Conducting Effective Group Work and Team Work

This resource on conducting effective group work and team work was written and compiled by Mandy Olejnik, Ph.D., Assistant Director of Howe Writing Across the Curriculum at Miami University (Ohio).

Introduction to Group Work and Team Work

Workplaces increasingly call for employees to collaborate on tasks together, be it brainstorming initial ideas, finding solutions to problems, or formally writing reports and recommendations. Writing and learning are inherently social, and students benefit from working together with their peers (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015; Ambrose et al., 2011). Introducing group and team writing and work assignments can thus be an effective pedagogical intervention to incorporate into your courses.

In this resource, we offer guidance for how to implement group and team learning into your pedagogy, paying particular attention to team work vs. group work. 

Why Use Small Groups?

Research demonstrates collaborative work is beneficial for students in helping them interact more deeply with course texts, share and broaden ideas, and engage with course content. Bruffee (1986) argues that collaborative learning is an effective way to improve student thinking and thus writing is to improve conversations with knowledgeable peers; Bean and Melzer (2021) likewise posit group work as a means to help students learn through a disciplinary perspective, ask questions, and create knowledge together as a class community. Put another way, small group work makes learning more active for students, and offers pathways for deeper connections to texts and course materials.

In addition, small group work decenters the instructor, allowing students to learn with and from each other and the instructor to play a guiding and supporting role. Inclusive teaching practices recommend advancing student agency in the classroom; small group work can be one way toward empowering students as learners and thinkers, and discourages the sort of top-down transmission model of learning where the instructor lectures all of the information. 

Informal Groups vs. Formal Teams

While commonly conflated, there’s an important difference between students working together as a group and working together as a team. Instructors can use either or both effectively for different purposes in their course contexts. To distinguish between them, here are some important characteristics of both groups and teams:

Informal Groups

– Formed more casually for limited time period
– Focus on individual goals
– Lower-stakes, easier tasks

Formal Teams

– Formed more intentionally over a long period
– Focus on agreed-upon team goals
– Higher-stakes, more challenging tasks

An instructor might ask students to work together in groups, for example, during a low-stakes activity like class discussion where they have to choose a side on a debate topic relating to course material. Alternatively, an instruction might ask students to work together as a team if their task is to research solutions to a problem and provide an extensive recommendation. Oftentimes group work is used routinely in class sessions with groups that may change, while teamwork is sustained across time with the same members.

Students likely have a lot of experience with group work, while teamwork is more precise and requires a different mindset and approach. Writing as a team also requires specific skills and presents new challenges for students. Both configurations can be useful in the classroom, although careful instruction and scaffolding will lead to more effective results, as later sections will address.

Strategies for Promoting Effective Small Group Work

Strategies for Promoting Effective Team Work


Overall, group and team work can be an effective and generative teaching strategy in many courses but should be designed, facilitated, and assessed intentionally. See below for further resources and recommendations related to team projects and team writing.

Further Reading

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