Improving how instructors and students work in collaborative groups

In classrooms from elementary to post-secondary, group work and collaboration are staple features of the work students engage in. Being able to work well in teams and collaborate with others is increasingly seen as a critical skill for career success and positive everyday interactions. However, students can struggle to perform effectively in groups, and educators may have difficulties facilitating successful groupwork. Helping both teachers and students develop strategies and supports for engaging in group work is needed.

Drs. Christy Thomas and Barbara Brown have been leading a research team including Dr. Gabriela Alonso Yanez and doctoral student, Joshua Hill in supporting instructors in a Werklund undergraduate course to better facilitate group work in their course. The project aims to help instructors identify individual contributions and evaluate individuals within a group, while also helping the students acquire the skills they need to work in groups, so that they can help their future students.

The study investigated various aspects of the instructors’ work in supporting collaboration. This included the collaborative technologies that the instructors (and the students) were using in their groupwork, the strategies and assessments they used, and the challenges they faced. The team hoped to understand how these elements impact student learning, and to inform both best practices and future iterations of this course.

Supporting Collaboration

The team surveyed students and instructors three times during the 8 week term. They also held interviews with both groups at the end of the course. They used these results to understand who and how different people in the course were influencing each group’s work. Six emerging themes were shaped from over 150 responses, including: relationships, formative assessment, technology, project management, and peer feedback.

Working collaboratively requires building trusting relationships, both between students and instructors, and within student groups. Instructors were accessible and available to the students, providing feedback and expert advice when needed, which made them seem more trustworthy and connected with students. Student-to-student relationships emerged while students worked, which had both positive and negative aspects. Some students provided emotional support for each other, while others struggled to resolve conflicts in their groups.

Formative assessment strategies support collaborative learning, and a range of these strategies were used by instructors throughout the course (e.g. peer feedback, instructor feedback, self-reflections, outside experts) to help move the learning forward. By integrating these purposefully into the structure of the course, instructors used these strategies to inform their next steps for instruction and for student learning.

Technology was also used to support students. The majority of students (94%) used shared online spaces (e.g., Google Docs) and resources to guide their work. Students also noted that other tools and social media helped address challenges such as scheduling, communicating, and integrating their tasks into the project. Technology was particularly useful in planning and monitoring their work.

Project management was identified as a key to success in the groups. Groups whose members demonstrated project management abilities contributed to successful collaboration. Here, members helped assign tasks, clarify expectations, provide direction, set timelines, take initiative, and identify needs as part of their role.

In contrast, groups without these skills found numerous issues in this area. Despite using protocols and tools to support project management in their classes, instructors identified project management as a barrier to collaborative learning for many students. Supporting students to develop skills in project management is an area for growth and a consideration for the next iteration of the course.

From Start to Finish

As students moved through the project stages, different types of supports were identified as being more important at various times. While pedagogical supports were accessed early on, teamwork and technical supports became more of the focus as their project developed. However, emotional and project management supports were continuously flagged as necessary to the groups’ functioning.

Helping instructors to recognize and respond to these different needs can help them better facilitate collaborative learning. Training instructors in these strategies, incorporating them into the course design, and making them explicit as part of their interactions, can improve both instructor-student and student-student interactions. Instructors can also make use of peer leaders to model and take effective techniques forward into their groups.

As group work extends beyond the classroom, the researchers are also conducting a study with teachers in K-12 classrooms. Both veteran and novice teachers have similar difficulties working in interdisciplinary teams, so understanding how to improve this work is also important for their skills. Findings to date indicate that regardless of length of teaching experience and professional capacity, co-designing interdisciplinary learning and skillful collaboration with peers is challenging.


See more from Dr. Barb Brown on her profile

See more from Dr. Christy Thomas on her profile


Connected Citations

Brown, B., Hartwell, A., & Thomas, C. (2018). Interdisciplinary design teams of pre-service and in-service teachers: Issues with collaboration. Canadian Journal of Action Research, 19(1), 14-32. Available Online.

Brown, B., & Thomas, C. (2017). Strategies for successful group work. In A.P. Preciado Babb, L. Yeworiew, & S. Sabbaghan (Eds.) Selected Proceedings of the IDEAS Conference 2017: Leading Educational Change. Calgary, Canada: Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Available Online.