Project Description

Why, when and how to do group work

Engage in affective learning


Group assessment work (‘group work’) provides a vehicle to build and assess processes as well as final educational products or outcomes. It can enable students to engage in affective learning, developing ‘soft skills’ such as communication, cooperation and teamwork skills such as planning, management, conflict resolution and peer support as they interact to actively create specified products.

Group work requires students to work collaboratively on set tasks, in or out of the classroom or online. For best results, groups should be inclusive and accessible to enable full participation by students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse abilities.

Learning Context

The soft skills developed through group work can build desirable graduate attributes valued by potential employers. Why are they so valued?  Goleman (2005) would argue that such skills are developing emotional intelligence through the four foundations of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and the ability to manage relationships.

‘Group work is not just a means to an end; it has important outcomes in its own right and requires the explicit development of explicit skills’ (University of Adelaide 2013). For the right skills to be acquired and emotional intelligence to be gained, the type of collaboration occurring in group work should mirror the interactions that occur in the relevant industry or profession. Group work would therefore approach best-practice when aligned with authentic assessment tasks.Affective learning achieved through group work is also linked to the achievement of explicit cognitive goals, which are valued in all levels of education.

At a program level, the inclusion of group work can be a conscious design decision, especially for common core courses, to extend students by progressively building their collaborative skills and confidence.Incorporating soft skills into a course’s assessment, is the job of the teacher or academic. It takes time to identify appropriate tasks and group processes, and it is efficacious to follow the steps outlined in this paper.

However, be aware that despite the value of group work, surveys continue to show that students do not like it. This stance would be supported by Sogunro’s(2015) studies on student motivation that describes self-directedness or learner autonomy as one of the eight motivating factors for learners in higher education. So, given the potential value of group work, the issue becomes ‘When and how to do group work well” and deploy it effectively as an effective learning mode.

What makes a group?

A group comprises no more than 3 to 5 students and should have a a mix of social, cultural and linguistic diversity.

What makes it work?

The first thing to check is that group work clearly aligns with a course’s learning outcomes (CLOs) and assessment task. If working in a group does not suit the CLOs it should not be used. It is not acceptable to use group work as an activity to minimise time spent marking assessments.

To actually realise the potential benefits of engaging group work it must be well planned and be actively supported with feedback and skill development.

In addition:

  • processes should be assessed, and issues identified as soon as they emerge
  • student contribution needs to be clear and unambiguous with all members actively engaged
  • group processes themselves should be reinforced and rewarded
  • discrete components should be undertaken by individuals, and accurately validated
  • individual feedback is provided
  • mechanisms are in place to signal when the group becomes dysfunctional

everyone understands and accepts the role they must play to ensure success.