Supporting Online Group Work

With constructivism as its theoretical underpinning, group work relies upon social interactions to enhance learning by building connections between existing and new ideas or experiences (Bransford et al., 1999). One of the most well-known theorists within this field, Lev Vygotsky, further examined the interplay between social interactions and cognitive processes and developed both the sociocultural theory of development and the zone of proximal development (see Vygotsky 1978;  Vygotsky 1997). For many years, collaborative group-based learning has been used as an effective pedagogical approach within tertiary institutions (Johnson et al., 2007; Slavin 1996). Over these years, researchers have investigated the features that make group work in higher education effective, and have suggested ways that the student experience can be enhanced by instructors (see Burke, 2011; Hassanien, 2006; Verenikina, 2012). However, with the transition from face-to-face group work to online group work, there are additional factors of the student experience that need to be considered.

Early this year I was walking out of class with two of my students, physically distant of course. One student was airing their concerns about the group assignments within my unit and explained that they were most worried about completing assignments with peers who were attending the HyFlex class online. The other student, who had successfully completed three group assignments in another one of my HyFlex units last year, reassured them, telling them that I have ways of supporting their group work. At the time, I thoughtlessly agreed. But on the drive home I had time to think about how I support online group work within my units. The following is the list that I came up with on that drive home and scribbled down on a used envelope as soon as I walked through the door.

Setting Expectations

As group work can serve different purposes (e.g., objective, means, incentive; see Chiriac, 2014), I like to start by clarifying the purpose of student collaboration in relation to the common goals (derived from the assignment criteria) that they must achieve in order to successfully complete the task. It has been shown that students don’t always know how to work in groups and may not yet have the skills required to successfully engage in group work (Burke, 2011). In order to clarify how I expect students to work together, I plan time to explicitly teach students about the common interpersonal skills associated with group work (e.g., communication, conflict resolution) and project management skills (e.g., assignment of roles, delegating tasks, managing time).

I also encourage groups to draft a group contract (sometimes referred to as a ‘digital handshake’; see Hesterman, 2016) that clearly defines the agreed roles and responsibilities of each group member (see Pugach & Johnson, 2002). A contract then allows students and myself to monitor the progress made and determine whether collective and individual expectations are being met. Encouraging students to submit a contribution statement (e.g., team, peer, or self evaluations) that outlines each group member’s contribution to the assignment at the time of their assignment submission can add a further element of accountability during the process (see Brook & Ammons, 2003 for examples of peer evaluation).

Group Allocations

The allocation of students to groups requires consideration of a few factors, including the provision of choice and minimising issues associated with group sizes. I provide choice to groups of students whenever I can. When possible, I like to offer students the opportunity to select the topic for their task, their group presentation week, and allocation to a group. The most important of these choices, is student selection of groups, which has been shown to result in higher levels of student satisfaction and better student learning outcomes when compared to academic selection, random selection, and mixed pair selection (Mantzioris & Kehrwald, 2013).

The body of literature surrounding group size is larger than any other variable associated with group work (Davies, 2009). The complexity, duration, and purpose of the task must be considered when deciding on an appropriate group size. We know that the larger the group size, the smaller the individual contribution, and the greater the likelihood of “free-riding” (sometimes referred to as the Ringelmann Effect; see Ingham et al., 1974). However, the recognition of the individual contributions made by team members can limit the free-riding effect (Jackson & Williams, 1985). In accordance with the literature, I tend to limit group sizes as much as practically possible (upper limit of four students) while providing opportunities to recognise individuals’ contributions to the task (e.g., contribution statements).

Providing Reassurance

Some students enter the class with pre existing negative attitudes towards online group work. This may be as a result of recent challenging experiences of group work or past difficulties with online communication and collaboration. One of the most common concerns that students have is building an authentic relationship with each other for successful group work. We know that it takes time to establish and maintain collaborative relationships, and that this can be made considerably harder when it takes place online (Turner, 2020). In response, I like establish groups early in the semester and reassure students that there is time built into classes for them to develop and build their relationships with each other over an extended period of time (Davies, 2009).

