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Group Work in Distance Learning Courses

Tips for Groups

Give your students tips on how to work in virtual groups. The Tips for Participating in Group Work Online document can be downloaded to your computer and uploaded to your myWPI site.

Introduction to Group Work

Group work is a learning activity that many instructors are used to assigning in traditional classroom settings.

It's a good way to get students interacting and collaborating, and groups can work together on projects that are too large for one student to complete in a semester. Translating group work into the online environment can be a daunting task for instructors and students who are unsure how to overcome the logistical constraints of working together at a distance. Many students may come into online classes with a predisposition to work independently or they may have been burned in the past by poorly managed group work, making them less than eager to participate in group assignments. With careful planning, student concerns can be overcome and group assignments can be effective learning activities for students in distance learning classes.

Benefits of using group work in an online course

Research studies show that there are several benefits to having students work in groups, even online.

Types of Group Assignments

Assignment Description
Panel discussion A panel/group of students is given a set of questions from which they prepare a group response.
Case study A group of students is given a narrative description of a problematic situation and then asked to identify or solve the problem.
Action maze A group of students is given a description of an incident that requires analysis and action. The students are then given a list of two to four alternative actions. As the students make decisions about what actions to take, they are directed further in the action maze to find out the consequences of their decisions and, perhaps, what the next set of alternative actions is. This activity is effective for teaching troubleshooting.
In-basket exercise This is a variation of the case study. A group of students is provided with an "in-basket" of documents or correspondence, such as reports, memos, emails, etc., some of which are important to the case and some of which are extraneous. The group is asked to identify or solve the problem. This activity is effective for practicing decision-making and priority setting.
Role playing A group of students is asked to take on the parts of characters in a representation of a real situation. It is similar to a case study, but with added character descriptions. This activity is effective for practicing managerial skills. It can be conducted either through synchronous tools (i.e. chat), e-mail lists, or the discussion forums.
Simulation A group of students works on an artificial representation of real conditions that may be either computerized or in print form.
Critical incident technique A group of students is given a very brief narrative of a problem or situation to which they must respond. They need to develop a team response to the situation, usually within a short amount of time, such as a week.
Students as teachers A group of students develops the presentation of a course topic for the rest of the class and poses one or more questions for class discussion.
Formal debate Students are divided into teams to present opposing viewpoints. Some may act as respondents or judges. This can be accomplished asynchronously through discussion forums or e-mail lists.
Writing groups Students present drafts of written assignments to one another for critique and then revise their drafts based on other student comments. Student groups for this activity should not be too large or students can be overwhelmed by the amount of materials to read. Students may also be reluctant about giving negative feedback to one another. This may be overcome by giving a grade for the quality of comments a student gives on other students' papers.
Group projects Student teams work on projects, such as writing research papers, creating PowerPoint presentations to be posted to the class, etc.

Managing Group Assignments

Regardless of what type of group work you assign, you and the students both need to actively manage the groups in order to ensure their success and make sure the group work is a valuable learning activity. Try implementing several of the tips listed below for managing student groups online.

Management Tips Details
Make it clear to students why group work is being required. This is particularly important since many students will prefer to work on their own. Explain why group interactions will further the course goals and objectives.
Form small groups that are balanced in knowledge and skills.

Groups of three are large enough to provide diversity of opinions, experiences, and learning styles, but not so large that individual members can successfully hide.

Let students self-select groups, but encourage them to form balanced teams based on information that was provided in student introductions at the beginning of class. If you are concerned about letting them self-select, assign groups yourself, being sure to evenly distribute the weak and strong students.

Give clear instructions. Provide clear and thorough details on what is expected of the groups and how they will be graded.
Allow groups to determine which communication tools they will use. You can recommend communication tools to them, but ultimately let them decide what to use. Possible tools include myWPI discussion boards for each group, e-mail, text chat, Interwise iMeeting web conferencing, and phone. You can also set up group areas in myWPI where students can share files and a discussion forum.
Keep groups together long enough to establish positive working relationships. Students need time to become acquainted with each other's strengths and to learn to support and coach one another. At least half a semester is recommended for groups to work together. They may work on several small group assignments or one large group assignment during that time.
Encourage team building. Encourage groups to get to know each other and develop a group identity. You may require them to write a group charter, which includes contact information for each group member, an inventory of skills provided by members, learning goals for the group, ground rules for how the group will interact (i.e. meeting times, communication methods, roles, responsibilities), and suggestions for how the group will manage conflict.
Encourage groups to appoint a leader or coordinator. The group leader keeps the group on task, coordinates team meetings, facilitates decisions, etc.
Monitor group progress. Ask group leaders to report to you on the group's progress on a regular basis. Prompt groups that are not making progress quickly enough and offer guidance or intervention if they are not able to make progress.
Promote individual accountability.

A common misconception is that group work automatically leads to group grades. This is not true, as undifferentiated group grades for a single project can lead to inequity problems.

Collect peer ratings of individual members and use the ratings to adjust the group assignment grades. When students know they will be rated by their group members, they will be motivated to more fully contribute to the group process.


Betz, M. (2005, January). Facilitating team learning means more than just assigning team projects. Online Classroom, pp. 4-5.

Felder, R. M. & R. Brent. (2001). Groupwork in distance learning. Chemical Engineering Education, 35(2), pp. 102-103. Retrieved June 14, 2005.

Millis, B. (n.d.). Managing - and motivating! - Distance learning group activities. Retrieved June 14, 2005.

St. Philip's College. (2005). Group strategies. Retrieved June 17, 2005.

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Last modified: Nov 15, 2006, 15:04 EST
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