Group Learning

Two widely accepted principles about learning—learners construct their own knowledge and learning is an inherently social phenomenon—support the use of group learning. Working in small groups provides learners with opportunities to articulate ideas and understandings, uncover assumptions and misconceptions, and negotiate with others to create products or reach consensus. Group activities enable students to discover deeper meaning in the content and improve thinking skills. The most effective use of group work is that which engages students with higher-level content that is thought-provoking, difficult to understand, or has multiple interpretations.

Learning process

The terms collaborative learning and cooperative learning are often used interchangeably, but a distinction is helpful. Collaborative learning highlights the contributions of individual group members, stresses the sharing of authority, and leads to dialog and consensus building on topics without a clear right and wrong answer. Group governance and group processing remain in the hands of the students (Panitz, 1997). Cooperative learning is often thought of as a subset of collaborative learning that involves more teacher intervention. The instructor designs the task and a group structure for accomplishing the task, including the assignment of roles to group members. Students then interact under specific conditions set up by the teacher: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual account ability, collaborative skills, and group processing (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). Both collaborative and cooperative learning can take place with informal and formal groups, however both settings will require that the instructor plans carefully how the assignment is designed, monitored, and assessed.

Group structure

Short-term groups

These are temporary groups, with little or no time spent on assigning people to groups, getting into groups, or assigning roles. They last one session or less and are used to ensure cognitive processing and engagement in learning. Some informal short-term group activities include the following:

  • Think-Pair-Share: Students are given a prompt (a question, problem, visual, etc.), and asked to think about the prompt individually and jot down ideas. Students then form pairs, talk about their responses, and formulate a joint response. Some pairs are called on to summarize their discussion for the class.
  • Think-Pair-Square: Same as above, but two pairs of students join together to share and compare the results, rather than moving to a whole group discussion.
  • Turn-To-Your-Neighbor Discussions: Students “turn to a neighbor” and brainstorm answers to a question or discuss a solution to a problem. Call on students for answers. Ask the class for a show of hands of who agrees or disagrees with an answer.
  • Pair-And-Compare: During a two to three minute break in lecture, students form pairs and compare notes, rewriting the notes by adding information or correcting as needed.
  • Small-Group Homework Check: Have students do their homework individually outside of class. During class on the day the assignment is due, have students form groups and then compare their answers to the assignment. The students in each group must agree on answers and turn in a group solution along with their individual work.

Some short-term group activities require a bit more structure and planning. These include the following:

  • Jigsaw: This structure is useful when a topic or problem is complex and involves multiple perspectives. Each group member takes responsibility for one part of the problem, meets with students from other groups who have the same responsibility (expert group), and then teaches his or her part to the members of the original group.
  • Roundtable: After the group is given a prompt, the group members take turns recording a response to the prompt on a single page that is quickly passed from one member to the next for a specified amount of time.
  • Send-A-Problem: Problems or issues are identified by the groups or by the instructor. Each group proposes solutions to these problems or issues.
  • Dyadic Essay Confrontation: In response to an assigned reading, each student writes an essay question and model response to that question. During class, students pair off, exchange essay questions, and each writes a spontaneous response to the question he or she receives. The pairs compare the spontaneous responses with the model responses for the two questions.

Long-term groups or teams

These groups are formed by the instructor and may stay together for an extended period of time (weeks or even the entire semester) to work on a broader task or project. One type of formal group is the student team—a stable group that works on major course projects and often involves peer evaluation. Some specific suggestions for getting started with organizing long-term group projects include the following:

  • Develop a clear description of the project and what you expect.
  • Decide what kinds of team compositions are critical for the project.
  • Break the project down into smaller pieces, establishing a timeline, and having the teams submit progress reports on their learning and how they are working as a team.
  • Provide students with a rationale for the team project. Include an explanation of the value and purpose of working as a team, and establish guidelines for how the teams should work together.
  • Establish clear and fair guidelines for how the team project will be graded.

Team formation

This depends on your purpose for using groups. Teams usually have three to five students who are assigned to the group randomly or purposefully by you. Capstone projects may require a larger number of students.  Student-selected groups are not generally recommended.

Random selection

You can form random teams by any of the following methods:

  • Simply having students “turn-to-your-neighbor” or “form teams of three.”
  • Counting off—24 students would form groups of four by counting off from one to six. All of the ones would become a group and so on.
  • Using color-coded cards or playing cards—students pick up cards as they enter class and all students with the same color (or same number) work together.

Instructor-selected teams

For longer or more complex projects, instructors may want to create heterogeneous teams that distribute students into different groups based on ability, strengths, experience, gender, ethnicity, or some other characteristic. Instructors first learn about the students and then form teams according to the plan. You can learn about your students in one or more of the following ways:

  • Collect student data sheets that include the following: 
    • Course-related information: Major, courses taken in the discipline
    • Experience: Work, travel
    • Personal information: Where they live, phone number, e-mail address, interests
  • Administer questionnaires with questions relevant to the project: 
    • Strengths: Self-rating on ability with computers, writing, organization
    • Learning styles
  • Have students prepare a resume. Doing this may be most appropriate when the students are likely to have a resume already prepared.

Where can I learn more?


  • Cooper, J. (2003). Group formation in cooperative learning: What the experts say. In J. L. Cooper, P. Robinson, & D. Ball (Eds.), Small group instruction in higher education: Lessons from the past, visions of the future (pp. 207-210). Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
  • Cuseo, J. B. (2002) Igniting student involvement, peer interaction, and teamwork: A taxonomy of specific cooperative learning structures and collaborative learning strategies Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
  • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998). Cooperative learning returns to college: What evidence is there that it works. Change, 30(4), 27-35.
  • Millis, B. J., & Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty. Phoenix: Oryx Press.