Explore Strategies - Enhancing Education - Carnegie Mellon University

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students can’t apply what they’ve learned.

Students struggle in individual activities because they did not gain deep understanding during previous group work.

It is a natural phenomenon that some members of a group are more or less engaged in performing the task at hand (i.e., they were watching or listening without doing). For example, it is not unusual in labs for one member to watch and record as the other makes decisions and takes action. Similarly, in a collaborative design project, despite contributions of ideas from all members of the group, there is typically one person who integrates these ideas and executes the plan.

In these cases, the student who is making the decisions and actually completing the task at hand is the one learning the corresponding skills. Hence, this student will be more prepared to apply these skills in other, individually based contexts. The less actively involved students, however, will have missed this practice opportunity and may be less prepared to perform in individually based contexts. Furthermore, because the less actively involved students were part of the conversation and observed the actions being taken by their team leader, they often have a false sense of their proficiency for performing the task on their own. So, it is particularly important to teach students to monitor their own understanding as accurately as possible.

To quote Herb Simon, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” Thus, even in the midst of group work, it is important to make sure that each student is getting sufficient individual practice and feedback.


Articulate your expectations.

Teach students to monitor their own understanding.

Assess individuals, even in group contexts.

Articulate your expectations.

Communicate explicitly to students that they will be individually responsible for demonstrating proficiency. Remind students that they need to be monitoring their own individual understanding, particularly in the context of group work (e.g., “Be careful not to coast in a group because you will eventually be asked to perform these tasks individually”).

Teach students to monitor their own understanding.

Ask students to assess their own proficiency with targeted, action-oriented questions at the end of a group exercise. For example, give students a concept and ask them to define whether they are familiar with it, could define it, could apply it on their own, etc. See resources for sample self-assessment probes. This should help your students begin to monitor their level of understanding. However, because students’ self-assessments may tend to be inflated, it helps to use direct assessment as well. (See next strategy.)

Assess individuals, even in group contexts.

Find ways to assess individual understanding within collaborative learning contexts. For example, ask each student in a lab pair to answer a question individually at the end of the lab session. More generally in group-work situations, assign specific, clearly articulated roles to individuals in the group and rotate these roles across multiple assignments so students eventually get practice at all elements of task completion. This works best when groups are stable across the semester. Ideas and group-work strategies.

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learning principles

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. MORE>
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. MORE>
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. MORE>
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. MORE>
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. MORE>
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. MORE>
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. MORE>