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Designing Small Group Activities: A Resource Guide

Group Work Preparing to Teach

Designing Small Group Activities: A Resource Guide

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Diverse group of four students working on a project
Students can learn from and with each other in groups; that’s been well-established in the research. But student learning in groups doesn’t happen automatically, and it doesn’t happen regularly unless the group activity is carefully designed. The areas listed below identify the essential components of effective small-group activities and experiences. Under each are several questions that can be used as part of the planning process. Most don’t have definitive right answers, but good answers depend on details like the learning objectives of the activity or assignment, the nature of the task, students’ experience with group work, and whether the product the group produces is graded. Fortunately, in most cases, there’s research and experience that can help teachers find their way to answers that make sense given what they hope group work will accomplish.

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Students can learn from and with each other in groups; that’s been well-established in the research. But student learning in groups doesn’t happen automatically, and it doesn’t happen regularly unless the group activity is carefully designed. The areas listed below identify the essential components of effective small-group activities and experiences. Under each are several questions that can be used as part of the planning process. Most don’t have definitive right answers, but good answers to them depend on details like the learning objectives of the activity or assignment, the nature of the task, students’ experience with group work, and whether the product the group produces is graded. In most cases, teachers can draw on relevant research and a wealth of faculty experience to get answers that make sense for what they hope group work will accomplish—even if others’ findings and experiences can be contradictory.

Group formation

Blowers, P. (2003). Using student skill self-assessment to get balanced groups for group projects. College Teaching, 51(3), 106–110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27559145

The author proposes a skill set that can be used for forming groups.

Chapman, K. J., Meuter, M., Toy, D., & Wright, L. (2006). Can’t we pick our own groups? The influence of group selection method on group dynamics and outcomes. Journal of Management Education, 30(4), 357–569. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562905284872

Student-selected groups provide better experiences than randomly formed groups.

Connerley, M. L., & Mael, F. A. (2001). The importance and invasiveness of student team selection criteria. Journal of Management Education, 25(5), 471–494. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256290102500502

Students want group mates who have strong communication skills, are achievement orientated, and are dependable.

Freeman, S., Theobald, R., Crowe, A. J., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2017). Likes attract: Student self-sort in a classroom by gender, demography and academic characteristics. Active Learning in Higher Education, 18(2), 115–126. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417707614

When students formed their own groups, they self-sorted to a small degree by academic characteristics and to a large one by demographic traits. They tend not to form diverse groups.

Harding, L. M. (2018). Students of a feather “flocked” together: A group assignment method for reducing free-riding and improving group and individual learning outcomes. Journal of Management Education, 40(2), 117–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475317708588

The researcher formed groups according to student schedules and willingness to devote time to the course; she found that those groups performed better on group and individual assignments and reported less free-riding than when students selected their group members.

Mahenthiran, S., & Rouse, P. J. (2000). The impact of group selection on student performance and satisfaction. International Journal of Educational Management, 14(6), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1108/09513540010348043

The authors found that letting students partner with friends and then form groups with pairs of friends improved performance and satisfaction.

Walker, A., Bush, A., Sanchagrin, K., & Holland, J. (2017). “We’ve got to keep meeting like this”: A pilot study comparing academic performance in shifting-membership cooperative groups versus stable-membership cooperative groups in an introductory-level lab. College Teaching, 65(1), 9–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2016.1222574

In this study, stable groups performed better.

Zeff, L. E., Highby, M. A., & Bossman, L. J., Jr. (2006). Permanent or temporary classroom groups: A field study. Journal of Management Education, 30(4), 528–541. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562905280778

The authors found that how groups were formed influenced outcomes, with permanent groups producing better work and fostering greater development of interpersonal communication skills than temporary groups.

Tasks: activities and assignments

Bacon, D. R., Stewart, K. W., & Silver, W. S. (1999). Lessons from the best and worst student team experiences: How a teacher can make the difference. Journal of Management Education, 23(5), 467–488. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256299902300503

In this widely referenced classic, the researchers asked 116 MBA students about their best and worst group experiences. Based on the results, the authors offer specific advice on designing the best possible group experiences.

McCorkle, D. E., Reardon, J., Alexander, J. F., Kling, N. D., Harris, R. C., & Iyler, R. V. (1999). Undergraduate marketing students, group projects, and teamwork: The good, the bad, and the ugly? Journal of Marketing Education, 21(2), 106–117. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475399212004

Another classic that reviews the literature on the benefits and problems with group work. The authors surveyed students and found that, for them, group experiences were a mixed bag.

