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Building learning culture through effective uses of group work

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The literature on group work indicates pros and cons to its use in the classroom. By looking at mechanisms of group failure and success and then linking these to concrete practices, we highlight some important boundary conditions involving goal difficulty, how goals are set and feedback, which practitioners may find helpful to know about before building group work into the learning culture of their classrooms.

In a review, Nokes-Malach et al. (2015) highlight how several mechanisms underpin collaborative work, and describe how these mechanisms can determine group-work success or failure. They define collaboration as meaning active engagement and interaction among group members to achieve a common goal, and this will serve as our definition

Nokes-Malach et al. (2015) go on to review numerous mechanisms of group failure and success, divided into cognitive and social mechanisms. On the cognitive failure side, we can see the cognitive costs of coordinating and collaborating. Every teacher knows the scenario where coordination between group members is so effortful that it would have been simpler to do the task individually. The practical implications for the practitioner are that in these situations, choosing collaborative tasks for your students is probably not the best course of action. Nokes-Malach et al. (2015) then highlight other cognitive disadvantages to groups; these can manifest themselves through losing one’s train of thought because of paying attention to other group members, sometimes referred to as retrieval strategy disruption. Finally, production blocking can take place, with missed retrieval opportunities, as group members must wait their turns while another person is talking.

There are also social mechanisms that can lead to group failure. Perhaps the best known social mechanism is ‘social loafing’, which can happen when group members do not contribute optimally because they think other group members will do the work. Fear of evaluation from other group members can also lead to group failure. Other social pitfalls to group work include a tendency for group members to defer to the highest-status person in the group, regardless of idea merit (Cohen, 1994). Lastly, there is some evidence that working in groups can sometimes be detrimental to students with learning support needs (Baines et al., 2015), and very strong individual performers may not perform optimally in group work as they reduce their output to fit in with the group (Campbell et al., 2017). ‘Tall poppies’ syndrome can also be an issue for high performers in groups, and they can attract resentment and subtle undermining from the rest of the group (Campbell et al., 2017).

However, there also are cognitive and social processes that can lead to group-work success. Starting with cognitive processes, one cognitive mechanism, called cross-cueing, posits that group members can use their collective knowledge about a problem-solving task or domain to cue each other’s prior knowledge when trying to think of ideas, strategies and solutions. Put simply, cross-cueing would suggest that individual performance benefits from the group in a strategic planning sense above and beyond what would be the case for individuals. Likewise, another cognitive mechanism suggests that the collective knowledge of the group can surpass that of the individual members: learners in a group have complementary knowledge or expertise, which means that different members of the group may contribute different components of the overall solution. Both of these mechanisms seem to relate to an increase of working memory resources (Kirschner et al., 2009).

Working in groups can be beneficial in the form of error-correction, in which individual members can check the logic and rationale of each other’s solutions. The act of re-exposure, where individual members of a group are given new opportunities to learn content that the other group members recall, can lead to improvements in their own individual learning. This can be seen as a variant of more general relearning through the retrieval practice effect. Furthermore, from a social perspective, watching other people can lead to observational or vicarious learning, one of the key principles derived from Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’ (1977). Nokes-Malach et al. (2015) mention how collaborative learning has also been hypothesised to increase individual motivation and engagement. However, critical for collaborative success are processes related to the joint management of attention and the construction of common ground among group members. Finally, the process of negotiating multiple perspectives can lead to learning and to the acquisition of more abstract representations than group members would acquire alone. Taken together, such mixed findings suggest both caution and promise for instructors. It is towards those mechanisms that can enhance the efficacy of group work that we now turn.

Perhaps the single name most associated with research into group work in education is Slavin (2010), who argues that effective group work requires two criteria: a shared group goal and individual accountability. While Slavin (2010) hints strongly that the group goal – and therefore, logically, individual goals – should be a learning goal rather than a performance goal, Slavin does not go into detail on the mechanics behind goal-setting. To address this gap, we turn to organisational psychology, and in particular Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory (2006). Highly practical in nature, Goal Setting Theory is useful for the practising teacher as it is a fully developed theory of motivation and task performance, fascinatingly counter-intuitive in its prescriptions. Locke and Latham’s key idea is that clear goals are more motivating and liable to lead to greater performance than a simple ‘do your best’ instruction under most conditions. The counter-intuitive aspect is that goals are more motivating the more challenging they are, though they still need to be achievable (Locke and Latham, 2006). A secondary idea of particular importance is that there are broadly two types of goals: learning goals and performance goals. For particularly complex tasks, a high specific learning goal or any goal that implies an element of exploration is more appropriate than a performance goal such as ‘get an A-grade’ (Seijts and Latham, 2005). Both types of goals can be usefully combined. Importantly for our purposes, these principles of goal-setting generally apply equally well to group work (Kramer et al., 2013).

