As you've been working through the Teach Online Toolkit, hopefully you've been reaching out to colleagues for tips and support. Working with others can provide new insights as well as boosting your confidence to stretch yourself. Group work is an opportunity for students to benefit from that same experience. It can also help them develop new skills that will make them more employable, and provides a valuable opportunity for human connection. This session looks at group work – and how to set up effective virtual group work. There are tips from experts for you and for your students, and students in the UK and Australia share their experiences of group work in lock-down.
Even under normal circumstances, remote learning can be isolating, but it is even more of a problem for students who have had to suddenly withdraw from the buzz of campus life. They have become used to living alongside peers who are going through similar experiences and can provide constant companionship. There is also an impact on learning as they lose the stimulation and support of being part of a learning community.
Contrary to popular belief, many students have poor online communication skills. Even on campus, many students are lonely. If they haven’t established strong friendships they can feel even more awkward reaching out socially. Student interviews reveal that for many students, group work or formal university frameworks can help them connect with other students, and gain social and academic support.
Benefits of group work
How can group work benefit your students' education and wellbeing?
Interviews with students in the UK and Australia suggest that connecting with other students through virtual group work and other academic projects can be a positive experience
Dr Penny Pullan is the author of several books, most recently Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams.
Giskin Day is a Principal Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London. She was awarded the Imperial College President's Medal for outstanding contribution to teaching in 2015 and was made a National Teaching Fellow in 2016.
Discover more courses and tips, on our living resources page!
Benefits of group work
Group work can benefit your students’ education and wellbeing, particularly when face to face sessions and live interactions may be less frequent:
1. The additional manpower and wider range of skills in a group make it possible for students to take on more ambitious projects, and to work in more depth.
2. Group learning creates a space for reciprocal learning. Within the group, students can bring their experiences together with others to gain new perspectives, test out their ideas and form new, shared understanding.
3. Group work can bring a human element to remote learning, especially where technology makes it possible to see one another. It allows them to feel heard which reduces isolation.
4. Group learning can take pressure off stretched teaching staff by facilitating peer-to-peer learning, where one student leads another through a task or concept. This can benefit both students as the ‘teacher’ can develop their communication and leadership skills and deepen their own learning.
5. Well supported group work can develop skills that are important for employability and working life: organisation, delegation, effective communication, collaboration, and group dynamics.
6. Group work gives students the opportunity to be part of something larger. It provides a goal that brings them together with a shared purpose.
What is group work?
Group work can be used in an ad hoc way to build interaction into face-to-face lectures. The ‘Think-pair-share’ approach used in face-to-face lectures can be introduced online using break out rooms. You may want to use a clicker solution such as Poll Everywhere to get your students to respond individually before pairing them up. This helps prevent groupthink and social loafing. For this kind of group work, you can quickly automate pairings.
Groups may also be formed for longer periods, possibly the duration of a module. This raises the risks for students and makes it more important to get your groupings right, particularly if students are working together to develop an assessed piece of work. They are more likely to be anxious about the success of the group – and to complain if there are problems.
Making time up front to consider how to set up effective groups for remote learning and to provide your student with tips on running successful virtual meetings, may save you time resolving problems later.
Building effective groups for remote learning
An effective group works through the stages of forming, norming, storming and performing. You may be concerned that these become more difficult in a virtual environment.
1. Diversity and connection: Diverse groups which bring together students with different cultures, skill sets, and abilities can be creative and stimulating. However, it is important that the group can coalesce and work together. Without this, your group will find it difficult to move past the forming stage, to establish shared norms and build the trust they need to openly exchange ideas and experiences.
It can be useful to give students an ice breaker to help them connect as a group before beginning their group work. This can help them move through the stages of forming and norming before adding academic pressure. Having a shared experience, particularly if it is enjoyable and successful, provides a useful foundation for more challenging work.
2. Time zones: Be aware that in virtual group work, your students may be geographically dispersed, particularly if your institution has international students. Check where your students are located, and try to allocate them groups with similar time zones.
3. Group size: Research suggests that the ideal size for a group is between 3 and 5 members. This is small enough for students to become close knit, which facilitates trust and deeper conversations. There are practical benefits for virtual group work – a small group makes online meetings easier to coordinate, both in the sense of finding a mutually convenient time and technology, but also ensuring that all members of the group get an opportunity to speak.
