Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work

This is the third post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. This post identifies what students really think about group work—the three most significant barriers to working in online teams and strategies to help students overcome each.

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of Books
Success of the group learning process is dependent upon the target outcomes of the assignment and design of the collaboration activity

 “Working with other people on a real project can actually be a valuable learning experience. The problem is, if it’s mandated by school, and participants aren’t really interested or motivated, that’s not a “real project.”  If there was a way to facilitate projects that were relevant to participants’ interests, and perhaps some kind of meaningful output, that would likely result in a different kind of experience.” Student comment on the School Survival Forums [an uncensored forum for students created by students in 2001]

It’s a myth that students in online courses don’t want group work. Most students see the value of working in groups, but are resistant when the project appears unrelated to course goals, is simplistic, without a purpose—busywork.  When introducing and writing instructions for group activities, I emphasize the why of the activity—what’s in it for the students. I’ve outlined other strategies below focusing on the three most significant barriers to group work based upon research of group work specific to online learning, and personal experience as an educator and student.

Meaningful Learning
Before getting to the strategies for overcoming barriers to team work, I’ll point out what’s needed to highlight the what’s in-it-for-me part of the assignment descriptions for students, what I refer to as the marketing element or selling of the group work. The assignments need to be weighty, not necessarily in grades but in terms of complexity; projects that encourage students to synthesize, analyze and create a product that showcases their knowledge via a ‘meaningful output’ as mentioned by the above-quoted student.

A meaningful output might be a group essay, a narrated slideshare, Prezi presentation, a video, or wiki—also known as digital artifacts. The slide below from the slidesharestudent perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools” outlines the elements of a problem based learning approach, necessary to foster meaningful and authentic learning via collaborative learning environments that are designed to develop expertise by helping learners discern patterns and create meaning in a non-static, collaborative setting. According to “How People Learn” (Bransford et al, 1999), such environments encourage the development of deep factual knowledge bases where knowledge is easily retrieved and shared, and conceptual frameworks built.

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Slideshare: ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools’ slide #4  (Wicks, 2011)

Significant Barriers to Group Work and How to Overcome Each

 “I feel sometimes you have to give in to some other people’s ideas so that you    can finish the project.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

“I like working in efficient groups. Not many groups I’ve been in were as such. Most we’re “Hey, who doing the work?” or “You just do x-y-z, and we’ll stand here” Student comment on School Survival Forums

1.  Accountability

…among the factors that either facilitated or impeded progress, individual accountability was perceived as being the most critical factor. A lack of individual accountability is consistent with what Latane et al. (1979, cited in Levine, Resnick, & Higgins, 1993) referred to as “social loafing.” This term was defined as meaning that when individuals think they are working in a group, they anticipate doing less work than when they think they are working alone.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)


  • Have students create a team charter. The charter includes the purpose of the group, the rules and guidelines for group interactions, using their words, rules and guidelines.  See example  below right:
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Sample of Group Charter, slide # 13, from Slideshare ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects’ (Wicks, 2011)
  • Provide an outlet for students to get help with group collaboration and conflict. Include on the course site steps to effective group work, and steps to resolves issues.
  • Create small groups – ideal size is three or four students, maximum five.
  • Provide a mechanism for students to give feedback and reflection on group participation and the experience overall. Readers that have read several of my other posts on group work, may see that this contradicts my views on group work (my initial position was to have self-reflection only, not rate other groups members), however research says otherwise, and I do see that a carefully facilitated method where students submit to the instructor, evaluations of other team members that is kept private, and not shared with other members in the team,  addresses this barrier.  See below the form used by online instructor Larry Ragan from Penn State World Campus.
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Screen shot from open course, “Best Practices in Online Teaching”, by Larry Ragan

#2  Technology

“Participants indicated that the challenges inherent to virtual communication relying solely on written language was the second highest impeding factor (19%). Although online communities can provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences possible (Bruckman, 1998), online faculty need to consider the inherent limitations of asynchronous, written communication. Because of the challenges of its usage (time lags, lack of spontaneity), and the dependence on the written word, a number of students indicated that they were overwhelmed, especially when they faced conflicts and when they felt isolated from the group.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)


  • Provide recommendations and guidelines for one or two tools that facilitate group collaboration that are user-friendly and foster seamless collaboration. Group discussion boards don’t have enough features, and students often find the discussion threads overwhelming and difficult to follow. Google Docs is an example of very good collaborative tool.
  • Recommend groups schedule at least one synchronous discussion during the course of the project using a platform such as Google Hangouts, Skype, or a new video conversation tool
  • Provide orientation to course site and tools. The institution should create and offer a course that introduces the student to the learning platform, and the features and tools within it. The institution should also highlight to students within the course site the help services available for technical and trouble shooting solutions.
  • Where possible, encourage group members to be in similar time zones to facilitate synchronous communication (a three-hour time difference or less).

