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When Small Group Learning Goes Off Track

"Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats." -Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching

Issues to Consider

  • Student dissatisfaction with small group work is usually due to a lack of clarity and structure in terms of the group's assignment. (The Cross Papers No 4)
  • When some students are forced to take more responsibility for their own learning, they go through some or all of the steps associated with grief and trauma such as shock, resistance, surrender, acceptance, integration and success. (Wood 1984)
  • High academic achievers and introverted students are often more resistant to small group work.
  • "Being clear, at the outset of class and in the syllabus, about how much of the work in the course will involve group effort, and about why such group work will help achieve the goals of the course, will go a long way toward overcoming the objections of some students (and will at least warn students with serious reservations that they may want to choose another course)." (Speaking of Teaching, Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, Winter 1999)
  • Collaborative learning is defined as small group learning where group members reach consensus with respect to some decision or action. (Cuseo 2002)
  • Cooperative learning is a learner-centered instructional process typically characterized by the following: small, intentionally formed groups, well-defined group roles, group members working interdependently with each individual group member held accountable, and the instructor plays a facilitative and/or consultant role. (Cuseo 2002)

Strategies to Address Group Member Behaviors that Damage Group Work

When small group work isn't working, it can be the result of individual group member's behavior. The following strategies are offered to help instructors reduce the effects of negative behaviors.

  1. When group members have a tendency to be late, not show up, or are slow to begin assigned tasks, try the following: (Cuseo 2002)
    • Have groups develop ground rules, and lead them towards including appropriate ground rules for punctuality and the consequences that would ensue for being tardy.
    • Model punctuality.
    • Make the beginning of a session worthwhile so that students want to arrive on time. Try starting a session with a small written assignment worth a few points (e.g., ask two questions related to the homework, use Write-Pair-Share by asking them to reflect on either something from the last class session or from the homework, etc.)
    • Keep attendance records. This sends the message that you expect students to be present.
  2. When group members do not come to class prepared to work in small groups, try the following: (Cuseo 2000)
    • Provide a handout/worksheet for them to complete and bring to class, making sure the group work task is directly related to their having completed the handout. Occasionally, collect their handouts/worksheets to see who is coming to class prepared.
    • Have students evaluate their preparedness as part of a small group assessment activity.
  3. When inappropriate chatter takes place, try the following: (Cuseo 2000)
    • First of all, don't automatically assume it's inappropriate chatter.
    • Sit or stand near students who are inappropriately chattering.
    • Give time limits. Stop the small group activity when you notice that the majority of teams are finished.
    • Build in extra problems or tasks for groups that work more quickly. (Millis and Cottell 1998)
  4. When a group member appears to be working alone... (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998)
    • limit the groups' resources. (e.g., provide only one list of instructions, one sheet to work from, one pencil, etc.)
    • jigsaw the materials so that individual group members cannot complete the assignment without the other members' information.
  5. When group members aren't doing their jobs ... (Cuseo 2000) (Also referred to as "slackers.")
    • make sure the learning outcomes/objectives are clear.
    • provide clear written instructions on the group's task.
    • assign well-defined group roles and rotate these roles on a regular basis.
    • give time limits for group activities with five and one minute warnings.
    • tell the class that you have heard and/or observed that some group members are not doing their share and that you want to give the teams some ideas for resolving this problem. Some ideas are:
      1. Have students form small groups and spend a few minutes brainstorming strategies. (Remind them that brainstorming means all ideas are recorded regardless of their merit.)
      2. List thier strategies/ideas on the board.
      3. After regrouping, have students reach consensus on which of the strategies would be a first resort, what to do if they don't work, what would be a last resort, etc.
      4. This technique or activity puts the 'slackers' on notice so they are more apt to start pulling their weight. This activity can be done with any other behaviors that might be damaging group work, such as the "dominant group member." (Felder & Brent, 2001)
  6. When a group member dominates the group or presents a "know-it-all" attitude try the following: (Cuseo 2000)
    • Have the group assess their effectiveness by having them address some of the following questions:
      1. Did someone take the lead and if so how did this come about?
      2. Who said the most?
      3. Whose ideas were most strongly present in arriving at a solution to the task?
      4. Was there anything you thought, but didn't actually say?
    • Speak to the dominator privately. Let him/her know that while you are pleased that she/he is contributing, you want to make sure other students have an opportunity to contribute and think for themselves. Sometimes it helps to tell dominating students you need their help by saying something like, "I really appreciate your contributions, however, I have noticed that some of the other students aren't saying as much. So, I need you to help by holding back a bit and making sure everyone has a chance to speak."
    • Some students dominate because they are self-confident. It might be appropriate to tell them that you need their help because you want others to develop the same confidence.
    • Acknowledge the group's efforts versus the efforts of (dominant) individuals in the group.
  7. When disruptive behavior occurs... (Cuseo 2000)
    • make sure it is truly disruptive. A group member may be expressing a strong feeling or opinion and this may be okay with the rest of the group.
    • determine if the same student(s) is being disruptive on a regular basis and speak privately with that student.