These major principles of goal-setting generally apply to collaborative tasks but there are some important moderators. Firstly, it is important that goal commitment is in place or you are unlikely to reap many rewards from goal-setting, and obviously it is much harder to get a group of disparate individuals committed to a goal than an individual. Again counter-intuitively, goal-setting theory suggests a solution: imposed goals can be equally motivating for group members as long as a reason is given and accepted (Latham, 2007). Lastly, there can be clashes between individual goals and the overall team goal, and so it is important that individual goals are designed carefully to prevent this happening (Kramer et al., 2013).

So, drawing things together, what advice does the literature offer for the practising teacher in their use of group work? We suggest the following ideas as fruitful to experiment with:

  • Process over product: Before setting group work, tell the group that they will also be expected to critique their own performance against their progress towards the goals, during and not only after the task. Allocate time for this. (Derived from Kramer et al., 2013.)
  • Learning over performance: Use learning goals rather than performance goals (or both rather than performance goals alone). Learning goals will typically use stems such as, ‘Discover three to four ways of…’ or ‘Investigate how best to…’ (Derived from Seijts and Latham, 2005.)
  • Set a high bar: Ensure that learning goals are specific and challenging for the group and for individual members. (Derived from Seijts and Latham, 2005.)
  • Avoid unhealthy competition: Goals are powerful and can have negative side effects; avoid this by ensuring that individual goals for group members are not in competition with the group goal. (Derived from Kramer et al., 2013.)
  • Be kind to one another: Establishing norms for group work and how students interact with each other, to ensure that your class culture is as positive as possible, is never time wasted. Be sure to stick to the norms and explicitly praise students who adhere to positive norms. (Derived from Kramer et al., 2013.) Garmston’s seven norms are one possible starting point for developing norms that teachers can customise over time to suit their own classes (Garmston and Wellman, 2016).
  • Small is beautiful: Keep group sizes small to minimise free riding; two to four is probably best for most tasks. (Derived from Nokes-Malach et al., 2015.)
  • Explicitly model: Include positive and negative examples of goals at the initial preparation stage, especially if you plan to have the students construct their own goals. (Derived from Kramer et al., 2013.)
  • The power of persuasion: Build group commitment to the goal by explaining why the goal is important. Imposed goals are also motivating if reasons are given. (Derived from Latham, 2007.)
  • Process feedback: Ensure that you are giving feedback to groups during the process and not just at the end, and that this feedback is directly related to the final goal. Process feedback is essential for successful group work as it will allow groups to adjust performance and processes midstream. (Derived from Kramer et al., 2013.)
  • Structure feedback around questions: It is a good idea to structure the mid-task feedback around questions to ensure that the group learns from each other. Consider asking questions related to progress towards the group goal, progress towards individual goals, and how the group is performing against the group norms. (Derived from Kramer et al., 2013.)
  • Choose tasks carefully: Make sure that the task would not be better done individually. If you’re not sure, then a trial run, ‘blockbusters style’, with some individuals and teams attempting the same task, might work. You can adjust the task depending on the trial results. (Derived from Nokes-Malach et al., 2015.)

As we have seen in exploring some of the evidence for and against including group work as part of a classroom and school learning culture, the participants, nature of the task, feedback, group cultural norms and types of goals are all important factors that can make or break group work. Or, to put it another way, group work, as with most things in education, is neither intrinsically good nor bad; it really just depends on how you use it.


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Campbell EM, Liao H, Chuang A et al. (2017) Hot shots and cool reception? An expanded view of social consequences for high performers. Journal of Applied Psychology 102(5): 845–866.

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Garmston RJ and Wellman BW (2016) The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups (3rd edition). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

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Slavin RE (2010) Co-operative learning: What makes group-work work? I: Dumont H, Istance D and Benavides F (eds) The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice. Paris: OECD Publishing, pp. 161–178.


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas