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A guide to the effective use of group work

A range of formal and informal learning and study groups operate in any University context. This resource focuses on formal learning groups, which are generally established to complete a specific task in one class session or over many weeks. Tasks might include a laboratory experiment, musical performance or the compilation of an environmental impact report.

Formal learning groups can be used to achieve a range of teaching and learning goals related to:

  1. group process i.e. how a group works together
  2. group product i.e. what a group produces


Why use group work?

Well designed and conducted group work can enhance learning and student performance. Perhaps more important from the student's point of view, it can also help students to develop a range of communication and planning skills that are attractive to employers.

Group work can potentially develop the following skills transferable to the workplace:

  • The ability to listen to others and evaluate different points of view.
  • The development of cooperation and planning skills.
  • The development of leadership and shared leadership skills.
  • The ability to work on large and/or complex projects.
  • The ability to work with individuals from a range of cultures and backgrounds.

These kinds of important personal qualities, alongside specialist knowledge, are also reflected in the Graduate Profiles. They are viewed by the University as equipping students for both employment and citizenship.


When to use group work?

Group work should be considered when one or more of the following criteria are met:

  • Group work will clearly assist students to meet learning objectives.
  • The task requires cooperation for successful completion i.e. the task can only be carried out by a group – such as when students work as a management team, or are required to assign roles to group members.
  • The task is too large or complex for one person.
  • Resource limitations require group work - such as in the case of limited equipment or a limited number of 'real' clients.


Challenges of group work

While group assessment can have many intellectual and social benefits, it is also one of the most challenging and contentious forms of assessment. Typical challenges include:

  • Students may not be clear about the benefits of group work and group assessment. While some students may consider the group assessment they participate in as effective preparation for employment, others are yet to be convinced. Students entering higher education often have highly developed independent study habits and are strongly orientated towards their own personal achievement. These students may perceive little value for their own learning in group activities, or may be frustrated by the need to negotiate. Students can also perceive group work as a management tool used by academic staff primarily to reduce their assessment load and of little or no benefit to students.
  • Students are often ill equipped to be able to engage in successful group work. As a result, instances of group dysfunction or conflict are common in formal learning groups.
  • Conflicts often emerge as a result of feelings about unequal contribution to the group effort.
  • Different cultural approaches to learning and participation can be interpreted as non-participation by some group members and the lecturer.
  • From a lecturer's point of view, group work assessment can take as much time, or more time, than individual assessment.


Group work assessment

Given the potential challenges of group work assessment, it is essential that the lecturer spend a fair amount of time inducting and supporting group work and designing the group task and the method of assessment.

Inducting and supporting group work

  • Students may not possess the skills required to engage in successful group work. It is likely that they will need to be inducted into the different stages of group work. This is particularly the case with students in their first year of study, but may be true of students at all levels.
  • Adequate class time should be given to group formation, negotiation of expectations and roles, times and frequencies of meetings. Icebreakers that encourage students to identify each other's strengths or other characteristics are useful to assist this process.
  • Group size and composition should be appropriate to the task and the abilities of the group.
  • Students may wish to use a variety of communication techniques, including on-line or social networking tools.
  • Teams will need to decide whether to choose a leader or decide not to have a leader and delegate tasks.
  • Students need to be made aware of the possibility of conflict. There needs to be a clear procedure as to who can assist if there is a group problem and what students can do. Groups may need to have some training in conflict management and decision making to enable them to deal with these problems.
  • Lecturers should allocate time during the course to building and reinforcing rapport and group identity within groups. Activities can be content-focused or concerned with discussing what they are trying to achieve and the degree to which the group is working effectively.
  • During group work the lecturer should expect to take on a variety of roles. They may decide on the make-up of the group, be an organizer, mentor, and mediator and give advice to the group on resolving group problems.
  • While some group work can be done out of class it can be useful to schedule some group work sessions in class time so that the lecturer can monitor the work being done and intervene if the teams are focusing their efforts unproductively.
  • This resource deals exclusively with in-class, on-campus group work. However, for those who may have a virtual group, the same principles apply. For information on this approach see for example Collis (1999).

Designing the task

  • Group work must clearly assist students to achieve key course learning objectives. Not all tasks are suitable as group tasks. As a general rule, tasks that clearly require co-operation for successful completion are more likely to be successful.
  • Tasks should be designed to enable all students to contribute effectively, perhaps through undertaking different roles or subtasks. Care must be taken to ensure that each member of the group is assigned an equivalent task.
  • Some students may find it difficult to participate in a group for a variety of reasons (e.g. cultural constraints, disability). It is necessary to consider how such students might be accommodated.
  • The period set for the task needs to take into account enough time for the group to establish group process and meet.