When the Instructor Hinders Group Work

"Group work changes a teacher's role dramatically." ... "You are the authority who gives direction for the task; you set the rules; you train the students to use norms for cooperation; you assign students to groups; you delegate authority to those students who are to play special roles; and most importantly, you hold the groups accountable for the product of their work." - Elizabeth G. Cohen

The instructor can unknowingly damage group work. The following is a list of instructor behaviors that can negatively impact small group work and suggestions for addressing these behaviors.

  1. Ignoring non-participants. (Cuseo 2000)
    • Remind the whole group of the benefits of equal participation.
    • Speak privately to the non-participant(s).
    • Try to find out if there is good reason for lack of participation.
    • Determine if the non-participation has to do with the task versus the group.
  2. Lack of preparation. (Cuseo 2000)
    • Preparation on your part has to be obvious to the students. The following activities make it obvious that the instructor is prepared: handouts that clearly reflect the topic, delivering small lectures on the topic, arriving on time and ready to begin.
  3. Being too controlling. (Cuseo 2000)
    • Don't point out all the short cuts or intervene too much. Let the groups find their way.
    • Allow group members to discover things for themselves so they feel more ownership for the outcome. Share your expertise after they have worked together and debriefed in the larger group.
    • Allow groups to make mistakes. Mistakes are an opportunity for learning.
    • Plan processes versus outcomes.
    • Ask your students for feedback on a regular basis.
    • Talk to other faculty about how they keep from being over controlling.
  4. Lack of interpersonal skills. (Cuseo 2000)
    • Get feedback from your students via ongoing assessment or through Small Group Instructional Feedback (SGIF).
    • Tape record or videotape your sessions and observe or listen with a trusted colleague.
    • Capitalize on your strengths.
  5. Lack of cultural sensitivity. (Cuseo 2000)
    • Develop a sensitivity to cultural issues by keeping informed through reading, workshops, etc.
    • Observe other instructors who use small groups with this objective in mind.
    • Ask your students if there is anything you do that would be considered culturally insensitive. Or, ask them indirectly what kinds of behaviors would be considered culturally insensitive and damaging to group work.
  6. Talking too much is one of the most common habits that interferes with group work. (Cuseo, 2000)
    • Remember that most learning occurs through doing versus listening.
    • Only say some of the things you think.
    • Don't talk too much so that the task is delayed.
    • Present instructions for tasks in writing.
    • Put important points on handouts.
  7. Intimidating learners. (Cuseo 2000)
    • Wisdom and expertise may seem intimidating or appear as arrogance; so wear it lightly.
    • "Putting students down." Sometimes the language we use (especially in writing) or the way we say something can be interpreted as a "put down."
    • Avoid sarcasm.
    • Body language, such as an exasperated sigh or turning your back on a student who is speaking, can be perceived as a "put down." (Cuseo 2000)
  8. A lack of clear outcomes and/or directions for group work. (Cuseo 2000) Provide outcomes in writing and have the instructions for group work either on a handout, an overhead, or a PowerPoint slide.
  9. Collect mid-semester feedback through a Small Group Instructional Feedback (SGIF) session. This allows less satisfied students to complain. But more importantly, it allows more satisfied students to share their positive feedback, which may diffuse the complainers and help them see that they are not in the majority. Also consider having an instructor who uses small group work observe one of your classes. (See Cohen's "Sample Guide for the Observing Teacher," (140-141)
  10. When assigning large tasks/projects to groups, ask for an overall group work plan. Check in with the groups to provide useful directions and redirect efforts as needed.
  11. When groups are reporting out to the class, listen carefully, comment on what has been learned, and ask questions to prompt critical thinking. It is important to help the students make the connections between the activities and the central concepts they are illustrating. (Cohen 1994)
  12. At the onset of class or during the wrap-up, give groups feedback on what you observe while they are working in groups. "It is a priceless opportunity to offer public praise to students who have done very well in the context of group work - particularly those who are not high achievers in conventional academic tasks." (Cohen 1999)

