Group work online

Interaction between students, including discussion and peer collaboration, is a key feature of an effective and engaging online learning experience. Many of the guidelines for facilitating group discussions and collaboration are parallel to those for traditional instructional modes. The Using Class Time Well page on the CTE website provides guidance on active and collaborative learning, discussions and working in groups. Below we provide additional guidance for group work and discussion in the online context.

Group Discussions

Asynchronous discussions work best with smaller groups of students (10 or fewer) so that everyone gets a chance to participate. Consider assigning roles to help students with the discussions.  In the Blackboard Discussion tool students can attach files, including audio, video, and images, to their posts. You might also consider the Campus Pack Blog tool for discussion, which allows you to create a template discussion prompt that gets assigned to all your groups at once (rather than adding the prompt to each discussion forum). 

Four Ways to Facilitate Online Discussions

  • Ask students to post their responses to a selected reading or homework problem.
  • Initiate a conversation on a topic not fully covered during class time.
  • Have students post potential discussion questions for the next class.
  • Ask students to post a quick response to the muddiest point question.

As with in-class discussions, be sure students know how their contributions will be evaluated and graded.

Group work

Group work and collaborative assignments can be a great way to build connection and community in online and hybrid classes while also supporting better learning, whether you create learning teams to work on core components of the class together each week (e.g., problem solving), or longer-term collaborative projects.  The most effective group assignments promote both learning and team development. Research on collaborative learning and teamwork shows that group work is enhanced, and complaints are reduced, when instructors create diverse groups (in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality, learning preferences, interpersonal abilities, class grades, and the type of degree they are pursuing) and provide guidance on how effective tems operate, and what makes an effective team member. Here are a few things you can do to keep group work on track.

1. Assign students to diverse group

Create groups (5-7 people each) that are diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality, learning preference, interpersonal abilities, class grades, outside work experience, and the type of degree they are pursuing. Also, combine people in groups who do not have previous knowledge of each other, and who have complementary schedules for meeting (for alternating cohort classes, this could simply be the "online" class period for their cohort. Do not isolate students in groups by demographic characteristic (e.g., rather than assigning each international student to a different group, assign two or more to a single group).

Of course, to use these principles means that instructors have to gather information for sorting. KU subscribes to a research-based tool called developed by engineering educators at Purdue University that will send a survey to your students and uses an algorithm to create diverse groups. Many faculty members at KU have been using this tool effectively. The catme platform also includes a tool for students to conduct peer reviews of each others' group contributions, along with guidance teamwork skills. Contact if you have questions. 

2. Design productive group activities and assignments

  • Ensure that group assignments truly require group interaction. Give open-ended problems on complex ideas that require “best solutions” with supporting arguments. That way, discussion among group members leads naturally to completing a task.
  • Require a product. This may be something that is turned in, contributes directly to an assignment, or is reported out.
  • Monitor complex projects carefully. Complex group projects such as a lengthy paper can limit discussion and reduce group cohesiveness. Team members generally divide the work and complete pieces individually. A simple format is often better, even if students must report on complex decisions. If you use a complex project, though, make sure you have clear guidelines and frequent reporting.

3. Provide guidance and structure for group interactions

  • Encourage students to get to know one another. Consider assigning an icebreaker or getting-to-know you task as an initial assignment. 
  • Assign formal roles and generate interaction guidelines or ground rules. If students are in standing or fixed groups, ensure that the roles get rotated across group members. 
  • Establish accountability for contributions to group such as peer reviews and grading.
  • See this page of the CTE website for suggestions on assigning roles within groups. 

4. Assess performance and hold students accountable

  • Promote a high level of accountability for team members while also rewarding good team performance. Use a combination of individual assessments (e.g., quizzes or assignments that promote preparation for class) and team assessments (group product grades or points).
  • For standing teams, use peer review ratings to encourage individual and group engagement. also includes a tool for peer review (that can be used with or without its group formation tool). 

This handout here highlights additional strategies for making group work work, along with recommendations you can provide your students. 

Tools for Group Work

Consider these tools to facilitate group work:

  • Blackboard Discussion Forum: Instructors and students can use text, audio, video, images, and web links in their posts
  • Blackboard Campus Pack Blog: Can create one template for a discussion prompt and populate for all groups at once. 
  • Blackboard Wiki: In the Groups pages. Shared workspace where students in the same group can collaborate and edit each others' work.
  • Microsoft Teams: Create a channel for each group, where students can meet by video, chat and instant message, share and collaborate on files, and more
  • Voicethread: Integrated with Blackboard and enables students to share and discuss documents, images, videos, audio, using several forms of expression including text, video, or audio
  • Zoom: Students can meet synchronously with each other via Zoom.