Group of students laughing while looking at a laptop

Group work

Getting students to work in groups or as part of a team can help them consolidate their knowledge and work together to solve problems. Use these strategies to create groups and get students working collaboratively.


Before getting started, it is important to understand the difference between team work and group work.

Learn about teamwork vs. group work

“A group of students coming together to work on an assignment is not the same thing as a well-functioning team. The students in any given group may sometimes work together, but they may also be inclined to work independently, simply pooling their work with no discussion, and they may spend a great deal of time in conflict over work-related or personal issues. In contrast, members of an effective team always work together—sometimes physically together and sometimes apart, but constantly aware of who is doing what. They take different roles and responsibilities, help one another to the greatest possible extent, resolve disagreements amicably, and keep personal issues (which may occur when any collection of people work together) from interfering with the team functioning. With a group, the whole is often equal to or less than the sum of its parts; with a team, the whole is always greater” (Oakley et al., 2004, p. 13).

Read about setting up team work:

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

  • Pursel, B. (n.d.). Working with student teams. Schreyer Institute Self-Paced Modules, Penn State University <>.


Deck of cards


  1. Distribute one playing card to each student. (You can designate a student to randomly hand out cards as peers enter the classroom.)
  2. Ask students to form groups by:
    • suit (e.g., clubs; hearts) for large groups
    • card type (e.g., two or four of a kind) for small groups
    • run (e.g., ace-2-3; 9-10-Jack-Queen-King) for various size groups

For large classes, use more than one deck of cards.

Count off


  1. Count students off from 1 to 10 until each student has been assigned a number.
  2. Ask students to get together by grouping all students assigned #1, then all students assigned #2, etc.

Note: Adjust the amount of numbers you assign according to class size and the size of groups you’d like for a given activity.

Birth month


If uniform group size is not required, have students group themselves according to their birth month.

Student questions - group decided

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom


  1. Stop the class.
  2. Group students into fours.
  3. Ask students to take five minutes to decide on the one question they think is crucial for you to answer right now.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Two-stage exams (or quizzes or tests)

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom


  1. Allot 2/3 or 3/4 of class time for students to individually complete an exam. (Essay-type questions are not recommended.)
  2. Have students do the exam individually and turn in their papers.
  3. Place students in groups of 3-4 students.
  4. With the remainder of class time, have students do and submit the same or similar exam.
  5. Allocate the exam grade according to a pre-determined formula, e.g., 85% for the individual exam and 15% for the group exam.

Read about Two-Stage Exams.


  • Students redo the exam but open-ended questions are now multiple choice or ranking tasks.
  • Add a more challenging question that was not on the individual exam.


This strategy works best when knowledge needs to be pooled to address a problem.

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions, and OneDrive and Zoom


  1. Divide a large topic/scenario into small portions.
  2. Divide students into “expert groups”; each group studies an assigned portion and addresses a question(s) related to that portion. Encourage students to take note of key points.
  3. After the students have learned about their specific portion, split up the expert groups so that new groups are comprised of one member from each of the expert groups.
  4. In the newly formed groups, have topic experts present their information, integrating knowledge of their respective portions into the new group’s collective understanding so as to address a larger, overarching question.
  5. In order to assess students’ learning, call upon groups to share their collective understanding with the whole class.


In an educational psychology class, students are asked to become familiar with a specific autism spectrum disorder in their “expert groups”. They then move into their newly formed groups and the topic experts present their information. Each group then co-develops a plan for how they can support students with diverse learning needs in the classroom.

Online variation:

Divide course material among students in breakout room groups so that not every group addresses the same question or problem. Rather than splitting up the expert groups into newly formed groups (step 3 above), bring the students together as a full class afterward for a debriefing. Students’ discussions can complement one another rather than being redundant. (Variation from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey)

Group breakout room discussion and presentation

Online implementation: Possible in Zoom


  1. Pose a question or share a discussion prompt in the chat.
  2. Provide students with guidelines for discussion (e.g., how long they’ll have to discuss; if roles, such as moderator and note-taker, should be assigned; how/where they should record their discussion).
  3. Send students to breakout rooms to discuss the question or prompt. Let students know that the instructor and TAs might circulate through breakout rooms.
  4. When the discussion time has elapsed, close the breakout rooms so that students return to the large group.
  5. Students from each breakout room group present a synthesis of their discussion to the class.


  • Students debrief in larger groups, still in breakout rooms.
  • Students take notes on their discussion in a collaborative document (e.g., OneDrive) for sharing with peers in myCourses.
  • Students share a synthesis of their discussion (e.g., two key take-aways) in the chat or orally.

(Variation from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey)


Collaborative documents

Online implementation: Possible in OneDrive


  1. Explain to students that they will work together in groups to create a collaborative document, such as in OneDrive. The explanation should include guidelines for how students should document the group process and their ideas/conclusions.
  2. Give students a link to a single collaborative document to which all groups will contribute. Indicate with numbered columns or rows in a table where each group should fill in their responses to questions or prompts.
  3. Once the group activity is complete, the collaborative document permissions can be changed to “read-only” and the document can be added to myCourses for future consultation.


  • If students are doing mathematical calculations or other group activities that involve handwritten rather than typed work, students photograph their work and insert the photo in the collaborative document.
  • Each group works in a separate document if the learning outcomes are better met by keeping the initial discussion notes separate.
  • Students add questions to the shared document that arise during the group discussion. The instructor consults the shared document to monitor students’ progress while groups are working. The instructor responds to questions in the document during or after the group work.

(Strategy drawn from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey)



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