Teaching and Learning Resources

Group Process

What is the best model for group work? How do I design group activities that work? How do I teach students group work skills? There are a number of “group process” techniques that are designed to help groups work more effectively. Group work and projects are often an integral part of university courses, particularly as class sizes increase, yet it seems to be one of the most challenging instructional strategies for instructors to successfully implement. 

Using small groups is an effective way to introduce active learning into the classroom and it can make a significant difference in the quality and depth of student leaning. There are three general uses of small groups within higher education.

Casual Use

  • “Turn to the student next to you and talk about this”.
  • Uses relatively unstructured, ad hoc exercises, so little or no advance planning is required.
  • No need to worry about grading, changing course structure, group composition, etc.


Cooperative Learning

  • Frequent use of thoughtfully planned and carefully structured group activities.
  • Inserts small group activities into pre-existing course materials.
  • Calls for attention to: accountability issues, group formation, students’ roles etc.
  • Does not change the structure of the course.

 Team-based learning

  • Makes small group work the primary in-class activity.
  • Calls for procedures that support the transformation of newly formed “groups” into” high performance learning teams.”
  • Provides opportunities for these teams to engage in significant learning tasks.
  • Often requires a change in the structure of the course. (Michaelsen, Knight,  Dee Fink, 2005)


The basic group process can be broken down into four basic steps:

  1. Create ground rules: decide what the goal of the group is and how you will make sure everyone contributes equally to achieving that goal.
  2. Create a meeting schedule: decide when the group will meet and how much work each person should have completed by that time.
  3. Assign roles and tasks: give each person a specific area they are in charge of and decide what they must accomplish
  4. Choose your support tools: each group will need to communicate, especially during the beginning stages of a project. Brainstorming tools and using the same file formats are ways to facilitate this.


A useful tool for establishing and maintaining functional groups is the implementation of a student group contract.


Tips from the McMaster Community

When I give problem sets, students often confer so the work they submit is not their own

Sometimes I find it difficult to accommodate small group activities in a large class

Related Resources

A description of an effective group process in detail from The University of British Columbia.

Center for the Study of Higher Education : Assessing group work.

Tuckman’s stages of small group development.
Online Group Work Guidelines  (PDF format) from the University of Manchester Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning.