Also see:  TLT Group Exploration Guide
Online and in Hybrid/Blended Courses, Sessions

 Managing—and Motivating!—Distance Learning Group Activities

Barbara Millis

To promote learning, you will want to structure online activities to encourage the kind of student interactions and active learning that foster deep learning.  Deep approaches to learning -- learning for understanding -- are integrative processes where students synthesize and connect material to existing knowledge.  Deep learning, which has an extensive international research base, is predicated on four key principles. As Rhem[1] summarizes: (1) Assignments should motivate students to learn and (2) they should build on a carefully structured, integrated knowledge base.  Learning should include (3) active student involvement and (4) interaction among students. Careful planning can support the first two principles.  The latter two can be fulfilled in part by pairing students or placing them in small groups/teams. But, simply putting students into groups, as numerous studies have indicated, does not accomplish the desired results. Principles of cooperative learning, as outlined by Millis and Cottell,[2] must be applied to achieve maximum results. Effective, creative uses of technology should rest on all we know about human learning. Not surprisingly, the same principles—outlined below—that foster effective in-class learning can also promote learning at a distance.


Ask yourself key questions about the proposed group activity.

David Campbell has warned, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”  This saying is certainly true for group activities.  As a general rule, you will want to ask yourself the following questions:

·        What will you do?

·        Why are you doing it?

·        How will this activity further your course objectives?

·        How will you introduce this activity to students?

·        How will you form groups?

·        How will you monitor students' interactions and learning?

·        How will you foster positive interdependence (goal, resource materials, evaluation methods, roles, etc.)?

·        How will you maintain individual accountability?

·        What problems/challenges do you expect?


Be certain that group activities further the course objectives.

Peter Vaill, William F. Massey and others are encouraging faculty to think in terms of systems.  They postulate that factors such as the professor’s content knowledge, the teaching and learning processes employed, assessment of student learning, and subsequent feedback lead faculty to improvements. They emphasize, however, that accurate assessment is possible only with clearly delineated goals.  Thus, learning activities must be framed by considerations of the impact they are intended to have on student learning and how well they achieve the desired results.


Explain to students the nature and value of the proposed activities.

Many students will come to online courses with learning styles that predispose them to work independently.  Furthermore, they may have been “burned” in the past by ineptly managed group work.  Thus, it is extremely important to explain why group interactions will further immediate course goals and also lead to other desirable outcomes such as acquiring the teamwork skills needed in the modern work place. More importantly, emerging studies suggest that students learn better when they have opportunities for collaboration.


Your course objectives should also motivate students to succeed.  Students are motivated to learn, according to McMillan and Forsyth,[3] “if their needs are being met, if they see value in what they are learning, and if they believe they are able to succeed with reasonable effort” (p. 50).


Be certain to give clear instructions.

Group work can be frustrating for both students and faculty if instructions are not clear. Students may question your organizational skills, and they may waste precious time puzzling over directions. Instructions should clearly delineate the task and/or explain your expectations.  They should indicate the degree of freedom given to students in structuring the task and assigning group roles.  Clear instructions always include the time involved. Students cannot manage their time wisely if they cannot plan ahead.  Numerous studies, including the well-known Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,[4] have identified “time on task” as a factor critical to student achievement.  In fact, instructions should also include a “sponge” or extension activity that teams must turn to if they complete the initial assignment.  This “sponge” typically involves more challenging problems to solve or more complex issues to discuss.


Clear instructions also eliminate barriers to learning.  Tasks should be structured to make online collaboration both easy and desirable. 


Provide students with a sense of closure.

As indicated above, students may be unwilling group members unless they see the value of cooperative learning.  You must be careful that you don’t appear to be “toying” with them by withholding information while a group struggles with a difficult problem.  As a rule, most instructors will offer help when all group members admit that they need it.  A better tactic might be to allow students to ask a student “adviser” from a different learning team to offer advice. These objectives can be accomplished online through carefully structured rules, ones that involve student buy-in, perhaps by involving them in the formulation of the rules. 


Keep the group size small.

Most teachers experienced with group work advocate groups composed of three to four students.  Four, or a quad, is generally considered the ideal because the group is large enough to contain students who will bring diverse opinions, experiences, and learning styles to aid in problem solving.  If a group member fails to log in, the group can continue to function smoothly.  A group of four is not so large, however, that students can hide. All must carry their fair share of the workload.  A quad has the additional advantage of offering easy pair formation within the group.


Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, aim for heterogeneous groups.

Felder and Brent[5] give a reasoned case for heterogeneity in ability:

The drawbacks of a group with only weak students are obvious, but having only strong students in a group is equally undesirable.  First, the strong groups have an unfair advantage over other groups in the class.  Second, the team members tend to divide up the homework and communicate only cursorily with one another, omitting the dynamic interactions that lead to most of the proven benefits of cooperative learning.  In mixed ability groups, on the other hand, the weaker students gain from seeing how better students study and approach problems, and the strong students gain a deeper understanding of the subject by teaching it to others.


The research on heterogeneous grouping under cooperative conditions also reports important affective gains on the university level: Retention increases; students feel more positively toward the subject matter; students increase their communication and social skills, self-esteem rises, and peer relations become more positive.


To ensure heterogeneity, form teacher formed teams.

Group formation ideally furthers the pedagogical basis of the course. Group formation should promote: (1) course goals; (2) sound learning theory; and (3) philosophical convictions.  You should therefore aim for heterogeneous grouping, deliberately mixing students based on achievement level, gender, ethnicity, academic interests, learning styles, or any other relevant factors.  Such grouping will typically permit students to work constructively with varied individuals who will bring different strengths and approaches to academic tasks.  Besides success with the immediate tasks, positive interactions with diverse individuals prepare students for the modern work place and for society as a whole. You should explain to students your rationale for grouping them as you do. If online courses only permit random grouping, then that is preferable to “tracking,” where students are assigned to groups based on ability.


Keep groups together long enough to establish positive working relationships.

Permanent learning teams should remain together long enough to pass through the “forming,” “storming,” “norming” and “performing” phases cited in the group dynamics literature.  Students need time to become acquainted, to identify one another’s strengths, and to learn to support and coach one another.  Thus, most practitioners recommend that groups remain together for the duration of an extended project or a series of ongoing activities.  Usually, students will remain together about half a semester.  Always clearly explain to students when and why they will be re-grouped to forestall the inevitable laments that come from closely bonded teams “rent asunder.”


Allow time for team building.

Team-building activities should not be frivolous, off-task exercises that send the wrong signal to students. Design early activities to get student working together on meaningful tasks.  It is dangerous to assume that students will bring with them the skills needed to function effectively in cooperative groups, particularly when they may not be accustomed to the anonymity of online courses.  You thus need to structure the online class so that activities build on one another and promote cooperation. A good opener might be to have students share personal—but not too intimate—information, perhaps through a discipline-relevant autobiography.


Encourage students to monitor, as you will, group processing.

Group processing activities help build team skills, allow students to reflect on their learning process and outcomes, and provide teachers with continuous feedback.  Group processing involves such things as leadership, decision making, communication, and conflict resolution.  Content is what is being discussed, while process is how the group is functioning.  Both students and teachers need to monitor group and individual progress.  After an assignment or activity, for instance, students could respond to questions such as: "Did all members of the group contribute?" "What could be done next time to make the group function better?" "What were the most important things I learned?” or “What contributions did I make?”


Use Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) to determine student progress.

Angelo and Cross’ book[6] offers fifty techniques for assessing student learning.  Many of these, such as the One-Minute Paper or the Muddiest Point, can be conducted, analyzed, and “debriefed” rapidly online.  Classroom assessment practices not only help you understand the extent of student learning, but they also get students involved in monitoring their own academic progress in your course.


Encourage students to practice and reinforce positive social skills.

Social skills are important although students may not initially see their connection with academic learning.  They may react as Ira does in a cartoon by Mel Lazarus.  When a swimming coach urges his charges to follow the "buddy system" before leaping into a lake, Ira demands:  "Are we here to learn swimming or interpersonal relationships?"  Interpersonal skills go well beyond mere politeness.  Students must recognize the importance of cooperative interaction and mutual respect.  Faculty in online courses should model appropriate social skills, including ways of providing constructive feedback or eliciting more in-depth responses through probing questions. They should also reinforce these social skills by publicly commenting on ways students use them effectively.


