UNF Center for Instruction and Research Technology

Instructional Design

Making Online Groups Work


We seem to have a love and hate relationship with student collaboration. Students report dissatisfaction with having to do group work, while at the same time reporting improved learning (Watson & Sutton, 2012). Research suggests group work may extend learning by helping students broaden their experience beyond their own perspectives (Clarke & Blissenden, 2013; Frey, Everlove, & Fisher, 2009). In this article we will hear directly from students and instructors as well as identify five strategies to improve student collaborations.

Student Feedback

Students who completed an online UNF graduate education course this fall reported that group work provided them with opportunities to receive feedback and learn from their peers.

“Through being able to comment on group research proposals and projects I was able to further my understanding of both qualitative and quantitative research.” – Graduate Student

“In addition, I really liked the group projects. My team was so helpful in helping me finalize my RQ [research question]. I really appreciated their feedback throughout the course. It was also helpful to have people to go to when I had questions or didn’t fully grasp a concept.” – Graduate Student

“The discussions that we participated in groups were very helpful. It was great to see how each one was a part of how we were going to get our information for our research proposal and also how it helped us learn concepts that we would need. Being a part of the group and reading what each of our members thoughts were was extremely helpful. I learned a lot from my members and I was able to understand and get insight in a different way…” – Graduate Student

Their feedback overwhelmingly indicated positive group work experiences. The group work for this course consisted of participation in three group discussions, two of which required a group response. The discussions were designed in such a way that the students needed to respond independently first and then determine an agreed upon group analysis. One topic was research ethics and the other aligning research designs with research questions. The third discussion required them to share their own research design strategy and receive peer feedback prior to submitting their final paper to the instructor.

Instructor Perspective

During a recent workshop I asked instructors to describe why some student groups work and others do not. Below is a summary of their remarks.

Why groups work
Why groups do not work
Common purpose
No common purpose
Amplify intelligence
Undefined roles
Skill development
Unclear objectives
Evaluate group members
Slackers vs. Overachievers

The strategies below reflect how some of the instructor concerns might be mitigated.


When designing group assignments and activities consider the following strategies.

  1. Assessment design: Are you assessing a collaborative project or group communication? In either case, a well-defined project or discussion prompt is the foundation of the students’ interactions. What objectives are you trying to achieve by having students work together? Elaborate on your reasoning. Can you re-design a large project into smaller components to help the group develop group cohesion?
  2. Instructor expectations of project: Have you provided students with a rubric and clear instructions? Giving students a rubric helps you clearly communicate your expectations of the assessment. Do you need to clarify the assignment instructions to help students understand how you want them to complete the work? Consider recording a short video introducing the assignment to provide background information as you would in a face-to-face course.
  3. Group Worksheet: Have you provided students with a scaffolding worksheet to prepare them for the group work experience? For instance, a worksheet template might include a timeline for completion, possible roles for group members, and group member responsibilities to each other. You could provide a basic template and the first group activity could be to further define how their group will work together.
  4. Conflict management: You may need to define in your syllabus how you will address conflicts between group members or ask them to clarify this in their worksheet.
  5. Peer reviews: If the group project is a significant part of students’ overall grade, it may be helpful to provide groups the opportunity to review their peers.

The CIRT instructional designers are available to work with you and support your efforts to create group activities which support your teaching goals and objectives. We would also love to hear your experiences with group work.


Clarke, S.& Blissenden, M. (2013). Assessing student group work: Is there right way to do it? Law Teacher, 47(3), 368-381. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069400.2013.851340

Frey, N., Everlove, S., & Fisher, D. (2009). Productive group work : How to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding. Alexandria, Va: ASCD. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.dax.lib.unf.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=301971&site=eds-live&scope=site

Gardner, M. (2019). Teaching students to give peer feedback. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/teaching-students-give-peer-feedback?utm_source=Edutopia+Newsletter&utm_campaign=2791a6e97b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_121119_enews_2019education&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f72e8cc8c4-2791a6e97b-85284223

Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective online teaching : Foundations and strategies for student success. Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.dax.lib.unf.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat00488a&AN=unf.024545612&site=eds-live&scope=site

Watson, S., & Sutton, J. M. (2012). An examination of the effectiveness of case method teaching online: Does the technology matter? Journal of Management Education, 36(6), 802. doi: 10.1177/1052562912445281

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