What are the benefits of group work? - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

What are the benefits of group work?

“More hands make for lighter work.” “Two heads are better than one.” “The more the merrier.”

These adages speak to the potential groups have to be more productive, creative, and motivated than individuals on their own.

Benefits for students

Group projects can help students develop a host of skills that are increasingly important in the professional world (Caruso & Woolley, 2008; Mannix & Neale, 2005). Positive group experiences, moreover, have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention and overall college success (Astin, 1997; Tinto, 1998; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2006).

Properly structured, group projects can reinforce skills that are relevant to both group and individual work, including the ability to: 

  • Break complex tasks into parts and steps
  • Plan and manage time
  • Refine understanding through discussion and explanation
  • Give and receive feedback on performance
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Develop stronger communication skills.

Group projects can also help students develop skills specific to collaborative efforts, allowing students to...

  • Tackle more complex problems than they could on their own.
  • Delegate roles and responsibilities.
  • Share diverse perspectives.
  • Pool knowledge and skills.
  • Hold one another (and be held) accountable.
  • Receive social support and encouragement to take risks.
  • Develop new approaches to resolving differences. 
  • Establish a shared identity with other group members.
  • Find effective peers to emulate.
  • Develop their own voice and perspectives in relation to peers.

While the potential learning benefits of group work are significant, simply assigning group work is no guarantee that these goals will be achieved. In fact, group projects can – and often do – backfire badly when they are not designed, supervised, and assessed in a way that promotes meaningful teamwork and deep collaboration.

Benefits for instructors

Faculty can often assign more complex, authentic problems to groups of students than they could to individuals. Group work also introduces more unpredictability in teaching, since groups may approach tasks and solve problems in novel, interesting ways. This can be refreshing for instructors. Additionally, group assignments can be useful when there are a limited number of viable project topics to distribute among students. And they can reduce the number of final products instructors have to grade.

Whatever the benefits in terms of teaching, instructors should take care only to assign as group work tasks that truly fulfill the learning objectives of the course and lend themselves to collaboration. Instructors should also be aware that group projects can add work for faculty at different points in the semester and introduce its own grading complexities.

References

Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Caruso, H.M., & Wooley, A.W. (2008). Harnessing the power of emergent interdependence to promote diverse team collaboration. Diversity and Groups. 11, 245-266.

Mannix, E., & Neale, M.A. (2005). What differences make a difference? The promise and reality of diverse teams in organizations. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 6(2), 31-55.

National Survey of Student Engagement Report. (2006). http://nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2006_Annual_Report/docs/NSSE_2006_Annual_Report.pdf.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.