Group Learning

Authored by Alexander Ruthlein
PED 3177(C)

1. Introduction and Historical Development

Working in groups is a natural instinct of mankind. The earliest humans gathered together in groups to increase their chances of survival. Hunting was more efficient, the group provided protection, and individuals learned from the community. Whether this behaviour has been socio-culturally inherited or is inherent in our genetic code, working in groups had and has undeniable advantages. In today's labour market, team work and social skills gain importance as working together purportedly increases scope, efficiency, and quality of products. Most employees in Canada, and developed countries in general, work in the tertiary or service-sector. Therefore, working with other people is a central part of their jobs. It seems at odds with these observations that the predominant method of education in schools has traditionally been individualistic and authoritarian. The teacher teaches, and the students have to cope with the instruction on their own. However, forms of group work have been part of school curricula for a long time. The earliest research on the topic goes back to the 19th century. (Pedersen & Digby, 1995) Today, the interest in group work is increasing, because this form of instruction inherently incorporates some of the insights, techniques, and postulations that have gained popularity in the recent shift of pedagogical paradigms:

traditional view
teacher- and subject-centered
modern view
1. Acquisition of knowledge
John Locke's "tabula rasa:" knowledge is transferred from teacher (source of knowledge) to student (blank slate)
Knowledge can only be constructed by student him-/herself
2. Student
passive receptor
active participant
3. Teacher
professional instructor
assisting guide
4. Material
standardized, "one fits all"
individualized; considering learner types, modalities and multiple intelligences
5. Climate
(Table1, 6ff., Johnson, Johnson, & Smith (1991), altered)

Table 1. summarizes the most important developments pedagogy underwent in recent history, due to the influence of educational theorists like Johann Pestalozzi, Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, or Paulo Freire.
Even though adjustments of instructional practices became noticable only in the last half-century, the ideas themselves are not strictly modern. St. Augustine of Hippo contested the notion of instructed learning in his work De Magistro, as early as 388 a.d.
The elaborations on this page will show in how far collaborative learning is an appropriate tool of adaptation to the modern notions of pedagogy. It is explicitly mentioned in the "Oral Communications" strand of the Ontario curriculum documents for English. (Ministry of Education, 2007a,b).

2. Terminology

There is a variety of terms describing the organization of students in groups. Some of these are: cooperative learning, team learning, peer assisted learning, study circles, study groups, or learning in small-groups (for more terms see Davies, 1993). There is some debate as to the nuances and differentiations between these terms (Pedersen & Digby, 1995) and some of the criteria will be discussed under 4. Forms of Group Work. For the sake of simplicity, I will, henceforth, refer to the temporary division of a class into groups of two or more (but not all) students, as group work. The term collaborative learning, in turn, will refer to the predominantly independent activity of students, who work in a complementary fashion on a common, specific task, within these groups. Group learning is the generic term combining both aspects, the organization and the ativity.

3. Justification - Why use Group Work?

3.1. Positive Effects

Group work promotes the acquisition and refinement of various skills. Extensive research on the topic shows that students working in groups profit in the following categories (Emmer, Evertson & Worsham, 2000; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1995; Waller, 1961):

3.1.1. Academic Skills

  • increased overall academic achievement
  • more frequent use of higher-level reasoning strategies, e.g.: focusing strategies (identification of underlying concepts), elaboration strategies (integration of new knowledge with prior knowledge)
  • more frequent use of critical thinking
  • higher performance on subsequent tests taken individually ("group-to-individual tranfer")

3.1.2. Social Skills
Communication Strands in Direct Instruction and Group Work

  • refinement of communication skills: speaking (articulating personal ideas in a group), active listening (understanding and appreciating different views)
  • development of leadership skills
  • subordinating personal interests to group interests
  • generating positive social behaviour: being open, friendly, engaging, supportive, and respectful to others

3.1.3. Psychological Effects

  • establishing a positive attitude towards learning
  • gaining self-knowledge
  • gaining self-esteem through contributions
  • community-building among students
  • improvement of discipline problems due to more adequated socialization (overcoming the autarchy of the teacher, which provokes rebellion by the students)

