SIP 11.8 Designing Group Work with Universal Design for Learning

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?


Students in class.

There are many great arguments for using group work in your classes, either as an instructional strategy in class or as a component of formal graded assignments. In her book Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn: Engaging Students in the Classroom and Online, Janet Salmons reviews the research on the rich positive impacts that collaborative work has on students, including pushing students to analyze their own perspectives in relation to others and giving all students the chance to learn and grow from one another. Even strong students move forward in their knowledge when they collaborate with others. Additionally, collaborative work provides students opportunities to develop leadership and teamwork skills. In large classes, having students work collaboratively can also help them feel connected to at least a few others in the class.

You may be wondering, though, how a Universal Design for Learning approach to group work might look. If you’ve been reading SIPs for a while, you may recall that UDL provides students with multiple ways to engage with content, demonstrate their learning and get feedback. How can group work be designed with these principles in mind?

Take a SIP of this: Design group work with UDL

Building multiple options into group work activities and group assignments can empower students to have more meaningful collaborative experiences. Here are some suggestions to think about:

  1. Before having students form groups, whether for in-class work or an assignment to be completed out of class, have them think and write about how they learn best and what skills and attitudes they might bring to a collaboration. (Here is a simple learning-preferences survey that students could take in class.) You could then have students form groups based on either learning preferences or skills. For example, for an assignment that involves drafting and editing a report and conducting research, you might encourage students to form groups that include someone who lists researching as a skill, someone who lists generating a draft as a skill and someone who lists editing as a skill. Or you could group together the students who identify as preferring visual learning methods.
  2. Acknowledge when you assign group work that there are different ways to engage with collaborators. For example, a student on the autism spectrum may prefer to work in a quiet space, while another student may do their strongest work in a coffee shop surrounded by conversational buzz. Encourage groups to talk to one another about how each member learns best and to be flexible about supporting each person in their learning. (The learning-preferences survey linked above might be helpful here.)
  3. Allow students working in groups to create a portfolio of artifacts that demonstrate their engagement and learning rather than one big artifact. This allows each student to determine how they can best present their learning. If all students in the group are required to participate in the creation of each artifact, each student will likely also need to work outside their comfort zone a bit, as well as have the chance to be the group’s resident expert on a particular genre. For example, if a group decides to create a podcast, a formal essay and a poster, the student in the group who feels most capable with podcasts can become the group’s “podcast expert.”
  4. Encourage groups that are working outside of class to communicate using a variety of platforms. Skype or Zoom might be optimal for some students, whereas others may prefer meeting in person or texting. Rather than requiring groups to come to consensus about one mode of communication, ask them to schedule multiple meetings or check-ins, each one using a different mode. Students might then each reflect on which mode was most and least effective for them.
  5. When students are doing group work in class, provide each group with markers and flip-chart paper or whiteboard space, in case they want to create visuals in their work together. Encourage groups to respect the individual learning preferences of group members and remind them that they can learn from one another about new ways to master material.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: Design group work with UDL

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