Designing the assessment

  • The way in which students approach group work is largely determined by the way in which they are to be assessed. Group work assessment needs to be well designed in order to capture the benefits of group work and avoid some of the pitfalls. There are four important questions that a lecturer needs to consider when designing group work assessment:

    1. What is to be assessed? – A decision needs to be made about whether to assess the product, the process or both. Assessing the product provides a way to measure the acquisition and development of specialist skills and knowledge. Assessing group process provides an opportunity to monitor and reward the implementation and development of group work skills.
    2. What criteria and who will determine the criteria? - Criteria for the assessment of group work can be determined by staff, students or through consultation between the two. Some people believe that groups are most successful when students are involved in establishing their own criteria for assessment through consultation with teaching staff.
    3. Who will apply assessment criteria and determine marks? – Will the lecturer be the assessor, will the student, or will both parties play some role in assessment?
    4. How will marks be distributed? - Will each individual get their own mark or will there be a group mark?
  • University education is based on an assumption that final grades reflect individual student achievement. As a result, group marks can present difficulties for both lecturers and students. Three possible models of group assessment are discussed below:

    1. Assess students on the basis of individual assignments – Individual marks allow outstanding performance to be rewarded and free-loading to be penalized. However, this approach may undermine student motivation for collaboration in group work.
    2. Allocate group marks which count equally to individual students' grades – Uniform marks encourage collaboration by removing any rationale for competition. On the other hand some students may get good marks as a result of the effort of their team members, or more capable students might have gained better marks if it wasn't for team members.
    3. Allocate individual marks that take into account the contribution of each team member – This third approach is increasingly used to resolve difficulties with the models discussed above. Information on contribution can be provided in a variety of ways e.g. use of oral tests, individual summaries of contribution and achievements and the use of peer assessment to evaluate the contribution of self and other members. It is also possible for the group to submit one assessment item. A proportion of the mark is allocated to this combined assessment item and equally shared by the group members, and a proportion of the mark is allocated for an individual's contribution to team effort and planning. Note that if peer and self-assessment are used it is important that students receive adequate training in these methods to ensure fair-minded assessment.


University policy and guidelines

Adapted from the University's Learning and Teaching resource for Policies, guidelines and procedures.

The University’s approach to the design and assessment of group work has changed significantly over the recent years. The new framework is established in two documents:

The principal changes in the official group work framework are:

  • The 20% assessment limit has been removed.
  • Where group projects are included in the assessments for a course, some form of individually assessed work should also contribute to the total mark.
  • Assessment design for group projects is the responsibility of the Course Director.
  • Group work projects should provide an authentic learning experience.
  • Group work assignments in individual courses should be consistent with a coordinated Faculty assessment strategy.
  • Faculties are responsible for ensuring development and exercising oversight of this coordinated assessment strategy.
  • Projects should
        - be designed to enable students to develop the skills critical to successful group work,
        - be contextualised to the discipline in which they are offered,
        - provide for progression in assessment requirements.

Remember: being familiar with the group work framework

  • Offers you clarity and consistency around what you absolutely must do when considering formal learning groups (the minimal institutional criteria).
  • Offers you some possibilities (because you won’t be familiar with everything in the policy) and some leeway (because the policy doesn’t cover everything).

Further, it

  • Offers you a fall-back position if there are issues with students — or, as is less likely, with the institution.

Note that the framework is also almost solely assessment-focussed, which is good because students tend to have been educated to be assessment-focussed — and because students are more likely to have issues in group work with the way it is assessed (workload allocation, equal work for equal marks, etc.). That focus means that you have plenty of room to innovate in the process of group work, formal and informal (i.e. formally and not formally assessed).


Conclusion – where to from here?

Given the possible pitfalls in terms of student perceptions of the worth of group assessment, it is advisable when starting out to aim for quality rather than quantity. Starting with a group work component that is a relatively minor proportion of the assessment for a subject means that any issues related to equity of contribution, fairness of grading and student experience of the group assessment that might arise can be resolved relatively easily.



*James, R., McInnis, C., & Marcia, D. (2002). Advice for students unfamiliar with assessment practices in Australia higher education. Assessing learning in Australian universities: Ideas, strategies and resources for quality in student assessment. Retrieved from 

Chau, K. (1992). Educating for Effective Group Work Practice in Multicultural Environments of the 1990s. Journal of Multi-cultural Social Work, 1(4), pp. 1-16.

Collis, B. (1999). WWW-based environments for collaborative group work. Education and Information Technologies, 3(3/4), pp. 231-246.

De Vita, G. (2005). Fostering inter-cultural learning through multi-cultural group work. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: improving learning for all (pp. 75-83). Oxon: Routledge.

Race, P. (2001). Assessment Series No9: A Briefing on Self, Peer and Group Assessment. York: LTSN Generic Centre, Learning and Teaching Support Network.

*Spiller, D. (2010). Assessment Matters: Group Work Assessment. Teaching Development. The University of Waikato.

The University of Auckland, Graduate Profile, Approved by Senate 3 March, 2003.

*University Teaching Development Centre. (2004). Improving Teaching and Learning Group Work and Group Assessment. Victoria University of Wellington.

*[Some passages in this document have been quoted directly, with permission, from these sources].


Other resources

Study tips and resources for students, including time management, critical thinking, group work expectations and more.

Working with Groups or peer review assignments in Canvas

Enhancing Experiences of Group Work - University of Technology, Sydney


Developed by the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education (CLeaR), The University of Auckland ©2018.

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