How can I organize group and team work?

This section provides an overview on delivering and managing group work using pedagogical best practices with technologies supported by the Division of Information Technology (DOIT) and the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL).

Group work as defined here includes small sets of students discussing a problem or task. Team work refers to a longer-term team project resulting in a grade. Small group discussions foster engagement and reduce feelings of isolation in online courses. Team projects can help students learn skills such as research and problem solving, but also how to work effectively with others.

Link group and team work to course design

Tie group work to student learning. The activity should help students meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments. Explaining why an activity exists is important for reducing resistance to group work. For long-term projects, ask yourself if the project is engaging enough to require contributions from all members of the group. Are the skills and content for the project being practiced and talked about actively throughout the course?

Include project milestones in the syllabus. Requiring students to submit smaller parts of a project allows you to catch groups going down the wrong path and help refocus their efforts. Specific deadlines, milestone descriptions, and grading criteria should be part of the assessment plan for the course. Feedback can take several forms that don’t include lengthy notes by the instructor, including rubrics and peer review. It is best practice to grade both individual and group work for any project.

Provide instruction on how to be a good teammate

Provide guidelines for communication. Students may not feel comfortable communicating their ideas. At the start, students may lack the skills to contribute effectively to a discussion. As explained in a research-based approach to group work, “Novices in our discipline may not have developed the critical-thinking habits that are second nature to us. One way to improve their learning is to prompt them to explain their answers to each other.” (1) Providing guidelines for discussions, emphasizing that all students should be heard in groups, and modeling contributions to group work are worthwhile strategies.

Students may need guidance on how to be a productive team member. This guidance might include asking teams during class time to create a team charter that explicitly states their norms, such as meeting times, communication methods, deadlines, and strategies for handling conflict. The grading criteria and expectations from the teams should be explicit before the project begins.

Have students fill out peer evaluations. Peer evaluations provide valuable feedback to team members to help them correct their behavior and make more valuable contributions. It is best practice to ask students to fill out peer evaluations twice during a project. The first time should be mostly qualitative feedback for their team members to read anonymously, but the instructor can award points for completing the work. During the second round, instructors can ask students to assign a grade to their team members if desired. 

Consider how to form teams

Deliberate group formation can reduce barriers to success. Short-term discussions in class or quick assignments do not have requirements in either size or formation. For an intensive online project, three or four is the maximum size. There are a several key considerations that you can take into account when forming long-term teams:

  • Would it be helpful to survey students about their previous knowledge to form diverse teams? Are you creating teams that inadvertently isolate minority groups? 
  • If online, should students be grouped by time zone? 

If a project begins toward the end of the semester, you might be able to decide on groups easily. You can also survey your students with a Qualtrics or Blackboard survey to gather the information you need.

Recommended practices for team organization

Remind students to set explicit deadlines for project milestones. Students may not have in-class time to coordinate work on their projects, so remind them to set explicit deadlines for various parts of the group work, and be clear with each other where and how group communications will happen so that everyone in the group stays aware of progress. 

Students can use project planners to brainstorm ideas, gather documents, and assign tasks. Mind-mapping tools are available to create an outline of a project and assign tasks to team members. Microsoft Planner is a project planning tool that serves as a document repository, as well as a way to track team member contributions. Microsoft Teams is a great option for team communication. Less complex tools such as Microsoft Office 365 OneDrive and email can also serve as the main organizers of the project.

Creative Commons License

Flexible Teaching guides were developed by Duke Learning Innovation and adapted for NIU by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. They are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Hybrid Course Delivery

Are you planning to deliver a hybrid course? Learn more tips for designing and delivering a hybrid class.

Guide to Hybrid Course Delivery


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