Group work: Making it work- Preparing students for a positive collaborative experience

by Coleen Angove and Anuradha Ramanujan



In the spirit of collaboration – the topic of this blog – teachers of the tier 2 Ideas and Exposition modules responded to residential college requests for assessments that allowed for a less daunting introduction to the module content. One amendment was the shift from an individual to a group writing first assignment: the Annotated Bibliography. We hoped that this early collaboration would establish a shared research base, offer students opportunities to brainstorm, articulate and think through initial ideas and help alleviate anxieties about the writing and research process. They could then draw on this common resource to develop their individual projects. This blog describes how we prepared students for group work and then reports on the results of a survey conducted after submission of the group assignment to determine students’ experience of the process.

Past experience of more informal group work had already alerted us to the potential pitfalls, and research exposed a few more. We’ve all had the occasional email from a disgruntled student whose peer(s) is not responding to requests for his/her contribution to a shared project, or the student who feels left out (both incidents from recent experience). Research (Webb, 2013, Bravo, et al., 2017) confirmed this big red flag issue, namely group dynamics, but added experience of workload (volume and difficulty) as another factor impacting group cohesion. Guided by the Input-Process-Output model (Bravo et al., 2017), we took great care to devote time and effort (input) into preparing students for the process of collaboration. Bravo et al.(2017) argue that cohesiveness is determined by the extent to which the group functions as a workable entity (the result of “individual factors”, as well as how the workload is experienced “task factors”.


Instructional Framing

Challenge 1 Addressing individual factors: setting up groups 

Research seems to indicate a plethora of factors contributing to group dynamics, including ethnicity, gender, attractiveness and popularity (Webb, 2013, p. 31). The Ideas and Exposition programme also includes different college identities, which we anticipated may play a role in group dynamics. However, due to the urgency of organising students into groups as soon as possible for the first assignment, as well as the relatively low weighting of Assignment 1 (15% of the final grade for the module), we felt justified in placing less emphasis on what Bravo would identify as the “individual factors”, and focused more on “task factors” (2017, 1154).

Students were alerted to the collaborative nature of assignment 1, and time was devoted in weeks 4-5 to finalising groups. In one module all groups were allocated by the lecturer based on common areas of interest (types of primary texts, theoretical frameworks and methodologies), whereas in another, students were given the opportunity to self-select. In the latter, by week 5, students were asked to fill in slips with paper, identifying collaborating peers and a common topic. All students who did not have a “home” were then allocated a group, based on potential common ideas.

To prepare students for the task ahead, class time was devoted to explaining the pedagogical reasons for including a collaborative first assignment.  For this, we drew on our previous research on preparing students for peer reviewing. Pearce, Mulder and Baik (2009) emphasise the importance of student motivation in enthusiastic classroom participation.

We took great care to regularly explain how conversations around seemingly disparate ideas had the potential to generate exciting and original research directions. This concept was modelled during class analysis of texts, where attention was often drawn to connections but also gaps and contradictions between theoretical readings. Students were encouraged to adopt a similar approach to their own sharing of ideas and scholarship to find productive possibilities for collaboration.

Furthermore, we explained how the first assignment offered extensive advantages in that although each student’s output would be a single Annotated Bibliography entry (which together would constitute paper 1, with the addition of an introductory paragraph which justified these three entries as representative of the research projects and their intersections of the writers), the process of reading, discussing and selecting the three final entries, would expose each student to at least 12 academic texts. Students worked in groups of 3 and each group member had to find 4 suitable readings, which would be shared with peers. From the total of 12 texts (4 per peer) the final three sources, deemed best representations of the collaborative research, would be selected. Each student would then annotate one source after which group members would collaboratively write an introduction to frame and justify their source selection.


Challenge 2 Space and time: creating sufficient time and supportive space for collaboration

In addition to striving for an invested student, it was important to create the circumstances and space for relatively stress-free collaboration. In order to address one of the frustrations expressed by students, namely the difficulty in “meeting and communicating” (Burdett, 2003, p190), we put particular effort into ensuring that students had ample time for group work in class, during which we moved from group to group to support, answer questions and provide advice. An important insert here: a neglected actor in the collaborative process is the teacher (Van Leeuwen, et al., 2015).  For this reason it is important to allocate liberal amounts of class time for collaboration, where the teacher is more than just on standby and deliberately moves between conversations to reassure, reaffirm and field questions – indeed, collaborate actively in each research cluster. We would claim that this contributed considerably to students’ positive experience of collaboration.

We devoted either one entire week’s classes exclusively to group work, or the equivalent time spread over 2 weeks. As such, sufficient time was provided for students to share ideas without having to work around schedules and availability.  This also allowed for the teacher-as-collaborator to provide support through paying attention to the quality of talk amongst group members. If groups expressed anxieties about not finding commonalities, the teacher could direct them to the ways in which class texts had been analysed, thereby reinforcing the usefulness of academic discourse. For instance, group members were encouraged to listen for echoes in the concepts/key words they were using when discussing individual texts, to consider potential for cross-referencing amongst texts.

