An Online Instructor's Guide: How to Approach Group Work

An Online Instructor's Guide: How to Approach Group Work
Caitrin Blake December 2, 2014

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Group projects are often met by groans of frustration and irritation among students. This is understandable; when students work independently, they are able to control the pace of their work and ensure the project is done correctly and on time. Group work, however, requires trusting others to complete tasks; when students work in teams, they often have at least one member who doesn’t take on his or her share of the assignment or who does a subpar job.

Collaborative work skills are valuable for both academic and professional careers

Succeeding at group work is an important skill for students, because they will not spend the majority of their academic or professional careers working alone. Instead, they’ll be required to find strategies for completing both individual and collaborative projects.

While online learning might seem to preclude group projects, working with many people in remote locations is quite prevalent in many careers. Using software that enables virtual collaboration gives students the opportunity to learn how to do so effectively.

How online instructors can set group projects up for success

Group work online also promotes student participation, since they are accountable to both themselves and others. However, group work can fall flat if not approached correctly. There are a number of ways that online instructors can help to successfully facilitate group work.

Create opportunities for student groups to interact online

Online courses allow for multiple ways to complete assignments and for students to interact with each other on course material. In order to best mimic a face-to-face classroom, teachers should provide focused discussions and smaller assignments that go toward completing a group project.

Many discussion boards allow for the creation of small group chats, making it possible for each team to have focused conversations. The small group discussion board serves as a medium for students to discuss the group project and complete the brainstorming process in a similar manner as they would in a classroom, and teachers can help to promote participation by making the discussions graded.

Break a group project into multiple steps with smaller assignments

In addition to discussions, teachers should provide multiple smaller assignments for students to complete prior to the final project. This work might include proposals, outlines, drafts or other mini-assignments.

While online instructors shouldn’t overwhelm the group with too many assignments, scaffolding the project and breaking it up into smaller chunks has more benefits than just promoting student participation. Additionally, assigning pre-work enables teachers to check the focus of student work, which can help students to redirect their efforts if needed.

Encourage students to collaborate using file-sharing software or comment functions

Many online education portals — including Canvas, Desire2Learn and BlackBoard — provide software that enables students to file share and comment on each other’s work. However, if the software doesn’t work the way teachers want it to or is otherwise unavailable, both Google Drive and Microsoft Word provide the ability to insert comments in work.

Google Drive also has a chat function so members of a group can both comment on each other’s work and chat back and forth as they make revisions and draft the final product. This process allows students to collaborate throughout the creation process. Additionally, if students are unable to get online at the same time to chat directly, the comment function can provide opportunities for students to connect and chat about their work to create a working document.

Group project evaluation: engage students in the grading process

While online instructors should have the final say in grading group work, they should also allow students to grade each other’s participation and contributions throughout the process. Additionally, teachers can give students the opportunity to grade their overall product. While it might seem that students will inflate their own grades, students are often harder on themselves than instructors are. That process can indicate to students at an earlier stage where they can improve.

While group work looks a bit different in online courses, online learning software provides multiple opportunities for teachers to assign and productively engage students in group work. In addition, making students accountable to others can facilitate engagement in course materials, which in turn can improve student retention.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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