What do students really think about group experiences, and what can we do about it?

With increased emphasis on providing active and collaborative learning opportunities in higher education, administrators, instructors, and academic staff have drawn much attention to the benefits of using small group experiences as an integral course design strategy.  Group work can enhance depth of learning and student engagement, and students also experience the added benefit of improving their communication, leadership, and team work skills. However, group work can pose challenges for students as they strive to enhance their own understanding of the subject matter, while negotiating the complexities of working collaboratively with others.

Hillyard et al. (2010) recently assessed students’ perceptions of learning in small groups, within an interdisciplinary arts and science program in the US. Their findings encouragingly suggest that all students (n=208) had engaged in at least one small group learning experience, and that the majority had participated in a substantive group experience, varying in duration from 2 weeks to an entire semester.

Students generally agreed that group work provided them with a chance to experience diverse opinions and ideas, to deepen their understanding of the course material, and to enhance their leadership and communication skills.  However, findings also suggested that students felt that group experiences rarely involved equal participation between group members, and that in the majority of cases, a few members did most of the work.   The authors also found that the students’ perceptions of the overall effectiveness of group work and the ability of group experiences to enhance learning were most strongly correlated with the academic preparation of peers, and the instructor’s ability to explain why they were using small groups.   Perhaps the most interesting study finding was that, “If students had bad experiences in group experiences in institutions prior to enrolling in the program, their attitudes remained negative, regardless of their experiences in the program” (p.17).

The findings of this study draw important attention to establishing a shared learning environment, where both the instructors and students:

  • clearly discuss the course learning objectives related to activities and assessment strategies that involve group work (i.e. why they are doing what they doing);
  • establish a safe environment for students to critically reflect upon their past group experiences, and to identify and assess the characteristics of positive/effective groups,  and of successful group members;
  • provide intentional opportunities for students to develop the skills and resources necessary to successfully negotiate group processes and to equitably delegate tasks among group members (e.g. developing group contracts, establishing a shared vision and clear goals/objectives, scheduling regular group meetings,  providing formative feedback,  and participating in a critical analysis of group processes).

There is little doubt that group work can enhance student learning and contribute to the development of transferrable teamwork, leadership and communication skills.  We must consistently strive to instill the importance of collaboration in higher education, by providing intentional opportunities for students to develop the skills and resources necessary to succeed in group environments.


Hillyard, C., Gillespie, D., and Littig, P.  University students’ attitudes about learning in small groups after frequent participation.  Active Learning in Higher Education 11(1):9-20.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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