3.2. Reasons for Positive Effects

There are various reasons for these profitable effects. It is obvious that students partaking in group work have an increased engagement with the materials, both quantitatively (more direct time-on-task) an qualitatively (every student is directly involved). Students have more time to talk and better opportunities to incorporate themselves and their ideas in the process of generating knowledge.
Average Retention Rates

Since peers are usually not authority figures and less intimidating than teachers, students feel less anxious about contributing their thoughts. Moreover, they practice constructive criticism by questioning their peers' statements, instead of taking for granted what the teacher tells them. They are active participants in education, rather than passive receivers. The increased amount of participation generates more direct feedback for every student, which can support realistic self-assessment.
Splitting the class into smaller groups allows the teacher a more differentiated approach. He or she can address various learner-types, modalities, and intelligences, within one lesson. Group work is, therefore, more adequate to students' needs.
The instruction through peers is a win-win-situation. The weaker students receives more direct explanations, through different instructional techniques than the teacher alone can provide. The stronger student experiences learning-by-doing and solidifies his or her knowledge. Additionally, the responsibility of teaching other students can be a source of motivation. There is a general shift of responsibility from the teacher to the students, which ideally has the same motivating effect.
Finally, positive interdependence, the awareness of mutual benefit and dependence, strengthens the feeling of trust and reliability within the learner community.


4. Forms of Group Work

There are different ways to categorize group work, either according to size, duration, organization, or structure. Group work can be the predominant form of instruction or complement other forms. The decision of how much student collaboration to allow, depends on the class.


Group size can range from 2 students (i.e. peer-assisted learning) to dividing the whole class into halves. For practical considerations, groups should contain between 4 and 6 students. Experience shows that this number is ideal to introduce a variety of input in the group while providing enough opportunity for individual participation. For certain goals requiring a lot of active time, like improvement of reading skills, it is advisable to rely on peer-instruction.

4.2. Duration

Group work may last from a single exercise up to an entire school year. Again, the intended goal decides which duration is best. If peer-instruction is required and teams are making progress, there is no need to limit their duration, providing both members profit from the experience. Larger projects, as well, might require working in the same group over a period of several weeks. Teachers can reap the advantages of group work for single exercises, though, if the organizational effort does not outweigh the educational gains.

4.3. Organization

There are several ways of altering the structure inside groups to adapt an exercise to a desired outcome. For example, the whole group can work on the same task, which enhances discussion on this common subject. Another option is to split the workload evenly between group members, e.g. passages of a text, in order to work more effectively. The assignment of roles within the group helps to generate team work with individual responsibilities. Common roles are leader/organizer, writer, presenter, material manager, etc.

4.4. Structure

The teacher can steer group work by determining the composition of a group according to the skill level of its members. If there are different tasks, assignment might be determined by learner types, modalities, or multiple intelligences (e.g. putting a student who is untalented at handicrafts into a group that is supposed to create a diorama is prone to cause frustration). Weak students can be combined with strong students to generate mutual benefits. If groups compete with each other, mixed composition guarantees equal chances of success.

5. Practical Considerations

In most cases, group work will be a variation of what is considered regular class, and it is therefore advisable to consider some of the peculiarities and customize them beforehand.

5.1. Observation

Observation is imperative. It ensures adequate in-group behaviour of the students, and provides the grounds of appropriate assessment. That being said, the teacher is supposed to step back and let the students take responsibility. The question of how much freedom and how much control are called for, depends on the individual class.

5.2. Preparation

The role of the teacher changes from instructor to adviser. The time when he or she will work most intensely will change as well. The bulk of work for teachers who use group work lies in preparation. Materials have to be adequate for this form of instruction (i.e. allowing independent engagement of students, be accessible, universal or tailored to certain needs). The environment has to be adjusted to accommodate several groups and provide them with enough space and privacy to work effectively. On top of material and environment, students have to be prepared for group-work as well. Certain rules and sanctions have to be agreed upon, certain behaviour promoted or discouraged. Not every class is suitable to introduce group work, and a certain degree of discipline is mandatory.