Another concern that students have shared with me is being reluctant to seek assistance when group work is not going to plan in fear of being penalised. This is particularly true when there is a collaboration element built into the marking rubric or when students have been penalised for seeking help in the past. This is a concern that I address from the very beginning by reassuring students that I am willing to provide support to groups who are finding working together challenging. Support is offered in the form of investigating the reasons for relationship breakdown, suggesting effective communication strategies, and promoting positive approaches to conflict resolution.

Breaking the ice

Although relationships are critical to the success of group work, it can be challenging for students to make meaningful connections with each other during their online classes (Lieberman, 2018). Knowing this, I could spend a lot of time designing and facilitating opportunities for students to engage in genuine interactions with each other each week. With a large amount of content to get through, I have needed to find more time efficient methods of providing these opportunities. Icebreaker activities can be a great way to effectively build connections between students when you only have a small amount of time. Chad Littlefield, cofounder of We and Me Inc, offers resources and tips that have inspired me to use icebreakers to support genuine student interaction online. Here are some links to videos that might inspire you too:

Providing Ongoing Opportunities

Our students have many commitments (e.g., paid work, caring responsibilities, volunteer work, studies, social commitments) and it cannot be assumed that they will find time to collaborate online outside of allocated class hours (Hassanien, 2006). It is for this reason that I provide embedded opportunities for assigned groups to work together every lesson, on short and highly structured tasks. This provides students with protected time to work towards meeting common goals, while supporting the ongoing development of interpersonal relationships between group members. In addition, I encourage students to maintain informal communication outside class hours through the use of online platforms such as email, Padlet, and Canvas.

Using Canvas features

There are a number of inbuilt Canvas features that can assist you in supporting your students’ group work. The first of these features is the People tab found on the left-hand menu of your unit’s Canvas site. Here, you can set up Groups under Group Sets. This allows you to create groups that students can be assigned to. There are also options for students to self-assign and to automatically assign a group leader. Group Sets can be linked to assignment tasks to allow for single submission and shared marks. Creating groups in this way also generates a Group Homepage on Canvas. Here students can communicate with each other, share resources, record their progress, and schedule meetings and goals.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.

Brooks, C., & Ammons, J. L. (2003). Free-riding in group projects and the effects of timing, frequency and specificity of criteria in peer assessments. Journal of Education for Business, 75(5), 268–272.

Burke, A. (2011). Group work: How to use groups effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87–95.

Chiriac, E. H. (2014). Group work as an incentive for learning – students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in Psychology5(558), 558–558.

Davies, W. (2009). Groupwork as a form of assessment: Common problems and recommended solutions. Higher Education58(4), 563–584.

Hassanien, A. (2006). Student Experience of Group Work and Group Assessment in Higher Education. Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism, 6(1), 17-39.

Hesterman, S. (2016). The digital handshake: A group contract for authentic eLearning in higher education. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 13(3),

Ingham, A. G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10(4), 371–384.

Jackson, J., & Williams, K. D. (1985). Social loafing on difficult tasks: Working collectively can improve performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(4), 937–942.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (2007). The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19(1), 15–29.

Lieberman, M. (2018, April, 25). Online students don’t have to work solo. Inside Higher Ed.

Mantzioris, E., & Kehrwald, B. (2013). Allocations of tertiary students for group work: Methods and conssequences. Ergo, 3(2).

Pugach, M., & Johnson, L. (2002). A multidimensional framework for collaboration.
In Collaborative practitioners: Collaborative schools (2nd ed.) (pp. 26-42). Love Publishing Company.

Slavin, R. E. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21(1), 43–69.

Turner. (2020). Keep the distance in distance learning. Inside Higher Ed.

Verenikina, I. (2012). Facilitating collaborative work in tertiary teaching: A self-study. Australian Educational Researcher39(4), 477–489.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1997). Educational psychology. St Lucie Press.

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