Collaborative learning, groupwork, learning teams–whatever you want to call it–has one major problem: it just doesn’t work out-of-the-box. However, I find that most educators expect collaborative learning to be more intuitive. In the process of writing my next book on online instruction, I’ve been reading some really helpful literature on working with learning groups (which I believe to be a critical skill for online instructors). I’d like to synthesize some of what I’ve discovered through both research an practice in this post. Feel free to use and share the 4×6 card posted above.

    1. Group Size

An ideal size for online learning teams will be 5-8 students. Different studies say different things, but they usually fall into this general range. A group of 5-8 is large enough to include students with varying points of view and a variety of strengths. I used to recommend 4-6, but this approach had two problems: a) groups of 4 tend to break up into two pairs, and b) attrition in an online classes caused either by withdraws or by nonparticipating students impacts smaller group sizes. A group that starts out at 7 or 8 usually turns out to be a group of 5-7.

    1. Organize Around a Clear Goal

Give your learning teams time to get to know one another and to discuss their learning goals. Provide a clear learning goal with each assignment. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we overlook this simple practice.

    1. Stay in the Same Group

While variety is the spice of life, don’t change things up. It takes time to build the cohesion and trust necessary for learning teams to thrive. The need for a variety of voices can be solved by creating larger learning groups (see #1).

    1. Allow Roles to Emerge.

Assigning team roles, like scribe, reporter, team lead, etc. short-circuits an important process. Each learning team is made up of individuals with a unique expertise and strengths. It’s better to allow learning teams to negotiate their roles and to discover their most natural way of relating with one another.

    1. Create Team Assignments

If your learning teams use the divide-and-conquer approach, then you’ve not created a true team-learning assignment. This is where most groupwork either succeeds or goes off the rails. Good team learning assignments will require deliverables that cannot be done alone or in pairs. They require deliberation by the entire team. Your assignments/projects must require your learners to provide solutions to problems or come to a decision through a process of consensus building.

    1. Build in Accountability

Michaelson and his colleagues, in their book, Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching, make it clear that for collaborative learning to be successful, students must have two forms of accountability: a) group accountability/grades, and b) individual grades. They also stress the importance of individual assessment prior to beginning group assignments. This ensures that each individual group member comes to the group prepared.

    1. Provide Feedback

This is where you bring your instructional guidance, help your students to negotiate team conflicts, point them to the best resources, and help them to ask better questions when they are stuck. Each learning team will have different needs, so you’ll need to tailor your coaching to each group. When working with several learning teams of High School seniors, I discovered that it was important to drop in as often as I could. A few questions I found helpful were: What have you accomplished that you are proud of as a team? What are you finding most challenging? What questions do you have for me? You’ll notice that each of these questions assumes that there is a response. I try to stay away from questions that begin with phrases such as, “Is there anything that…” or “Have you encountered…” These elicit closed, yes/no responses an binary thinking. Whereas the open questions I provided above help to stir up exploratory thinking.

Recommended Resources

Team-Based Learning Collaborative:

Fink LD, Knight AB, Michaelsen LK (2004) Team-based learning: a transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Stylus Publ., Sterling, VA

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: the professors guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (see his chapter on working with learning groups)


Aaron Johnson

I want to see online educators move technology into the background so that they can do what they do best--teaching. My hope is to help teachers transition from face-to-face settings to the online classroom with a sense of confidence gained through the competence they develop.

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