#3  Leadership

“Another noteworthy response is related to the perceived role of the group leaders. Having a positive group leader was recorded as the third highest facilitative factor (16%), while the absence of this factor was believed to have negatively impacted the completion of collaborative tasks (5.9%). For our study, it should be also noted that the course instructor merely suggested that each team elect a team leader, rather than making this a requirement.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions and Comments:

  • Recommend that the group select a project or team leader. Though I’ve seen some instructors select the group leader, I suggest having the group determine their own roles. In the long run this creates more autonomy and trust within the group, even more so when done in conjunction with the creation of a team charter as mentioned above. A shared leadership role is also possible.
  • The need for leadership in groups working asynchronously is more acute given the nature of the medium.

Further Reading


Five Essential Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work & Collaboration

five_bayLeaves_istockThis is the second post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. The strategies discussed in this series are specific to closed, small, online, for-credit courses, though the principles discussed regarding student needs’ and barriers to group work online are universal to almost all formats of online learning experiences.

“Specific strategies are needed to effectively implement online group projects. These included such things as how to help the students get to know one another, form groups, assign grades, explain group functions, use online tools to maximize interaction, and how to deal with non-participation of group members…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Facilitating group collaboration in an online course is no doubt the most challenging facet of teaching in an online space; the skills required go way beyond teaching and sharing one’s area of expertise. In the last post I wrote about the elements needed to create a foundation for effective group collaboration online—in this post I outline five core skills online instructors need to be effective leaders of group learning assignments.

My aim with this post is to outline for readers the skills instructors need to facilitate online collaboration in small, closed classes, and to provide specifics on how to implement and develop the skill set through examples, instructions and resources. This post delves into the elements of group collaboration and expands on the instructor’s role by fleshing out the core skills—not just as a subject matter expert, but as a leader of learning.

I’ve listed a number of open resources specific to each of the five skills below, and there is one resource that I’ve drawn upon frequently, Best Practices in Online Teaching by Larry Raglan from Penn State World Campus. It’s an open resource on the Connexions platform, and I highly recommend it for instructors wanting to develop their online teaching skills further. Post three of this series will focus on student needs’, their perceptions of online group work, and a list of resources and tools to set students up for success.

“Faculty members perceive group work as an essential tool for students’ future professional lives.Exemplar quote:  “Even though it [group projects] can be painful for students and painful for faculty, I’m absolutely sold on the benefit of it. I think it fosters time management skills …They may find themselves having to collaborate with peers in another facility in town. They may be in another state to present something locally [or] nationally. I just think those skills are absolutely essential in today’s technology, we don’t just communicate via phone or face-to-face….”  (Williams et al., 2012)

Getting Started: The paper I’ve quoted frequently in this series, and which the above quote is drawn from, Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members provides sound advice for educators starting out with group projects in their online course:

“Our recommendation is that faculty members ask themselves the following questions before undertaking group projects:

  • What is the desired learning objective?
  • Will the groups be assigned or will students choose their group members?
  • How will students get to know each other and develop trust?
  • Will students receive direct experiences/assignments to help them learn group processes, or will they discover those during their projects?
  • How will students be graded?”

The Five Vital Skills for Online Course Instructors

Online Learning by giulia.forsythe (cc)

1. Create a Social and Active Learning Community
Effective teamwork in any setting requires a level of trust among team members, which highlights the need for online leaners to get to know one another, to build familiarity. In a virtual learning space, creating activities and a sense of community where students can establish social presence and feel ‘safe’ to be themselves, and be real is up to the course instructor to create, model and encourage (Rourke, L., Anderson, T. Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W., 2001).

