Short Guide 7: Group Work

Two men and two women holing iPads and sitting in a row talking in two pairs of one man and one woman each

Group Work

Short Guide #7, August 2020

1. Defining group work

Many of us already engage our students in collaborative learning such as breaking into pairs or small groups during a live class, or we may assign students into groups to discuss, evaluate, or create something together outside of class time.

UCC in its policy on 'Designing, Delivering & Assessing group work' defines group work as

students working collaboratively on a particular project, assignment or task and where the assessment is based on the output of the groupwork and / or the group work process (i.e. assessment of participation in the group)

This guide will prompt you to consider the optimum design of group work activities as well as signpost various tools that will support you for the coming year.

Benefits and challenges

There are multiple benefits of learning collaboratively:

  • promotes higher order learning
  • aids the development of transversal skills and graduate attributes
  • central to certain pedagogies
  • authentic form of assessment
  • offsets feelings of loneliness and isolation

Some of the challenges in group work arise when an activity is linked to an assessment. For example, there may be unequal engagement amongst the group members in the task, or there may be differing standards concerning the quality of the work among the group members. 

The most important consideration for the group work is whether and to what extent it aligns with and contributes to the learning outcomes in the overall academic experience, i.e. what are the learning outcomes that are dependent of and best met through collaboration and groupwork.


Group formation, Group management and Group assessment

2. Group work stages

Students can be assigned into groups by the lecturer or tutor or they may self-select into groups of 4-5 participants. McCrea et al (2016) recommend a 'pair and group' strategy where students are asked to self-select into pairs, and these pairs are then randomly assigned to larger groups.

Supports such as template group contracts can be useful in helping groups coalesce. A starting task could be completion of the template to outline expectations and clarify the consequences of non-participation. Assigning roles in the group can encourage interdependence and these roles could include e.g. facilitator, recorder, data analyst, presenter, innovator, timekeeper etc. Students suitability for taking on one or more of these roles could be uncovered through an icebreaker activity (see Short Guide #3: Icebreakers).

Group formation: Vignette

Placement Group Student Arts Subject
1A Lady A French
Lady B French
Sir A French
Sir B Maths
Sir C Maths
1B Sir A French
Sir B French
Lady A Maths
Sir C Maths
Lady B Maths

“We make the group composition as intentional as possible considering an odd number of elements with mixed genders and arts subjects. These groups will become fixed for a collective assignment until the end of the semester from week 3, sustained by no-stakes group tasks from week 1 until week 4. As we learn from the process, and refine it, we now realise that we need to better attend the scaffold of the beginning group dynamic by developing learning tasks for the groups to identify by themselves core group values and clear roles/duties.”

The expectations and purposes of the group work activity need to be made explicit to the students from the outset. Emphasise the transversal skills that can result from group work and how these prepare graduates to be world and work ready.

Students may need some low stakes groupwork experience to develop confidence and skills in this area. Such activities could include analysing case studies, finding and sharing news articles, responding to student writing etc.

Group work can lead to conflict amongst group members particularly where students differ in terms of contribution. The initial contract can mitigate against this, but it’s important to build in time to provide formative feedback to ensure students receive guidance to develop their skills and to act as an ‘early warning system’ should a group be experiencing issues.

Group management: Vignette

Role   Specific Tasks Student(s)
Leader Organise meetings; Delegate tasks; Check task completion compliance; Check attendance; Contribute to content development; Motivate group; Liaise with lecturer.  
Content Developers Undertake delegated tasks (primarily but not exclusively) on content development; Communicate with leader and editor; Contribute to positive group dynamic; Liaise with lecturer.  
Over-writer and editor Undertake delegated taks (primarily but not exclusively) in editing the document according to the assignment requirements; Ensure consistency and coherence of all assignment parts; Communicate with leader and content developers; Contribute to positive group dynamic; Liaise with lecturer.  
Meeting Number:                                                                     Date:
Meeting Objective:
Members in attendance:
For when? What needs to be done? By whom? Follow-up

Challenges/questions to address at the next session:


For 2 years, we have tested and refined a group management tool named “Groupwork Protocol”. This year’s version will include a box at the top for the students to negotiate roles and understand the associated duties to better self and collectively regulate the group dynamic. Ahead of each weekly lecture, the group leaders submit the record and we use the last prompt (“challenges/questions to address”) to establish support priorities and strategies (e.g. start with groups far behind vs groups with quick needs; convene with group leaders; schedule a group or individual session with the lecturer to address a relational issue).”

There are two elements to consider here. First is do you assess the product of group work, or the process of students working together, or both? The process can be observed by asking students to document their meetings or by encouraging reflective writing to capture emerging understanding and activity. The second element is whether to provide a group mark for work, an individual mark or a combination of both? The UCC Group Work policy recommends providing a group mark and an individual mark, where possible.

Group assessment: Vignette

Please complete the self-assessment below assured that this bears no weight in the final mark for the group and for everyone in the group, and that the information is only for the lecturer without disclosure. To complete this element please consider the following:

Complete the open fields relative to your 'name', the 'group name', the 'group leader', and the group members including yourself under 'Student'.

Your Name: Group name:  Group  leader:
Assessment statements Student Student Student Student Student Student
Attends all group work sessions (including lectures)            
When absent, notifices in advance, collected work to do            
Completes agreed tasks            
Provides a valuable contribution to the group work            
I am satisified with the member's contribution            
The member should get credit for the work done.             

“All group members are requested to submit, individually, a process-oriented self-assessment of the group dynamic without stakes or disclosure of information. This has allowed us to collect feedback on each group dynamic and the overall points of success and improvement of our approach. Interestingly, this process self-assessment tool has proved to be highly discriminant on the overall and individual engagement and contribution. The challenge now is focused on enhancing the impact of this tool for the development of our students as we have not returned any feedback to them from this tool. We are also exploring how we can include an individual mark to the collective assignment, without mixing the self-assessment tool with the individual mark.”

