Why do we expect students to work well in groups if we don’t teach them how?

If we’re going to assign team projects, and if we really believe working well in a group is important, we must teach effective group processes, says Todd Zakrajsek

Todd Zakrajsek's avatar
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
15 Dec 2021
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A group of university students arguing. We should teach students how to work together as a team

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Shortly after my daughter started university, she called me about an issue on one of her courses. Given that I’ve been a faculty developer for her entire life, she seems to take pleasure in telling me every time she experiences something amiss within higher education. This time she conveyed it all in one short quip: “Group work just killed another friendship.”

She explained that in one of her classes, the instructor assigned an ill-defined, high-stakes project requiring four students to work together for the semester with no guidance regarding how best to work as a team. She then asked me a question that has stuck with me to this day: “Every teacher says teamwork is critical to our future professional lives. If that’s true, why aren’t ‘effective group work strategies’ taught in every class, or even many classes?”  

She then provided a hypothetical regarding content versus group processes. Imagine telling students in the first class of the semester that the course content was extremely important for their future, that there would be a final exam on that content worth a large portion of their course grade – and then never speak of course content again. No lectures nor class discussions. How do you think your students would do on that final examination?


I’d never thought of it that way before. After our conversation, I immediately shifted how I taught. If we’re going to assign group work or team projects, and if we really do believe that being able to work well in a group is important, we should carve out class time to teach effective group processes.

There are many ways to improve students’ teamwork. For a start, plan to spend some class time – perhaps 10 to 15 minutes – for groups to meet at the beginning of the semester. A task-oriented group can accomplish a lot in 10 to 15 minutes. This planned meet-and-greet time will help to build community in the course and within their groups.

Explain to students that a strong community will help them do better in the course, improve communication and reduce conflict. Icebreakers and other activities help students get to know one another. Also ask groups to decide how best to communicate with one another in terms of progress and assistance, ensure students understand the overall assignment and confirm they have an action plan and are off to a good start.

Also, in the first class where the group project details are laid out, let students know that throughout the course everyone will be working on effective group processes. One of the best strategies is to surface things that have gone wrong in student groups previously (no names or courses, obviously, only behaviours), because students are an excellent source of information about how not to work well in teams, as they have all experienced dysfunctional group behaviour.

At the start of the semester, organise small groups of four to five students. Give them five minutes to discuss issues they’ve experienced that made groups ineffective. I’ve done this many times – their lists form quickly. Then, have each group read one item from their list until all groups have contributed, and continue until all points have been shared. By the end of the exercise, students will have identified many frustrating group behaviours. Let them know you appreciate their input and that you will develop short guides that address the behaviours noted.

After you’ve done this exercise just a few times, you’ll be able to reuse the guides every time you teach. The list of things that go wrong with groups is quite short, but there are a few items students mention every time I’ve done this activity. There will (almost) always be a “hog” and a “log”. A hog takes over the project, bossing everyone else and proceeding as if there is only one way to be successful. At the opposite end of the scale, the “log” does as little as possible.

Address these issues with frequent peer reviews, submitted to the instructor, graded or ungraded, to identify how and what groups and individuals are doing. For example, have students share with their group members everything they’ve done since the last review that moved the project forward. “Doing a lot of reading” or “thinking of good directions for the group to proceed” don’t count. Explain that the goal is for all members to be contributing to the group’s overall success. 

Also be aware that there will always be disharmony at some point in the project – it’s a normal group dynamic. It’s important for groups to have communication processes for when things don’t go well, such as speaking up about frustrations right away. That keeps issues from heating up to boiling point. Setting up time to meet is another challenge all groups face. Explain that it’s crucial to set up meetings well in advance and insert a few extra meetings that can be cancelled if the time is not needed. The possibility of cancelling a meeting because it’s not needed is a good motivator to get things done.

There will always be those who don’t see the value of working in groups, so bring in a person from a previous class who is now working in an organisational team in the industry to talk about the value of teamwork for future endeavours.

Group work has killed enough friendships. If it really is an important skill to learn at university level, we should be teaching students how to work well in teams on every course that requires these skills. Experience has long shown us that students will not spontaneously become effective team members without guidance. And some of those students who were not taught to work well with others may end up as department chairs.

Todd Zakrajsek is associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of the International Teaching Learning Cooperative.


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