Structure activities to promote positive interdependence

Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991)[7] describe positive interdependence in these words:

            Cooperation results in participants' striving for mutual benefit so that all members of the group benefit from each other's efforts (your success benefits me and my success benefits you), their recognizing that all group members share a common fate (we sink or swim together) and that one's performance depends mutually on oneself and one's colleagues (we cannot do it without you), and their feeling proud and jointly celebrating when a group member is recognized for achievement (you got an A! that's terrific!).  (p. 3)

In a cooperative, group-oriented setting, all online class members, particularly those grouped in instructor-selected teams, contribute to each other's learning.  Through careful planning, positive interdependence can be established by having students, achieve:  (a) mutual goals, such as reaching a consensus on specific solutions to problems or arriving at team-generated solutions; (b) mutual rewards, such as individually assigned points counting toward a criterion-referenced final grade, points which only help, but never handicap; (c) structured tasks, such as a report or complex problem with sections mutually developed by all team members; and (d) interdependent roles, such as group members serving alternately as discussion leaders, organizers, recorders, and spokespersons.


Promote individual accountability.

No matter how much mutual support, coaching, and encouragement they receive, students must be individually responsible for their own academic achievements.  Individual accountability indicates to students who might be "hitchhikers" (students who do not—for whatever reasons—typically do a fair share of assigned group work) or "over achievers" or "workhorses" (students who assume a disproportionate amount of the workload), that these roles are unacceptable in a cooperative setting.  Because students have been acclimated to academic settings where they compete against fellow classmates, this aspect of cooperative group work is somehow reassuring: their final course grades will be based on their own efforts, uncompromised and uncomplicated by the achievements of others.  You can grade online quizzes, projects, and final exams just as you would in a class where group work is not the norm.


Set up a clear, non-competitive, criterion-referenced grading scheme.

A common misconception suggests that group work automatically entails group grades.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Individual accountability precludes this too-often-used practice.  Undifferentiated group grades for a single project, particularly when the work is completed out-of-class, invite inequity problems.  Too often one student ends up doing the majority of the work.  That student often relishes the power associated with this role but resents the lack of input from students who will benefit from the same grade.  The students who contribute little receive signals that their efforts are unappreciated or unwanted, and they learn the negative lesson that they can receive a grade they did not earn.


Some professors, especially those in preprofessional disciplines, may argue that "real world" preparation should put students in situations where they must negotiate each team member's input and be prepared to accept less-than optimum results, including situations where one team member's performance—or lack of performance—drags down the team grade for all members.  In fact, however, no corporate leader would allow a team to dissolve in bickering or exclusive behavior when a job needs to be done.  Nor do responsible leaders write the same performance appraisals for all their personnel.  Ethical, legal, and moral issues are involved when you assign a common grade to all group members for a single project. All cooperative learning experts advise against undifferentiated group grades.


Thus, you will want to establish clear criteria for success.  These standards should be high, but they should theoretically be within the grasp of all students who work—often cooperatively—toward your benchmark.


Anticipate problems and don’t be afraid to seek constructive help.

No matter how carefully you plan, some things will invariably go wrong.  Don’t despair: numerous educators have emphasized the value of risk-taking to professional growth.  The point is not to give up (“Oh, I tried online group work and it didn’t work at all”).  Seek help from knowledgeable colleagues and from faculty development centers where you will find books, articles, and professionals who can offer indirect advice or who can observe your online classes.


Remember that the research on deep learning is unequivocal.  To reach your intended educational outcomes, you must provide students with opportunities for  interactions and for active learning.  These should occur in carefully structured, sequenced activities that are frequently assessed. The technology is merely a tool to help implement these techniques. 

[1] Rhem, J. (1995). Deep/surface approaches to learning: An introduction. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5(1), 1-3.


[2] Millis, B. J. & Cottell, P. G. (1998). Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty.  Phoenix: American Council of Education/Oryx Press.


[3] McMillan, J. H. & Forsyth, D. R. (1991). What theories of motivation say about why students learn. In R. J. Menges and M. D. Svinicki, College Teaching from Theory to Practice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning.  No. 45  (pp. 39-51). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.


[4] Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, A. F. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Racine, WI: The Johnson Foundation, Inc/Wingspread.


[5] Felder, R. M. & Brent, R. (1994).  Cooperative learning in technical courses:  Procedures, pitfalls, and payoffs.  Eric Document Reproduction Service Report ED 377038.

WWW location: http:/


[6] Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993).  Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers, 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


[7] Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1991).  Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty instructional productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.  Washington, D. C.: The George Washington University School of Education and Human Development.