Making Group Work Work


Making Group Work Work is a piece of pedagogical research conducted in the School of Earth and Environment.  The project focused on staff perspectives of group work with a view to enabling staff to decide for themselves which were the most appropriate activities and to help them think about how group work would work best for them and their students. 

Goals / Purpose

This project arises from a need to improve students’ – and staff’s – experiences of university-level group work in a context spanning social and physical sciences.  Literature across higher education disciplines indicate that students often find group work challenging, despite – or perhaps because of – its established pedagogical benefits.  Teaching staff, in turn, may understandably struggle to respond to student issues whilst maximising the learning and skill-building potential of group work.   

The initial questions that were posed for the research for the project included:  Which are the most appropriate group working activities that should be enhanced? Which should be dropped?  How do we develop group working skills across the years of the programmes so that there is an appropriate transmission of skills?  When and how should group work be assessed?  Thus the main question driving this project has been a practical one:  How can we make group work work better for staff and students? 

Implementation / Activity

We chose an Action Learning approach, in which self-selecting participants took part in a cycle of planning, doing, reflecting and learning.  Within this learning cycle, and also with additional participants who did not participate in an Action Learning cycle, we gathered data through qualitative interviewing and observation.  A Reference Group helped guide the progression of the research and reflect on emerging themes, whilst student questionnaires provided a balancing perspective on the data collected with teaching staff.   

Reflections and lessons learnt

Our findings highlight the symbiotic relationship between skills-based learning and knowledge acquisition; skilful use of formative and summative assessment; and the importance of transparency and facilitation to empower students as partners in group-based learning and enhance their experiences.  Transparency by staff and guided student reflection around group work processes maximise students’ skills development and help them understand the value of group work for their learning. Discussion and feedback in the Reference Group and workshops reinforced the importance of creating spaces for reflection both as part of ‘teaching the process’ and also to enable more effective assessment (especially in relation to the learning outcomes)  

Feedback on the project and specifically the resource for staff has been largely positive.  Some colleagues would like the resource to be more interactive (and we have generated ideas on how this may be achieved). Some of the most positive outcomes related to the project have come from the conversations between colleagues often stimulated by engagement with the Resource and the ideas that have been generated for improving teaching practice.  Some conversations between teaching colleagues revolved around the observation that they were not alone in finding the process of group work challenging and the steps set out in the Resource with a focus on planning and communication and an acknowledgement that there were no right answers were seen as helpful.   

Our study discovered some differences in how group work is used in applied social sciences as compared to physical sciences.  Nevertheless, core lessons can be shared more widely – for instance on transparency, facilitation and helping empower students as partners in their own learning.   

This research focussed on staff experiences of using group work and has aimed to provide practical insights as well as pedagogical reflections on how group work works well, and why.  Further research might usefully compare or explore the relationship between staff’s experiences and students’ experiences of group work.  Studies investigating the observable and qualitative effects of the practices analysed here on students’ experiences – and particularly on the experiences of female and disabled students and those from different ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds – would be especially valuable in developing a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the effectiveness of staff’s approaches to group work in enhancing students’ learning experiences in a variety of circumstances. 

Learn more

  1. Making Group Work Work:  Improving university group work for students and staff, Working Paper September 2016, PDF in OneDrive (logged in users of the University only)
  2. Making Group Work Work: A Resource for Planning and Reflection, PDF in OneDrive (logged in users of the University only)

Casebook author

Anne Tallontire

Anne Tallontire, Senior Lecturer, School of Earth and Environment, Faculty of Environment 

Interests: Interactive methods, active learning, academic leadership.