Group work in an Online Environment

As we teach online and usher in a new “21st Century” age of learning, an important aspect to keep in mind is student to instructor interaction, and just as important, student to student interaction.  Not only do we want students to get to know each other to form bonds and learn collaboration, but we also need them to be prepared for what life is like beyond school.  

In the current pandemic, some think that it forced us to consider online teaching. Many contend that it merely sped up the process of how fast we get there.  Education online is inevitable and growing, and even in the corporate world, many companies are selling their brick-and-mortar buildings because online can work better.  The company Articulate is a prime example of a business that is thriving while having a 100% remote work environment.

Group Work

An important aspect of today’s education is the ability to work as a team in groups. As University employees, we do this on a daily basis. Think of all the committees and online meetings you are involved in.

That being said, there is probably nothing that deflates a student more than being told that part of the semester will involve group work. They immediately think of the worst case scenario, where high-achieving students feel like they have to carry the whole team, or at least certain members, through the end of the project. This can be amplified when being online, because that “slacker” group member doesn’t have to physically face their frustrated team.

But, group work has advantages for students that shouldn’t be forgotten. It gives students a chance to interact, and learn group strategies that they will take with them as they enter the job market. It also can give them the opportunity to build something they wouldn’t be able to complete on their own.

Group Project Strategies

I wanted to help you by sharing some strategies in creating online group projects. I also wanted to help you understand the dynamics of group projects.

As you are putting this together, one of the most important things to remember is that the group project has a purpose. What do I mean by that? We need to make sure that students are working on the “why” of the project, and not just the “how.” Getting to the “why” is a motivator and leads to better work.

Daniel Pink tells us the advantages of “why”

Second, make sure the project is very organized. In doing this you need to make sure that students understand of what the group project needs to accomplish and what the steps are for completing it successfully.

Overall, you need to lay out the expectations for the group projects well in advance. It is best to warn students about group projects at the beginning of the semester, rather than springing it on them after the semester has started.

Remember to give students the purpose of the group project. Students want to do things that matter, they want to do things that are significant, and they want to do things that make a contribution to the team. If you can promote these motivational items as a part of the project (giving the student the “why”) you will find that your students performance will improve significantly.

Differences – F2F vs Online

Something to consider is that online students have the entire internet at their fingertips. this actually can create a situation that can be overwhelming as they search for information. It can help if you give students pointers on searching for information. Give them key points or elements to search for.

Also know that in a Face to Face situation, you can see progress unfold during class time. In an online course, this might not be as easy, and so different groups might be at different development stages at any given time. Make sure objectives for the project are clear, and given to students at the beginning to help stop student frustration (You don’t want students to think they are just doing “busy work.”). You will also need to be available to students when they need help.

Forming Groups

Forcing students to work together can introduce students to new perspectives and lead to healthy collaboration. It can also backfire if students don’t get along or their work styles aren’t compatible. Online, that dynamic can be heightened because students are operating with only a limited understanding of their fellow students’ personalities and behaviors.

When forming groups in an online situation, you may want to also consider their work schedules. Some may only be able to work at night, while others may only be able to work in the morning. Making sure group members have compatible work schedules will be important to the success of the projects.

Make sure part of the group experience includes a communication plan. It’s good if the students in the group have each others detailed weekly schedules, email addresses, and cell phone numbers. Establishing tasks for individual team members, and making sure they are all working within the same platform will help them complete the assignment.

5 Stages of Small Group Development

Here is information that should be shared with students prior to them starting a group project. They need to know that there is a normal process in developing a group, and that there are 5 Stages of Small Group Development. The group dynamics will determine how long a group is in any individual stage.

  • Forming
    • Individuals come together to form a group in search of a safe space. They look for acceptance from the group. They gather information about the similarities and differences amongst the members of the group. Conversation is simplistic and controversial topics are avoided. The early group is focused on orientation – both to the assigned tasks and to one another. To grow beyond this stage, the group must be willing to venture into more controversial and challenging territory.
  • Storming
    • This stage is characterized by conflict and competition between individuals in the group as they begin to accomplish the assigned tasks. These conflicts naturally arise from the differences in personalities and approaches. Individuals are forced to either bend their own attitudes and beliefs or assert themselves more strongly as a challenge to other members of the groups. At this point the group must collectively determine a path for proceeding with the work, individual responsibility for elements of the work and the level of performance which is expected both by individuals and the group as a whole. Listening to one another can help the group move from this stage of testing boundaries into the next stage of productive problem solving.
  • Norming
    • In this stage, group members begin to recognize the value of individual contributions, and for a community. Members are willing to take risks on the ideas of others and move forward. Questions are asked, leadership responsibility is distributed, and trust is built. Individual conflicts begin to dissipate and a feeling of group belonging and membership begins to form. In order to continue in this stage and move onward, the group must maintain open communication channels, trust in one another, and creativity must be embraced.
  • Performing
    • At this stage, the group achieves true interdependence. The roles of group members are fluid, and the group is working cohesively both as a group and as individual members towards the common goal of completing the assigned tasks. The group is at its peak of productivity. Morale and group loyalty are at a high, and the group is able to efficiently move forward on assigned tasks.
  • Adjourning
    • This phase marks the end of the group’s work together, the completion of tasks and the dissolving of the group as a working unit. During this phase, group members thank one another and say their goodbyes before parting ways.


Grading a group project can be another issue that you need to think about prior to implementing it.

You can assign a single grade to the entire group. But, if you do this you may be rewarding a good grade to students that did not participate, and had little to do with the final project results. Or, you may be giving a less than good grade to a team, but maybe miss out on the students who did their best, but the project just didn’t come together.

As part of the project you might want to include a student review. Students can evaluate their own performance, and also review the performance of their teammates. In doing this you could give individual participation grades and a final group grade.

Should you do it?

Now for the “why.” It will take extra work on your part to create a successful group project. But in doing so you create an opportunity for students to learn valuable skills in communication and group dynamics that will serve them well beyond the course. Whatever field they decide to enter, the skills they acquire in the group project will help them as they enter their chosen field of work. And in todays workforce, there is a good chance that their colleagues will be working from different locations, making these skills invaluable.

The group project will also allow students to engage with each other, which will also give students a sense of belonging. Student to student interaction is important, and connections made here may last well beyond their school years!

Thank you for reading the Faculty Learning Corner. Have a great weekend!