Improving Learning Efficacy with Online Group Work: Instructional Design Methods that Meet the Needs of Today’s Learners

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This interactive presentation provides examples of online course design strategies that fit the needs of today’s learners including transparent syllabus and assignment descriptions, online group work, brief videos, and authentic learning activities. Tips for incorporating elements of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model in an online environment will be demonstrated.


Csilla Stewart works as an instructional designer and lecturer at Indiana State University. She holds a BS and a MS in Human Resource Development from Indiana State, and a master certificate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Media Technology (CIMT) for Higher Education and Industry. Her PhD is in CIMT with a focus on electronic portfolios in postsecondary teaching. She frequently facilitates workshops, presents at conferences, and works with profit as well as non-profit organizations in the community.

Extended Abstract

During 2016 Fall semester, I faced the challenge of developing and teaching an online course titled “Career Development and Employee Appraisals,” which had previously been taught online in a traditional manner, where students were asked to submit their individual assignments but rarely engaged in meaningful student-to-student interactions or collaboration. As a Quality Matters (QM) Master Reviewer and instructional designer, I designed and implemented a completely different approach to meet federal distance education regulations (that require regular and substantive interactions among the course participants and the instructor), Quality Matters standards, institutional guidelines, course learning objectives, core career readiness competencies, and the needs of diverse student body.

Because existing research promotes collaborative online group work due to its effectiveness in preparing students for real world jobs (Rafferty, 2013) and increases student performance more than individual work (Pai, Sears, & Maeda, 2015), I wanted to purposefully craft effective online group work experiences that foster creativity, develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, immerse students in intercultural fluency, employ leadership skills, and utilize digital technologies with the intent to incorporate the competencies our institutional Career Center promotes. Because online students generally dislike working in groups (Robinson, 2013) and resist active learning (Weimer, 2017), I also aimed at improving student perceptions about group work so that learners would see its value worthy of adding it to their own resume. Moreover, I aimed to incorporate the three components of Community of Inquiry (CoI) into the course to foster meaningful learning.

The quest began with backwards design. After considering what I wanted students to achieve by the end of the course, I determined what would serve as evidence of attaining each course objective, and then selected learning experiences and instructional strategies that would accommodate the learning process. I aligned the course and module objectives, the institutionally communicated Career Center’s competencies, and the assessments. To intertwine the benefits of situated learning, collaboration, and experiential learning, I intentionally designed regular and substantive opportunities for student-content, student-student, and instructor-student interactions. Establishing an engaging, meaningful, interactive learning environment that practices the CoI model’s recommendations of creating teaching, social, and cognitive presence was a top priority (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Garrison, 2006).

The first part of the 16-week course focused on personal career development theories and practices; students practiced how to network and apply for jobs with the professional documents they produce, and how to counsel others. For the second part of the semester, students participated in an 8-week long interdisciplinary group project that guided students through an extensive step-by-step process to develop a comprehensive, detailed business plan that demonstrated how a career development function or department could be established in a chosen environment. Students were encouraged to form groups by selecting up to 3 individuals with similar majors, interest areas, expertise, backgrounds, or hobbies.

The course design was based primarily on Quality Matters standards and the CoI elements. A clear, consistent course structure and schedule simplified course navigation. Students enrolled in the course were responsible for completing 20 deliverables plus a compiled group project in APA format during the 16-week course. The 10 virtual teams (3 members each) used mainly wikis to construct 10 distinctive, collaborative group projects.

Based on the diverse student body (millennials, disabled, aging, employed, international, geographically spread, low socioeconomic status, adult learners from various majors, etc.) and their needs (caring, helpful instructor; reduced anxiety levels and increased clarity; relevant activities) numerous technologies and delivery methods were utilized to accommodate a variety of learning styles. These included open educational resources (OER), an ebook freely available through the library, videos, experiential learning activities, individualized and group work, reminders, and flexibility of communication options (encompassing GroupMe, Google Docs, Skype, Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger). To decrease the overall instructor workload and to establish CoI elements, other strategies were also employed.

Student engagement led to transformation of the learning environment and experiences. I collected data and feedback using various tools such as the grade book, learning analytics, midterm survey, self and peer-evaluation forms, end-of-course (EOC) evaluations, and emailed comments. The results revealed that student satisfaction rates with the course scored an average of 4.84/5.00 on the institutional EOC evaluation survey completed by 17/30 students. The instructor-developed EOC survey was completed by 28 students and indicated that most of them had a positive experience with the group project using wikis. When comparing the traditional versus the active learning environments, the average class grade improved be a letter grade from a C+ (2.6) to B+ (3.6) respectively. During the conference, I will detail survey feedback and share lessons learned throughout this journey.

The goal of the presentation is to share online course design strategies that resulted in higher student satisfaction and learning. Particularly, I will emphasize how CoI elements and group work were designed and implemented successfully. I will also discuss the lessons I learned from this experience.

Through interactive questions and answers I plan to engage my audience to share their own experiences as well as tips so that everyone can benefit of the ideas. I will share my presentation slides, which will include links to examples and relevant resources.


Garrison, D. R. (2006). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 25-34.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 87-105.

Pai, H.-H., Sears, D., & Maeda, Y. (2015). Effects of small-group learning on transfer: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 27(1), 79–102.

Rafferty, P. D. (2013). The evaluation of MBA group work: A case study of graduate student experiences and perceptions of positive group work outcomes. Journal of Education for Business, 88, 43–50.

Robinson, K. (2013). The interrelationship of emotion and cognition when students undertake collaborative group work online: An interdisciplinary approach. Computers & Education, 62, 298–307.

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Harriss Weavil, K. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2). Retrieved from