3. Group work and digital tools

‘Live’ small group activities
MS Teams is the UCC supported tool for live, interactive modes of teaching. MS Teams will have enhanced facility for break out rooms from September, where students can be moved into private groups to work on a task, discuss etc. Details of the current workaround for creating breakout rooms are provided in this two page guide Group work on MS Teams.   

Good practices in ‘live’ small group activities include setting a clear and meaningful task, establishing a set time for the activity, and requiring one person per group to ‘report back’.  Assigning tasks to small groups during class can have many benefits, such as involving students in their own learning, making course topics come to life, deepening students’ knowledge, and developing particular skills (see Short Guide #4: Visualising thinking). 

Asynchronous small group activities

Canvas, UCC’s virtual learning environment, facilitates group work in many ways:

  • Canvas Groups can be used to assign groups their own Canvas area where they can create group announcements, discussions and pages.
  • Canvas Collaborations enables the sharing of a document on Canvas for up to 50 users.
  • Canvas Discussions can be created as a forum for conversation or as an assignment for assessment purposes.
  • Groups can also be allocated Group Assignments.

Students can be assigned into groups on Canvas, UCC’s virtual learning environment, for time-bound collaborations linked to core themes and concepts or indeed for the entire duration of a module.

Groups thrive when the task is challenging and closely related to the course content, course objectives, and students’ experiences and interests. Like all assignments, you need to clearly articulate objectives, define the task, and clarify expectations. If using digital tools, then be sure to include a walkthrough of the tool to help students become familiar with its use before any future substantive use.

Further resources

Academic Council Teaching and Learning Committee (2017) "Policy on Designing, Delivering & Assessing Group Work". University College Cork. Available online

CIRTL (2020) Group work on MS Teams. Guide for creating alternative breakout rooms. 

Eberly Center (2016) "What are best practices for designing group projects?". Using Group Projects Effectively. Carnegie Mellon University.

McCrea, R. et al (2016) Facilitating group work: a guide to good practice. Dublin Institute of Technology.


Section 7 of the Teaching with Canvas course deals with Groupwork. This course is available to all UCC staff and has been designed by the Centre for Digital Education. Available from

TeachDigi, the UCC series of digital educational training supports for UCC staff, is running a session on 'Group Work' on August 12th. Details available from

Preparing for September

This section includes reflections from staff across the University on what worked well in the past and what they are planning in their future teaching:

I am the Director of the B.Ed Sports Studies and Physical Education Degree, and I want to share an example of collaborative learning within our programme teaching. When the University closed in March, 2020, I had two weeks remaining in my ED3306 “Coaching Science” module, and I transformed this into a fully online Canvas module using discussion boards to foster student engagement. It is often said that students will not engage in activities unless they are assessed, however, I would like to think that my example refutes this notion. Twenty-four students took my module in semester two, and I had between 75-88% positive student engagement in the discussion boards during this 2-week period. This student engagement success seemed to be due to the structuring of the discussion boards, which included clear instructions, question prompts, deadlines and tasks aligning to the course content. I also pre-empted student concerns regarding future assignments, by requesting feedback from students and building supports in advance. In preparing for September 2020, I am considering how to use similar collaborative tools for students, and I intend to build on the outline which I used in March.

Wesley O'Brien, School of Education

The vignette referred to in the short guide is from the B.Ed. Sports Studies and Physical Education (School of Education, CACSSS) and was provided by Joao Costa, School of Education.

We acknowledge that the first years arrive across Ireland with multiple educational experiences and personal dispositions/resources/constraints, sharing a passion to become teachers of Physical Education as well as a sense of unknown in an overflow of academic and social affordances. As such, for 4 years now, we have been continuously learning on developing the first semester of the first year as a critical transition stage for us to scaffold them to navigate together in this new environment, towards developing a shared sense of professionalism and community, to which groupwork is fundamental to achieve learning outcomes designed to be collectively achieved.

Joao Costa, School of Education

Training and Support

Getting Started webpage

This webpage introduces both academic and professional staff to the first steps in preparing to teach (and support teaching) remotely in September. Guidance is provided on how to teach remotely, the importance of Canvas, what tools to use and when, and signposting you to the relevant training and resources available in this regard.

Teach Digi Summer Training

Learn from academic and instructional designer Dr. Sarah Thelen as she delivers weekly asynchronous recordings structured around Think, Plan, and Teach and supported by Live Q&As. A great entry point for those who have their curriculum and learning activities already prepared.

Canvas training

Do you want to learn how to use UCC's virtual learning environment more effectively? Look no further. Sophie Gahan of the CDE is delivering weekly Canvas training over the summer.

CIRTL Learning Design workshops

Are you thinking about how you will teach in September, January, and beyond? The Learning Design workshop guides you through some collaborative structured exercises to provide a robust framework for curriculum and learning design. Patrick Kiely of CIRTL will host these workshops throughout the summer.

AVMS Guide to online video and collaboration

Panopto is not just about lecture capture you know? MS Teams is not just for meetings. Get oriented to the full capability of the UCC's video tools. A great starting point before pressing the record button!

ITS Teaching and Working remotely (tools)

Microsoft Office 365, Google Suite for Education, and everything else. A great resource for those who want to review and learn about all of the tools we have available in UCC. 

UCC Skills Centre

Supporting students through the closure and now a comprehensive resource for September and beyond. See where you can direct your students to help them reach their potential.

Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL)

West Lodge, Main Campus,