6. Examples

Group learning is universal and the division of a class into groups does not require special types of assignments. Rather, the regular assignments have to be adapted in order to fit the altered general framework. This is to say that, firstly, every teacher can employ group learning, and, secondly, that "[c]ooperative learning can be used with some confidence at every grade level, in every subject area, and with any task." (Johnson et. al., 1995, p.4, authors' emphasis)
Still, there are techniques that have been specifically designed to build on the method of group learning. Following are some representative examples:
  • Think-Pair-Share
A very basic form of cooperative learning, think-pair-share lets students explore certain aspects of the material they are studying with a partner. Simplistic as it may seem, this form is easy to use, almost universal in its application, does not take much introduction, and is efficient in activating and involving all students. (Digby, 1995)
  • Jigsaw
"Students are placed into six-member 'home' teams. Each member is assigned a section upon which to become an 'expert.' Each 'expert' meets with other 'experts' on the same section to discuss the best way to present the material to the other members of the 'home' team. After mastering the material, each 'expert' returns to the 'home' team to teach the material."(Digby, 1995, p.236)
  • Silent Card Shuffle

  • Book Club
"A book club is an instructional format or strategy in which small groups of students talk and think about a common book as they are reading. During and after reading a section of the book, the students prepare formally or informally for discussion. Some book clubs assign roles or responsibilities in a more formal manner, whereas others follow a natural flow of conversation with more informal planing. Students prepare for discussion by taking notes, writing journal entries, drawing illustrations, and reflecting on the book before the group meets. The children have regular meetings where they listen to the other members discuss their part and then come to consensus as to how many pages should be read and by when. At the end of the book, the members prepare a culmination activity as a way of sharing highlights of the book with the rest of their classmates. After the culmination activity, students select new reading (sic.) and move into a new cycle." (Rief & Heimburge, 2007, p. 174)
  • Group-Projects
Group work is an appropriate form of organization for project-oriented education, which is activity-oriented, self-organized, and aimed at covering larger units of specific material (Jung, 2002). Activation and organization are aspects intrinsic to group-work. The treatment of larger units is facilitated, as these units can be split into smaller inter- or intra-group assignments.

7. Further Reading

Useful and informative websites:
Making Effective Use of Group-Learning Methods Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen
Cooperative Learning Kennesaw State University
Cooperative Learning Material Saskatoon Public Schools


Digby, A.D. (1995). Cooperative learning in secondary english: research and theory. In J.E. Pedersen & A.D. Digby (Eds.), Secondary Schools and Cooperative Learning. Theories, Models, and Strategies (pp. 229-250). New York: Garland Publishing.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Smith K.A. (1995). Cooperative learning and individual student achievement in secondary schools. In J.E. Pedersen & A.D. Digby (Eds.), Secondary Schools and Cooperative Learning. Theories, Models, and Strategies (pp. 3-54). New York: Garland Publishing.

Jung, Eberhard (2002). Projektunterricht - projektstudium - projektmanagement. sowi-online-methodenlexikon. Bielefeld: sowi online e.V.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2007a). The Ontario Curriculum: Grades 9 and 10, English (revised). Toronto: Queen’s Printer.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2007b). The Ontario Curriculum: Grades 11 and 12, English (revised). Toronto: Queen’s Printer.

Pedersen, J. E., Digby, A. D. (1995). Preface. In J.E. Pedersen & A.D. Digby (Eds.), Secondary Schools and Cooperative Learning. Theories, Models, and Strategies (pp. ix-xi). New York: Garland Publishing.

Rief, S. & Heimburge, J. (2007). How to reach and teach all children through balanced literacy. San Francicso: Jossey Bass.

St. Augustine (1950). The Greatness of the soul. The teacher. Westminster, Md: Newman Press.

Waller, Willard (1961). The sociology of teaching. New York: Russell & Russell.


Bingham Young University Center for Teaching and Learning:


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