Weekly Digest #26: How To Manage Group Work

Weekly Digest #26: How To Manage Group Work

Image above created with pablo.buffer.com

There’s a meme that often goes around of a pie-chart showing the main things people learn from group work; by far the largest slice of the pie is “TRUST NO-ONE”. Many students dread group projects. But, you know what? So do many teachers. We dread having to deal with tricky interpersonal dynamics, and most of us aren’t trained in running group therapy. But group work has its place in education, and so today we want to talk about some tools that can help you manage it, and the research behind them.

Putting Students Into Groups

Here are some frequently asked questions about forming groups:

Should you let students choose their own groups, or pick groups for them?

Although it might be tempting to just let students pick their own groups, research shows that groups for students is almost always more optimal than letting them choose their own, or using random assignment (1, 2).

What’s the most important factor to consider when forming groups?

If the groups are supposed to work on projects outside of class, the most important factor to consider is actually scheduling. If you group students by availability, they can’t later complain that they couldn’t find a time to meet. See below for a tool that helps you do this.

Should you make groups as diverse as possible?

The answer to this one may be surprising: research on minority students (3) and women (4) suggests that such students do better when they are not outnumbered by dominant/majority groups. This is another factor that the tools below can take into account in their team-creation algorithms.

What’s the best way to go about creating groups?

While of course you can form groups manually, here are two similar apps that automate the process and make it much smoother:

CATME Team-Maker

This researcher-run tool gathers information from students through an online survey, and uses evidence-based algorithms (2) to group students. As the teacher, you control which factors are weighted most heavily in the algorithm. The suggestion is to group students by similar schedules, gender, and race (see above), and dissimilar on all other factors (e.g., GPA, and various types of skills), but you can play with these settings and also exclude any questions that you feel are not relevant (see here for all the questions included in the survey).

Image from CATME.org

Image from CATME.org

If you don’t like the teams created by the automatic algorithm, you can re-create teams by forcing separation or grouping of specific students, and/or changing the weightings of each question in the algorithm. Another handy aspect of CATME is that once the groups are formed, students will have access to each others’ e-mail addresses and a handy grid showing the availability overlap in their schedules.

Note that you need to request an instructor log-in at least 24hrs before you want to use the tool, and then load your students’ names and e-mail addresses into the system before they can get access to the survey.


This is a similar app, but less rigorously grounded in research. As a result, you have total flexibility over what attributes you want the program to use for grouping. Also, instead of having students fill out individual questionnaires, you create a master file with all the information, and upload it to the site. You can thus include whatever you want in this file – not just answers to the questions pre-determined by CATME.

Image from groupsort.com

Image from groupsort.com

Finally, if you’re interested in delving deeper into what makes an ideal group, this fascinating article from the New York Times describes research undertaken by Google to figure out exactly what it is that makes some groups more effective than others.

Encouraging Effective Collaboration

Once groups have been formed, the next step is to foster a sense of cohesion and teamwork within each group. Having students create a teamwork contract can help. The Making group contracts guide from the University of Waterloo is brief, but gives some excellent suggestions and a list of responsibilities that could go in a teamwork contract. If you want more, then Carnegie Melon offers templates for team contracts and roles here.

Creating Accountability

Once you have created the groups and they’ve put their good intentions down in a teamwork contract, how do you make sure they follow through? Carnegie Melon have some great suggestions here too - from how to create interdependence between team members in different ways depending on the length of the project, to how to actually teach teamwork skills.

Building in a peer evaluation component can help keep student accountable throughout their group project. In addition to the Team-Maker function described above, CATME also provides a sophisticated Peer Evaluation tool that can be used not only for grading purposes, but also to identify problems within groups before they become unmanageable.

Resolving Conflicts

Regardless of how carefully you’ve created teams, how well they have assigned responsibilities, and how often you check in with peer evaluations, conflicts within groups will arise. The University of British Columbia have some straightforward tips on conflict resolution here, with links to further, more thorough resources. But with any luck, maybe you won’t need them this semester!


(1) Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2, 9-34.

(2) Layton, R. A., Loughry, M. L., Ohland, M. W., & Ricco, G. D. (2010). Design and validation of a web-based system for assigning members to teams using instructor-specified criteria. Advances in Engineering Education, 2, 1-28.

(3) Cady, S. H., & Valentine, J. (1999). Team innovation and perceptions of consideration: What difference does diversity make? Small Group Research, 30, 730-750.

(4) Heller, P., & Hollabaugh, M. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics, 60, 637-644.

Every Sunday, we pick a theme and provide a curated list of links. If you have a theme suggestion, please don’t hesitate to contact us! Our 5 most recent digests can be found here:

Weekly Digest #21: Academic Blog Reading List

Weekly Digest #22: The First Day of Class

Weekly Digest #23: The Myth of Multitasking

Weekly Digest #24: Educational Videos

Weekly Digest #25: Active Learning