Sautter, P. (2007). Designing discussion activities to achieve desired learning outcomes: Choices using mode of delivery and structure. Journal of Marketing Education, 29(2), 122–131. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475307302014

This article explores face-to-face and online discussion as well as the respective benefits and problems with structured and unstructured discussions.

Van Auken, P. (2011). Maybe it’s both of us: Engagement and learning. Teaching Sociology, 41(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X12457959

The author describes a large group project that failed to engage students or produce impressive results and how a redesigned task changed the outcomes—for students and for him.

Yamane, D. (1996). Collaboration and its discontents: Steps toward overcoming barriers to successful group projects. Teaching Sociology, 24(4), 378–383. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318875

In this piece, the author identifies those aspects of group projects that result in “group hate” and offers useful advice on how to avoid them.

Handling small group dynamics

Aaron, J. R., McDowell, W. C., & Herdman, A. O. (2014). The effects of a team charter on student team behaviors. Journal of Education for Business, 89(2), 90–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2013.763753

In this study, groups developed charters that outlined behavioral expectations, meeting management, and work allocation. Doing so improved several different group processes and student satisfaction with the group experience.

Aggarwal, P., & O’Brien, C. L. (2008). Social loafing on group projects: Structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, 30(3), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475308322283

The authors examined four factors and found that three decreased social loafing (not doing a fair share of the work) in group work: reducing the size of the project, reducing the size of the group and multiple peer evaluations. Letting students self-select group members did not decrease social loafing.

Barr, T. F., Dixon, A. L., & Gassenheimer, J. B. (2005). Exploring the “lone wolf” phenomenon in student teams. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(1), 81–90. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475304273459

According to this study, the lone wolf prefers to work alone, dislikes group process and the ideas of others, and sees others in the group as being less capable. The authors found that the presence of a lone wolf has a negative impact on group performance.

Chapman, K. J., Meuter, M. L., Toy, D., & Wright, L. K. (2010). Are student groups dysfunctional? Journal of Marketing Education, 32(1), 39–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475309335575

The authors surveyed both faculty and students about experiences and perceptions of group work. They found significant disconnects between faculty and student beliefs, with students reporting more positive experience and perceptions than faculty.

D’Abate, C., Eddy, E. R., Costello, M., & Gregory, P. L. (2018). A next step in student teamwork pedagogies: Teaching and supporting teamwork dynamics. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 29(2), 73–101.

The first of two studies documented that most faculty in the study cohort were not teaching students how to work in teams. The second study documented that teaching students about how to work in groups before they started working was not as successful as supporting their efforts while they were working together.

Hall, D., & Buzwell, S. (2012). The problem of free-riding in group projects: Looking beyond social loafing as reason for non-contribution. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(1), 37–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787412467123

Through survey results, the authors found that while free-riding is a major concern of students in all disciplines, the behavior doesn’t always result from laziness. Some students are reluctant to participate, are afraid they won’t be accepted by the group, or stop contributing because their ideas have been ignored or discounted.

Jassawalla, A., Sashittal, H., & Malshe, A. (2009). Students’ perceptions of social loafing: Its antecedents and consequences in undergraduate business classroom teams. Academy of Management & Learning, 8(1), 42–54. https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2009.37012178

The researchers’ survey data confirmed that when students don’t carry their weight in the group, other group members compensate by doing more. The researchers recommended training that better equips group members to deal with social loafers.

Marks, M. B., & O’Connor, A. H. (2013). Understanding students’ attitudes about group work: What does this suggest for instructors of business? Journal of Education for Business, 88(3), 147–158. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2012.664579

Surveying business and nonbusiness students, the researchers found that both groups were close to neutral in terms of whether they preferred to work alone or in groups. One-quarter of the students thought faculty used group work to reduce their workload, while another third answered neutrally on that question. Less than one-third of the respondents agreed that their group work was well-managed by professors.

Assessing learning that occurs in collective contexts

Anson, R., & Goodman, J. A. (2014). A peer assessment system to improve student team experiences. Journal of Education for Business, 89(2), 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2012.754735

The researchers developed an online peer assessment system that students gave high marks for its efficiency, provision of high-quality feedback, and positive impact on team processes.

Baker, D. F. (2008). Peer assessment in small groups: A comparison of methods. Journal of Management Education, 32(2), 183–209. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562907310489

On the basis of a comprehensive literature review, the author developed and tested with positive results a long and short form of a peer-review instrument. The instrument appears in the article.

Sadler, D. R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 535–550. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930903541015

An interesting perspective on feedback in which the author proposes that students’ ability to make accurate judgments about their own work and that of their peers develops through practice. It argues for peer assessment.