“It is always important to remember that in the online environment, we present ourselves in text. Because it is a flat medium, we need to make an extra effort to humanize the environment. In the face-to-face classroom, students have the opportunity to get to know one another as people–before or after class, during classroom discussions, and in other campus locations such as the student lounge. In the online environment, we need to create these opportunities more purposefully” (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p. 32).

I usually encourage course instructors to create a short welcome video (or audio) clip, no longer than two or three minutes to post at the beginning of the online course that welcomes the students to the class, tells the students about him or herself, both professionally and personally. I find this format sets a positive tone—makes the instructor appear approachable. Dr. Curtis Bonk, professor and champion of online learning says this, “Social actions might include instructor empathy, interpersonal outreach (welcoming statements, invitations, and apologies), discussion of one’s own online experiences and humor” (Bonk et al., 2001, p. 80).

2. Demonstrate Leadership: The online instructor is more than a subject matter expert he or she is a learning leader, a champion of students’ learning. In the online learning space demonstrating leadership takes a variety of forms including:

1. Being a role model for communicating effectively (see examples outlined in resources by Larry Ragan)
2. Showing presence by posting messages on the course site about the class’s progress and participation
3. Giving feedback on participation [or non-participation] to individual students using email, online chat or online calling using Skype
4. Clearly outlining expectations for group collaboration, following-up with students that are not meeting expectations and discussing with group members
5. Posting strategies for effective team work, outlining how groups work effectively in online spaces, and encourage groups to assign a group leader

“Instructor involvement and engagement in online learning is crucial. Online learning requires instructors to take on active roles in facilitating students’ learning. As well as peer support, instructor presence in supporting and guiding students’ learning and engagement are important for enabling active learning” (Vonderwell & Turner, 2005, p.82)

3. [Over] Communicate: I once worked for a boss who gave me the best leadership advice I ever received —”if you think you are over-communicating, you are communicating just about enough“.  I learned early on that consistent, and plentiful communication is central to helping people be successful. In an online environment, communication takes on new meaning given the barriers of text communication as mentioned in the above quote.

It’s helpful to learn to use other modes of communication—for instance how to use audio to give feedback to students, or record a video or audio clip that outlines instructions about an assignment, or how to use synchronous communication tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts or online chat.  The hardest part to using modalities other than text is the initial learning curve associated with a new technology, but the rewards are great. Often it saves time in the long run, and students appreciate the personal touch.

4. Deal with Conflict: When a conflict surfaces, welcome it and view it as a sign that a group is developing(Palloff & Pratt, 2001).  No one likes conflict, most of us avoid it at all costs. But conflict is part of team work, no one is learning if everyone is agreeing, or ‘giving in’ to get the project over with. It’s helpful to share with students resources on how teams work, and emphasize that conflict and disagreement is a by-product of teamwork— it’s not a sign of dysfunction, but a sign of learning and growth.  Below is a summary of excellent strategies shared by online instructors:

  • Outline in the instructions on the course site, steps to resolve team conflict, ie. 1) address the problem early on… 2) contact and discuss with the team leader …. 3) contact the course instructor…
  • Include a regular mechanism for peer evaluation for group projects so students can communicate to you about the group’s functioning (refer to example 2 in ‘Deal with Conflicts Promptly’)
  • If needed, schedule a group meeting where you act as moderator to help the team get back on track. Use Skype or Google hangouts
  • Research suggests that allowing online groups to create their own teams is an effective method for reducing potential for conflict (Borg, 2011), though a cautionary note: this method requires building time into the course schedule to allow for the group formation, ideally a full course week, and usually works best when at least some of the students have been together in previous courses
  • For serious student problems that go beyond these efforts, contact your institution for support

5.  Monitor Student Progress and Provide FeedbackThe course instructor facilitates the process behind the scenes by: reviewing the individual group discussion forums to see who is participating, who is not and following up as needed, posting a feedback message to students on group assignment progress (see screen shot below) and responding to student concerns and questions promptly

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Example of an email to students of an online course that demonstrates instructor feedback provided collectively on a class assignment [‘Providing Support and Feedback’ Larry Ragan]
Include small benchmarks of assignment due dates that lead up to the final assignment submission, for example the outline for the final project might be due date #1, draft of final assignment, due date #2, etc. This strategy builds in opportunities for instructor to provide feedback and support during the group process of the collaboration, sharing and knowledge building.

Further Reading