Group work. I guess the very phrase stirs emotions in most people. Perhaps memories of embarrassed pupils reading from papers with text copied verbatim from a textbook, while staring at their feet. What is the reason for such seemingly pointless activities? Is there any secret wisdom that only teachers possess?

Maybe. From the teacher’s perspective, group works is a dream. Just envision a creative boiling pot, where ideas are exchanged and discussed, leading perhaps to unexpected results, where students learn things that the teacher didn’t even think about. Moreover, working with others ought to increase your personal engagement, making you learn better. For children, it might also train social and presentation skills. Somewhat cynically, one could add the temptation of reducing one’s own workload by letting the students do it themselves.

However, in the real world things may end up far from this sparkling vision, at worst more of a nightmare. My own experience of group work is mixed. In the lower grades, we readily divided the topic between us, after which interaction was minimal. Implemented this way, group works are largely harmful, since nobody learns the entire topic. However, things improved with time, and at university, I could even find the group works meaningful and fun. Surely, there are several reasons for this, but I think it is central that we were actually interested in the topic then, having chosen the education in the first place.

Photograph by Catherine Price. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License .

The theme of Topic 3 is online collaboration, where “collaboration” refers to a situation similar to the teacher’s vision above. Although I have some experience of collaboration, my only fully online group work is actually this one, ONL201. All this is of course perfect in line with the “meta” design of the course: we learn about online collaboration by collaborating online. J

So, how collaborative have we been? Not bad, I would say. We (or at least I) have fun working together, and so far, we have managed to produce creative results (video, mindmap etc.). One could perhaps remark that the collaboration is more directed towards creating the presentations, whereas the actual learning (at least for me) is done mostly individually, looking at videos and reading papers.

Talking about papers, the suggested reading for the current topic was unusually enjoyable for me this time, being of empirical nature, and thus more similar to what I am used to. In particular, I liked Brindley et al, who examined the effect of grading collaboration. The result was negative (although, as a statistician, I can’t help noting that there were only two observations of graded courses, and no formal statistical analysis at all), but the authors supply a list of tips to promote collaboration. And this naturally lead my thought to the statistics course where I regularly teach, and where the examination is done as a group project. Although our course in offline, it would still be interesting to check the agreement with the list.

The course is a mandatory statistics course for PhD students in the medical and pharmaceutical factulties, and consists of two weeks of lectures/computer exercises, followed by a third week, devoted to group projects to be presented on the final day. The project instructions consist of a short description of a scientific study (aim, study design etc.), together with a data set. From this, the students device a statistical analysis, execute it, and present the results. Much emphasis is put on concepts (why is the analysis suitable; what do the results mean) rather than details on math or diagrams. According to course evaluations, the students are very satisfied with this form of examination.

Below follows a list of the ten items of Brindley et al, together with an assessment (0, 0.5, or 1 point) of the degree to which we follow the advice.

  1. Transparancy of expectations (0.5 p): The students are informed about the group project before the course starts. However, we don’t tell them that we expect collaboration rather than cooperation. I fact, we have never thought of this as a goal in itself.
  2.  Clear instructions (1 p): Written instructions are provided, that we have spent some effort to make as clear as possible. We get very few questions on this.
  3. Appropriateness of task for group work (1 p): I think a statistical analysis is very well suited to collaborative group work. There are always many difficult questions to discuss and decisions to make.
  4. Meaning-making/relevance (1 p): Since the course is about statistics, it’s hard to imagine a more relevant task than planning and performing a statistical analysis on real data.
  5. Motivation for participation embedded in course design (0 p): The group work concludes the course, so no subsequent individual work depends on it.
  6. Readiness of learners for group work (1 p): The group project takes place last in the course, after all the theory. So at least the students are given maximum time to learn the theory first.
  7. Timing of group formation (1 p): The groups are announced before the course starts, making it possible to start working together early. We know that this is done by at least some groups.
  8. Respect for the autonomy of learners (0.5 p): The students are not allowed to choose their group mates. I can defend that decision. It would probably make students choose people they know, reducing group heterogeneity and thereby the potential for creativity. It could also be socially painful not to be chosen. Neither are the groups allowed to choose their topic. However, they have next to total freedom choosing how they tackle the problem, what software to use and how to create the presentation.
  9. Monitoring and feedback (0 p): No monitoring by teachers is done during the third course week. Actually, we haven’t even thought about that. As things seem to work out pretty well, this might not be necessary, but still, it could be an idea to consider. For example, we could insert a meeting with group and teacher half-way in the third week to check that they are on track and perhaps also encourage collaboration.
  10. Sufficient time for the task (1 p): One full week is allocated for the group work, which, judging from the presentations delivered, is sufficient.

To conclude, we scored 7.5/10 points. Not so bad, but perhaps some improvements can be made. The lowest-hanging fruits in that respect seems to be monitoring, so perhaps the students will meet a new element next time.


Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences?. The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

Collaborative learning – dream or nightmare?