Suggestions for Group Work Conflicts

While some conflict is normal and healthy, excessive conflict can be detrimental to the group's ability to function. The following are suggestions for minimizing conflicts.

  1. At the onset, let students know that some conflict is expected and normal. Total agreement is not always essential. Remind them that part of what they are learning is how to negotiate differences and work with others to reach a common goal - skills relevant to the workplace.
  2. Provide groups with ways of dealing with conflict as it arises. For example, have them construct something such as a puzzle, followed by a discussion of the group process. (
  3. Some instructors have their students learn about the different personality types and/or learning styles and discuss how to accommodate the different styles, etc., in a group setting. (
  4. Felder and Brent (2001) take a problem-based approach and deal with conflicts as they arise, equipping students with strategies to resolve their conflicts.
  5. When groups develop ground rules, they should have some provisions for managing group conflict. (Cuseo, 2000) Examples of ground rules might include the following:
    • Come to class prepared and ready to participate in small groups.
    • Let a classmate know if you must miss a session.
    • Play your assigned role in the group.
    • Ask anyone in your group for help; it is your right.
    • Help other members without doing their work for them.
  6. Have the groups sign the list of ground rules. Review these later in the semester and have the students evaluate how well they are following the rules they established. (Felder & Brent 2001)
  7. When conflict does arise, it may be helpful to have the groups backtrack and analyze what initiated the conflict, versus having them get caught up emotionally in the situation. (Cuseo 2000)
  8. Have the groups write up the conflict. Strong feelings lose some of their intensity when put on paper. Furthermore, groups can move on and decide to address the conflict at a more appropriate time versus getting stuck. (Cuseo 2000)
  9. Encourage groups to focus on the actions and principles that resulted in conflict and not the opinions. It can help people to accept that everyone has a right to their opinion and a right to change their opinion at a later date. (Cuseo 2000)
  10. When conflict arises, have groups reflect on what they have learned from the conflict. In addition, it might be an appropriate time to revisit the group's ground rules and revise if appropriate. (Cuseo 2000)
  11. If you use long-term groups, let students know that you expect that they will work out their differences. When students realize changing groups will not be easily permitted, they will feel more committed to negotiating their problems. (
  12. The addition of a floundering group's member to another group may throw off their group process. Also, the troubled group doesn't learn to resolve its problems. (Davis 1993)
  13. It may be beneficial to let a person drop out of a group to join another, but only as a last resort. The group member who dropped out of a group may be viewed as a troublemaker and may not be well received. (Cuseo 2000)
  14. Felder and Brent (2001) recommend the following active listening technique when conflict arises. The first person makes his/her case. This is followed by the second person repeating verbatim the first person's case without editorial comments, with the first person making any corrections until the second person gets it right. Then, the second side (person) makes its case to the first side using the same format. Finally, both sides try to work out an agreement.


"Commonly Asked Questions about Teaching Collaborative Activities" The Penn State Teacher II: Learning to Teach; Teaching to Learn, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. (1997).

Brent, R. & Felder, R. (2001). "Effective Strategies for Cooperative Learning" The Journal of Cooperation and Collaboration in College Teaching. Vol. 10, No. 2

Cohen, E. (1994). Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cuseo, J. (2002). Igniting Student Involvement, Peer Interaction, and Teamwork: A Taxonomy of Specific Cooperative Learning Structures and Collaborative Learning Strategies. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Davis, J. (1993). Better Teaching, More Learning: Strategies for Success in Postsecondary Settings. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Millis, B. & Cottell, P. (1998). Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Nilson, L. B. (1998). Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. (1st ed.) Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.

Race, P. (2000). 500 Tips on Group Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing Inc.

Most of the above references are available in the Center for Teaching Excellence library (TLC 324) on a lending basis.

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