4. Clarity: When a group is forming, it is important for them to have shared goals. It is easier for students to agree on an approach and work together if the goals are unambiguous. In a classroom or lecture theatre, any confusion can quickly be resolved. This can be more difficult with remote learning. Test out the clarity of your group work communications on a colleague and ask them for feedback. These should include information on how the group work will be assessed and how students can contact you if they have questions.
5. Guidance: Help your students understand how effective groups work and support them in learning the skills. Help them get up and running with their first meeting by providing your students with tips from an expert on Running successful virtual meetings.
The student view
Interviews with students in the UK and Australia suggest that connecting with other students through virtual group work and other academic projects can be a positive experience. Students value the academic benefits but also benefit from structured social contact.
Medicine student, University New South Wales
"Group work online feels very different. For medicine there were 4 students under my supervisor. We were meeting up regularly and going through the stages together, having debriefs and lunches together. When things first changed, we did all meet together online. We could see where the other projects were going and talk among ourselves. That was a really good experience.
But now we are quite isolated. We can’t have a laugh together. We haven’t kept up the way we were. Now we are not really messaging each other as projects have gone in different directions. I think there was a lot I could have learned from the honours students as they are working to a higher standard – especially as I’ve never done research before. I really liked talking to them as they took it so seriously. I’d have learned a lot from them. To not have other students alongside you is hard. I definitely think it would have been useful for university to bring us together.
I was also doing French general education with 4 contact hours a week. There were only 15 of us on the course, and that gave me the social interaction that the medicine course wasn’t. That gave me social contact with other students – working online in little groups of 2. Aside from group work, we were studying together for the exam, sharing notes, revising. After class we’d message in the group chat."
Psychology student, Worcester University
"Working in groups online didn’t really work. They did a group collaborate thing, working in groups of about 10 students. I was in there for a while and people weren’t saying anything. People don’t want to type on the chat. It's such a big cohort where you don’t know anyone. If I’d been in a smaller cohort, you’d know everybody who is in there - you’d feel you could be more open. But as it is, you don’t know who you are talking to, you can’t picture them – you don’t know them.
We started the year with a group presentation. That was hard enough to coordinate. It's different when it's on campus. Last year, we’d go round to each other's houses – sometimes we’d do all nighters. Doing it online was harder to coordinate. There were 6 in the group, and the only occasion when we were all together was when we filed the final piece. Life gets in the way when you are at home. You need cameras on so you can see what someone is doing – you can see they are there, you can see they are still listening to you. A smaller group, with a maximum of 5 people would feel more secure. I don’t know if I was just a bit older – they were really self-conscious. It was me starting a conversation. People sat closed in themselves. It's hard to make friends when the cohort is that big – there were cliques. If you pick your own group, they may be more likely to – it’s easier if you know somebody."
Biochemistry student, University of York
"The first time we met was over Zoom. We were 5 students, across biology, biomedicine and biochemistry, with one supervisor, and we had to write a four page piece of work together. We’d schedule a call every few days.
It’s been different to the other group projects I’ve done. We’d chat for about 20 mins on the project and then spend 30 minutes socialising. It’s a bit weird to schedule a Zoom call with your social circle, but with your groups you are scheduling time together and then you just chat. We were able to talk about similarities in our degrees. It’s a big course, so we didn’t know each other before, but we’d taken similar modules and had similar experiences, the same lecturers etc. As well, we often just talked about what it was like during lock down.
A lot of people have disappeared in terms of communication, because they are not used to communicating online. Some people are better at it. I know if someone sends me a text message on Facebook Messenger, I can’t judge the tone – it's missing body language, intonation. For some, instead of getting involved in [physical] communities before, they got involved in online [communities], so are used to communicating online. I think if the students are required to be actively communicating online some of them will need guidance.
What makes a good group?
People who are willing to talk to each other about what they are able to do. Who can say where they feel their strengths are.
A willingness to do things you don’t want to if your group delegates that to you.
Sharing a similar level of motivation and standards."
Virtual group work can bring your students together at a time where they may be feeling disconnected from the university, and unsupported. Feedback from students suggests that small groups meeting in a structured way for a clear academic purpose provides an opportunity for academic support, and a channel for social connections to be formed.
Find last week's session on remote academic services and student support:
Preparing for next semester? Read week 8's session: