If a team is struggling, don’t spend all of your time with this group at the expense of other teams. Get them going with a hint or prompt, and then tell them you will check back with them in a few minutes. Ensure you follow up with them to check on their progress and acknowledge their self-effort.

Use questions to develop interpersonal skills

Good instructor/student interactions promote student-centered learning through effective questioning techniques. The kinds of questions you ask will send a message to students about how you expect them to work together and the depth of learning you expect them to achieve in class: 

  • Respond to questions. When a student in a group asks you a question, don’t answer it if you think the group can figure this question out. Respond with phrases like “Does anyone else have an idea what to do next?”, “Was anyone else able to work this out?” or to check a student’s answer “What did other people get for their calculations?”
  • Vary Question Levels. You can vary the kind of questions to help students learn. Ask “fact level” questions (e.g., how, what where, when) when you need to verify what they know before they attempt the next step or do something dangerous. “What is the voltage on the motor?” or “How will that solvent interact with the gasket?” Ask “higher level” questions, (e.g., evaluation, prediction, and opinions), when you want students to be more aware of their thinking about the concepts. “How would you interpret your results based on the goal of the lab?” “What do you think will happen if you increase the pressure?” or “Aiesha, can you explain to Kirk what figure 1 means in relation to…? or “Why did you all measure the friction in the first part before you moved on…?” 


  • Black, B., Gach, M., & Kotzian, N. (1996). Guidebook for teaching labs for University of Michigan Graduate Student Instructors. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.
  • Chadwick, N. (1989). Introduction to lab sections. Learning to teach, a handbook for Teaching Assistants at U. C. Berkeley. pp. 28-30. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley.
  • Kerner, N. (2009). Instructor Information: Chem125/126. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • Winter, D., Lemons, P., Bookman, J. & Hoese, W. (2001). Novice instructors and student-centered instruction: Identifying and addressing obstacles to learning in the college science laboratory. The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 15-42.
  • Woods, D. R., Felder, R. M., Rugarcia, A., & Stice, J. E. (2000). The future of engineering education: Part 3. developing critical skills. Chemical Engineering Education, 34(2), 108-117

Keywordsteams, groups, work, group work, measure, assess, studentsDoc ID113255
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2021-08-25 08:46:43Updated2024-04-16 12:41:42
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Feedback  0   0