SIP 4.9 Making Group Work, Work: Ensuring Accountability

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Cheerful diverse student group chatting and working together in college study area

Why do we assign group work? How does it benefit students? How does it benefit professors?

If not planned for appropriately, group work can create a lot more work than necessary for both  students and professor. For students, the disadvantages of group work could mean having to coordinate schedules; arrange meetings; correspond via email, text or phone; make decisions collectively; integrate the contributions of group members; and more. These things can be especially challenging for a nontraditional student population like MSU Denver’s–many of our students commute long distances, and have work and family commitments that can make it difficult for them to meet outside of class.

For professors, group work can present challenges such as allocating meeting time during class, and perhaps even having to teach students how to function effectively in teams (even at the college level, this is something that must be taught). Furthermore, figuring out how to assess the process, as well as the product, and determining whether to assign individual or group grades are steps that take time and effort.  Last, but not least, and definitely not the most pleasant….everyone must deal with group dynamics.

Take a SIP of This: Effective Group Work: Ensuring Accountability

Here are some strategies to help reduce or mitigate the challenges of group work:

  • Keep groups small. To ensure active participation and accountability from students, it is better to make small-sized groups; most research suggests 3 to 5 students is optimal.  Larger groups are more prone to “free-riders” and require a more active leader to coordinate tasks.
  • Designate class time for group meetings. This will not only help students who find it difficult to meet outside of class, but it will give you an opportunity to provide support and guidance, as well as to determine if students are on track or in need of substantive support.
  • Use skills inventories to help teams delegate subtasks. Some students have stronger skills writing, than with public speaking. Others may be more skilled at developing effective PowerPoints as opposed to research. Using a skills inventory list will assist groups in assigning tasks that match group members’ strengths. (see
  • Assign roles (e.g., group leader, scheduler) or encourage students to do so.
  • Point students to digital tools that facilitate remote and/or asynchronous meetings, including Blackboard to which they all have access (also see
  • Alert students about time-consuming stages and tasks.
  • Actively build communication and conflict resolution skills. Take advantage of teachable moments when students are meeting in groups during class. Sit in on group discussions, model effective communications skills, provide guidance for groups that may be experiencing conflict.
  • Designate time in the project schedule for the group to integrate parts.
  • Require group self-review. Have group members review their work as a team. You might want to ask how each member contributed, if each person did their fair share, how they think they worked together, what they did well, where they could improve, etc. Give this information at the beginning of the activity so each student is aware that they will be evaluated by their peers. You can create a rubric that addresses the values you wish to see in group work.
  • Encourage groups to go together to the Writing Center for help with drafting and revising written aspects of their group project.

What is true for individual assignments holds true for group assignments: as a professor, it is important to clearly articulate your objectives, explicitly define the task, clarify your expectations, model high-quality work, and communicate performance criteria so that your students can achieve desired outcomes.

Building individual accountability

Another disadvantage to group work is that students can fully participate in the group assignment, yet still not get the main idea of the project. Therefore, in addition to evaluating the work of the group as a whole, ask individual group members to demonstrate their learning via quizzes, individual writing assignments, weekly journal entries, etc. Not only does this help you monitor student learning, it helps to prevent the “free-rider” phenomenon. Students are considerably less likely to leave all the work to more responsible classmates if they know their individual performance will affect their grade.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Effective Group Work: Ensuring Accountability

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