A key to effective learning in groups lies in the quality of the talk amongst the group members. In short, it is important to determine whether one’s approach to bringing students together at the initial phase of the writing generates productive talk. To put it in another way, the various elements in one’s instructional framing or conditions (or lack of) will have an influence on the discussion and the resulting learning outcomes.


A key to effective learning in groups lies in the quality of the talk amongst the group members.


Survey results

As soon as the groups submitted the assignment, we set up an anonymous and voluntary online survey to gather feedback on the process. Our survey consisted of three sets of questions on a Likert scale. The first two measured individual perceptions of personal benefits from collaboration, while questions 3, 4 and 5 measured satisfaction within the group. The last two questions gauged how time within and outside the class was used for collaboration. Approximately 50% of students took the survey (average for both modules, a total of 60 students) and their responses are reported below. The somewhat muted response could be attributed to the fact that the survey was entirely voluntary and, having already completed the assignment, students had no further incentive to take it. Still, the feedback we received is worth analysing.

To the statement “Articulating my topical focus to group members helped me clarify my ideas to myself” approximately 82% of respondents (average for both modules) either ‘agreed’ or strongly agreed, and 13% were neutral. To statement 2 “Collaboration exposed me to useful articles and potential lines of inquiry,” 71.5% agreed or strongly agreed, 24.8% were neutral and 3.4% ‘disagreed.’ Regardless of outcome (product), these figures confirm that a very healthy number of students perceived academic benefits through good quality talk, which consisted of articulating ideas and sharing information.

Questions 3, 4 and 5 were designed to get a sense of the levels of satisfaction with grouping and group work in helping students develop/refine their individual projects. Approximately 70% (69% in one module and 73.72% in the other) reported that it was easy to collaborate with group members. Likewise an average 80% agreed or strongly agreed that everyone in the group cooperated and did equal amounts of work. In the module in which the lecturer had allocated groups based on common areas of interest,  21.2% disagreed that self-selecting group members would have made the collaboration more effective and 57.28% were neutral. The different grouping approaches – allocation versus self-selection – did not seem to significantly affect the process and desired outcomes of the collaboration. However, the few students who felt that self-selection would have made collaboration more effective tended to cite “individual” (friendships, familiarity and comfort levels) rather than “task” factors as reasons:

  • “There are several reasons why being able to self-select group members would make collaboration far more effective. One of the most important of which is the fact that being able to select my own group mates would also mean that conversation and debates can occur without the barrier/veneer of politeness.”
  • “With friends, or people I’m comfortable with. In a sense, I would be more challenged to develop my thoughts and question my group mates’ projects, and to give more criticism that helps the group work develop.”

Rather than hindering collaboration, the ‘discomfort’ that these students identify could actually be productive. Being forced out of their comfort zones by having to work with peers they do not know and who may have different perspectives on the task at hand would necessitate dialogue and negotiation in order to build consensus (Bruffee 1973, 1987). Approaching collaboration through “conflict” rather than “agreement” (Trimbur, 1989) would also enable students to think more critically about both their own ideas and those of their peers. Perhaps these productive possibilities could be explained more clearly while preparing students for the task in future. However, the overwhelmingly positive responses to the first two questions in our survey show that students recognised them.

The last two questions were designed to get a sense of where and how students collaborated. In both modules, over 70% found that they could use the time in class, supplemented by online drafting and editing, whereas approximately 30% needed to meet outside class time several times a week.



To reiterate, rather than working on group dynamics, we focused more on motivating students and establishing circumstances supportive of a productive working environment, hypothesising that this could compensate for differences in individual compatibilities and their effect on group cohesion. Lecturers have greater control over task conditions, and as such investing effort into the instructional framing (motivation and explanation of the pedagogical advantages behind collaboration) as well as allowing sufficient class time for productive conversations is more beneficial in ensuring that students critically engaged with course content through quality conversations.



Bravo, R. Catalán, S. & Pina, J.M. (2019). Analysing teamwork in higher education: an empirical study on the antecedents and consequences of team cohesiveness, Studies in Higher Education, 44(7), pp. 1153-1165.

Bruffee, K. A. (1973). A. Collaborative learning: Some practical models. College English, 34(5), pp. 634-43.

Bruffee, K. A. (1987).  Kenneth Bruffee responds. College English 49(6), pp. 711-16.

Burdett, J. (2003). Making groups work: university students’ perceptions.  International Education Journal, 4(3), pp. 177-191.

Pearce, J. Mulder, R. and Baik, C. (2009). Involving students in peer review. Case studies and practical strategies for university teaching [PDF file]. Guide produced by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education. University of Melbourne. Retrieved from

Trimbur, J. (1989). Consensus and difference in collaborative learning. College English, 51(6), pp. 602-616 

Van Leeuwen, A., Janssen, J., Erkens, G. and Brekelmans, M.  (2015). Teacher regulation of cognitive activities during student collaboration: Effects of learning analytics. Computers and Education (90), pp. 80-94.

Webb, N.M. (2013).  Information processing approaches to collaborative learning.  In C.E. Hmelo-Silver, C. A. Chinn, C. K. K. Chan, & A.O’Donnell  (Eds.),  The International handbook of collaborative learning (pp. 19-40).  New York, NY: Routledge.

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