Creating Meaningful Group Work Online

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Group work and student discussion are key components of active learning. Translating successful in-person group work to online courses can be a challenge. In this session we will explore group work challenges and strategies for achieving success in online environments through various methods and technology tools.


Bethany V. Smith is the Associate Director of Technology Training for DELTA at NC State University. She manages the day-to-day workflow of the instructional training team within the Instructional Support Services unit, and provides planning and oversight for DELTA’s faculty training service and special programs. Bethany has been at NC State University since 2003 and completed her Master’s in Instructional Technology in the College of Education. Her passion is to assist current and future instructors to integrate technology effectively in their classroom.
I currently serve the College of Education at NC State University as the Director of the Media and Education Technology Resource Center (METRC). We are the hub of technology and literacy resources for the college and seek to help our community integrate instructional technology resources as well as literacy resources into courses, lessons, local schools, and so on. Our websites are at and I have been an educator for over 20 years in public K-12 schools and at the university level. I am a National Board Certified School Librarian and have an M.ED in Educational Technology.

Extended Abstract

Learning Goals:

  • Participants will overview successful group work strategies

  • Participants will review challenges and barriers to successful online group work

  • Participants will view technology tools that assist in successful online group work


Program Format & Presentation Outline:

  1. Brainstorming activity as participants enter: Why does everyone hate group work? What happens when that group work is online?!

  2. Overview of Topic & Introduction of Presenters

  3. Goals of the Session and recap of Brainstorming

  4. Challenges of Group Work Online

    1. Challenge 1: Equity: Everyone do your part

      1. Establishing Clear expectations

        1. Establish the Why

        2. Community building before project starts

        3. Self-monitoring & check-ins

        4. Define the roles that make group work effective (e.g., leader, writing checker, etc.).

      2. Size and selection of groups

        1. What is a good size

        2. Using data to determine groups

      3. Tools that support accountability

      4. Assessment

        1. Self, Peer & Group

        2. Recommendations:

          1. Multiple formative assessments

          2. LMS built-in tools

          3. 3rd Party tools

    2. Facilitating Synchronous Small Group Meetings

      1. Scheduling Help

      2. Web Conferencing Tools

      3. Group Discussion boards or email lists

    3. Presenting Group Work Online

      1. Workflows & Strategies for presenting online

  5. Brainstorm other challenges and solutions with group

  6. Closing with Q&A


Why do many students seem to hate group work? What are specific problems associated with online group work? And why do we make our students do group work in the first place if they hate it so much? How can we justify group work - especially online group work - and make it worth the effort and potential drama?


These may be several of the questions going through your mind, and possibly your students’ minds, when you assign group work in your classroom. Typically these “groans” are caused by ineffective group work that they have been assigned in the past.  While it it is generally acknowledged that being able to effectively work in groups is critical, simply assigning group tasks is not enough.  As Hansen (2006) states, “in many classes, students are simply placed into team projects with no preparation, resulting in students being ineffectively prepared for work teams” (p. 12). This issue can be exacerbated by having your students’ only interactions be in a virtual environment. In this session we will discuss the main challenges to online group work and ways that you can address those issues.


Challenge 1: Equity: Everyone do your part    


One of the thorniest issues of group work is getting every member of the group to contribute equally. When groups go awry, this is typically the first step of dysfunction where group members gravitate towards two ends of the spectrum - “do everything” to “do nothing” or “free-riding” (Davies, 2009). There are several ways to address this issue. Students need to understand why they are doing group work in the first place:  why have you chosen this topic or project to be a group project? What are the benefits to this being a group project? Does this work represent work they may do in their field that is collaborative? In one of our examples, the students are working on a School Improvement Plan (SIP) Project that in an “actual” school would be researched and written by a team of teachers.  The difference with this assignment is that students are not simply discussing an issue in small online groups; they are periodically meeting to accomplish a set of tasks that build towards a semester-long project.  So, while there are studies that have shown that online small discussions fall short in comparison to face-to-face discussions (e.g., Hamann, Pollock, & Wilson, 2012), this is not the same as participating in groups to complete a large-scale project.  


Then it is important to set clear expectations of the group and the assessments that will hold them accountable. If a group project has one grade for every member with no individual accountability, it only perpetuates the idea of “do everything” or “do nothing.” Expectations can include group rolls, or helping groups establish group norms and “ground rules” of communication (Whatley, 2009). Group projects tend to be larger projects in a course, and therefore would benefit from multiple checkins by the instructor, or scaffolded assignments before the larger group project is turned in. These mini-projects and projected timelines can help students plan their time more effectively.


Group projects can be difficult to accomplish right out of the gate, and may require more community building. This is especially important in an online class where students do not have as many interactions with each other. Community building through Discussion forum activities, synchronous sessions or even multimedia creation such as Voicethread or created video can create a bedrock of trust that group projects can build on.  It is critical to establish the “social presence” of all participants, especially the instructor, “whose role is to design authentic tasks that anchor learning activities with a learning context, facilitate activities, provide feedback and scaffold learning, enhance ‘community’ forming, strengthen the sense of belongingness, build confidence, and stimulate active participation” (Razzak, 2014, p. 884).


