Part 4: Learning Activities and Engagement

What About Group Work?

Group work is challenging for many students in a face-to-face class. When you add the extra layers of complication from technology and asynchronous communication, it’s not surprising that some faculty simply avoid assigning group work in an online class. However, group work supports active learning and provides students with opportunities to connect with one another, lessening the isolation often felt in online classes. How you design and scaffold group work can either help or hinder students as they try to complete the tasks involved.

Group work can be made easier for both students and faculty if  expectations and norms are set in advance. Providing netiquette rules, a rubric for participation, peer evaluation, and attaching points to positive group interaction will motivate most students to participate at a meaningful level—especially if the group assignment is relevant and authentic.

It helps to start group work after the first few weeks in the semester to allow students time to acclimate to the course and get to know each other through introductions. Both Budhai (2016) and Chang and Kang (2016) recommend keeping groups small and odd-numbered. Budhai also recommends intentionally creating teams, setting clear expectations for individual contributions, and monitoring the online group space if possible to catch issues before they escalate.

A useful option in certain types of group work is to assign functional roles to students with responsibility for certain process-oriented tasks. Roles such as starter, elaborater, source-searcher, theoretician, questioner, devil’s advocate, moderator, and wrapper are common to discussion-based and case study projects. Assigning roles in advance allows students to develop group cohesion and feelings of responsibility sooner and decreases the amount of time it takes groups to coordinate who is doing what, allowing them to get started on actual task-focused work faster.

Grading Group Work

In Canvas, when you set up an assignment as a group assignment you have the option of giving all students the same grade or grading each student individually. If you want to give everyone the same grade on the assignment but adjust for individual contributions and participation, there are a couple of common ways to do that. The cleanest way is to set the group assignment to give all students the same grades so that you only have to provide feedback in one place where all group members can see it. You can then either change the setting in the assignment to give different grades to different students after grading the group as a whole or include a second assignment for an individualized grade.

However you gather information on individual contributions and participation, it is very helpful to include a rubric for students to use when assessing each other’s performance. Group participation rubrics can be as simple or as complex as you’d like them to be. They range from something as basic as:

Rate your team members (including yourself) on a scale of 1 to 10 on

  • Quality of participation
  • Quantity of participation
  • Timeliness of participation

or, to keep students from giving everyone maximum scores to “be nice,”

Imagine you earn $100 for this project. Pay each member of your group (including yourself) according to the quantity and quality of their participation in the project.

For something more complex, see this rubric from Carnegie Mellon (pdf, 3.4M) and other sample rubrics and peer evaluation forms available from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center on Teaching Excellence.

Additional Challenges

Chang and Kang (2016) describe and address the challenges facing group work online, specifically looking at aspects such as group size, responsibility, coordination, structure, and leadership. When collaboration and shared knowledge construction isn’t critical, one way to address the common challenge of lack of commitment and responsibility by some group members is to structure the assignment as cooperative group work instead of collaborative group work. Working cooperatively, students are engaged with and responsible for separate parts of the project and come together to compile, edit, and present their work. This way, active students are not held back waiting for information from a non-participating member. The instructor can define the individual tasks and work products and then let the group choose who does what or assign individual tasks to specific students.

The following three-part series on online group work from Online Learning Insights briefly explains several effective strategies for using group work in online classes.


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