Group size and selection of group members can also have an impact on group performance and the likelihood of unequal participation (Davies, 2009). Group size can vary by assignment, but most experts agree that between 3-4 students per group is optimal. This however all depends on how the assignment is structured. Selection of group members can be a bit more tricky. Tools such as the Moodle Choice activity can allow students to select groups based on interest rather than existing relationships. Self-selecting of groups based on topics can give students more buy-in to the assignment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they buy into the group they are in.


Another approach to creating groups is using a self-evaluation instrument that students fill out at the beginning of the semester or right before a project. This self-evaluation can include comfort level with technology or tools required to facilitate group assignments, interest in various topics, prior experience that relates to topics or assignments, etc. This can allow you to create more purposeful and heterogenous groups as well as inform you more on the background of your students.


The project itself can be structured using tools that allow for transparency and accountability. If scaffolding your assignment, the first step may be a brainstorm that you ask all students to participate in. Several tools from Google Drawing, to Popplet to Padlet can allow for all users to brainstorm in the same online space asynchronously, and also with individual ownership of ideas. Utilizing tools that allow for individual contributions to be tracked can allow for easier checkins by an instructor on how students are collaborating together.


And finally, assessment can be a key factor in ensuring equitable contributions to an assignment. There are multiple ways to assess not only a project as a whole but individual contributions as well. The most common method is for students to complete a self-assessment, a peer-assessment and a group-assessment. The trick with these assessments, is getting students to be honest about the experience. Several schemes exist for this including sliding scales for contributions, types of contributions and overall communication skills. An alternative scheme uses a pie chart. Students are advised to divide up the pie according to their relative contributions to the group based on the elements of the project. These evaluations can be anonymous, or you could grade students based on the quality of their evaluation of others. You can establish a rubric that takes these assessments into account as well as your own.


Challenge 2: Facilitating Online Group Meetings


There are things we assume about students, and with technology we may easily assume that students understand how to use certain tools by virtue of being so-called “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001). However, it has been our experience that students are not familiar with many time management, scheduling or collaboration tools. In the tools indicated in the previous section, students may not be aware of their collaborative nature, or how instructors can see the individual contributions. Instructors need to offer support to students on these tools and best practices to utilize them for projects. Students often complain about having tight schedules that do not allow for group meetings or collaboration. Some of the tools we mentioned are asynchronous, but that has a tendency to encourage the “divide and conquer” approach to group work. Helping students utilize Google Calendars or doodle polls to schedule meetings can save them time and facilitate more synchronous meetings. These meetings can also occur online. Small groups can easily take  advantage of tools such as Skype or Google Hangout. Instructors that have access to more powerful web conferencing tools such as Adobe Connect or Blackboard Ultra can create online rooms for students to meet. This can also be an integral part of the timeline or project scope that was mentioned earlier. Students could be asked to meet a certain number of times and to provide summaries of those meetings. Inviting the instructor can also be very helpful.  


Challenge 3: Presenting Group Work Online


While collaboratively building a project is one step, collaboratively presenting can be a more difficult one. How do you get all of the students involved in presenting or showcasing their work? The first element to take into account is if it is possible or necessary for the students in the class to present to each other synchronously or if you prefer for student work to be viewed asynchronously. If students are to present synchronously, tools such as Adobe Connect or Blackboard Ultra could be used for students to share their work, either through a presentation or other online resource and each member of the group will have the opportunity to present and answer questions. If students are in a more asynchronous environment, it can be harder to get each member to contribute individually without asking one group member to combine all the work together. We have found Voicethread to be an excellent tool for allowing multiple student voices to be on the same source material.


There are many ways to approach group work in your online or in-person class, we recommend utilizing tools that allow for individual accountability as well as collaboration; scaffolding assignments or having progress check ins; multiple different assessment measures; and most importantly creating a project that utilizes group work to its advantage.



Davies, W. M. (2009).  Groupwork as a form of assessment: common problems and recommended solutions.  Higher Education: the International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 58 (4), pp. 563-584).

Hamann, K., Pollock, P. H., & Wilson, B. M. (2012).  Assessing student perceptions of the benefits of discussions in small-group, large-class, and online learning contexts.  College Teaching, 60: 65-75.

Hansen, R. S. (2006).  Benefits and problems with student teams: Suggestions for improving team projects.  Journal of Education for Business, 82(1), pp. 11-19.

Prensky, M. (2001).  Digital natives, digital immigrants, part I.  On the Horizon 9 (5), pp. 1-6.

Razzak, N.A. (2014).  Strategies for effective faculty involvement in online activities aimed at promoting critical thinking and deep learning.  Education and Information Technologies, 21, 881-896.

Whatley, J. (2009).  Ground rules in team projects:  Findings from a prototype system to support students.  Journal of Information Technology Education, 8, pp. 161-176.