Teamwork and Group Work

Why ask students to do teamwork?

The benefits of teamwork for students include increased achievement, motivation, and long-term retention in addition to acquiring communication skills necessary for the professional world after graduation (Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000; Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004). 

What does a well-functioning team do?

A team is much more than a group who divides and conquers by handing in a patchwork creation - they are working on the tasks together, even if they are physically apart.  In a well-functioning team, students know what they are meant to do, what their role is, and what is expected of their team members.

Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development (1965; 1977) proposes that teams progress through predictable stages as they seek to grapple with interpersonal relationships and task activities. For Tuckman, certain challenges are inevitable as teams learn how to navigate complex group dynamics, while at the same time responding to the demands of the assigned project. Awareness of these stages can help you encourage students to embrace some of the ups and downs of team functioning.

How can we address common challenges and set teams up for success?

Many students face challenges when working in groups with their peers. Students are often not given the opportunity to learn the interpersonal and logistical skills necessary to equip them for the common issues that arise in group work (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013; Oakley, Felder, Brent & Elhajj, 2004). There are a number of factors instructors should consider in order to make group experiences successful for students:

  1. Consider team formation

  2. Support team functioning in assignment design

  3. Explicitly teaching teamwork skills 

Tuckman's Stages of Group Development

1. Consider team formation

Criteria used for team formation

Consider randomizing or purposely choosing teams with a mix of abilities and backgrounds, rather than allowing students to choose their own groups.  This approach more closely mirrors collaborations that happen within the workplace. You might also consider choosing teams based on common blocks of time to meet outside of class (Oakley, Felder, Brent & Elhajj, 2004). Some instructors use a pre-course survey to determine student availability and skill sets. You might want to consider using the OWL polls tool to create and distribute this pre-course survey.

Another approach to team formation involves brainstorming, as a class, all of the skills that are required to successfully complete the project.  The instructor assigns coloured cards to the main skills identified, and students select all of the cards (skills) that they consider to be their strengths.  Students then use the cards to support them in assembling a team that has a diversity of skills, aiming to assemble the full rainbow of cards among their members. For more on this approach, see Potosky & Duck, 2007.

Group size

While there are exceptions, optimal group size is 3 to 5 students.


Consider course context and try to predict factors that might complicate long-term teamwork.  For example, how will you work around Western’s add/drop dates? Do you have a plan in place for teams who lose members or students who join the course late? Options to consider include focusing on developing teamwork skills outside of set groups until the class list is final or using randomized “warm-up” groups and automatically disbanding and reforming groups once the class list is set.

2. Support team functioning in the assignment design

Communicate learning outcomes and relevance

Ensure that every assignment (including those related to group work) are connected to course outcomes and big ideas (McTighe & Wiggins, 2013).  Share your learning outcomes with students, and remind them of the relevance of assignments when you introduce those assigments in class. Let them know why are you asking them to do group work and how it can benefit them.

Create interdependence

If you don’t want students to divide and conquer, the project should be structured so that students are dependent on one another.  This means ensuring that the project is sufficiently complex that it benefits from multiple minds and requires a range of knowledge and skills.  Assigning roles also helps enforce the importance of working together, although it’s a good idea to rotate through roles so students get practice performing different functions.

Ensure assessment transparency

Provide information about the ways students will be assessed (e.g., weighting, rubrics, peer assessment, individual contributions) when the group project is introduced.

3. Explicitly teach teamwork skills

“Students are not born with the project management, time management, conflict resolution, and communication skills required for high performance teamwork” (Oakley et al., 2004).  

Team expectations and agreements

Share your guidelines for how students should work together. Have students complete a Team Policies Statement (that you write or co-create) and Team Expectations Agreement (that each team writes) (examples in Oakley et al., 2004, and  University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence resource on group contracts).  Include group norms such as:

  • roles and responsibilities
  • expectations around attendance and participation in group meetings
  • expected quality of work
  • a plan to enact if group members find that not everyone is doing their part. 

Establish a system for keeping copies of these agreements for your reference as needed, and provide opportunities in class for students to revisit and revise their policy and expectations agreements.

Structure teamwork activities

  • Have students take on particular roles in the project. These can be swapped out over time.
  • Create milestones or interim deadlines for groups, and provide time for students to assign duties and roles to meet deadlines.
  • Encourage students to make their own sub-deadlines, and plans.  

Provide time on task

While students can be expected to work on team-based activities outside of class, for best results, you should also provide time on-task during class time. Use this time for activities that support team development and growth, such as:

  • giving teams a chance to check in and reflect on task progress
  • devoting time to planning
  • filling out Team Functioning evaluations, which can help prevent students from ignoring issues until they are too large to handle
  • providing peer feedback, allowing groups to learn from mistakes and improve the team’s ability to solve problems as a unit (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013)
  • giving students a chance to reflect on, and respond to, interim feedback (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013)

Plan for complications

Even with carefully laid plans, it is a good idea to have already decided what you will do if irreconcilable problems arise. For example:

  • As a first step, ask students to refer to their Team Contract.  “Simply stating ‘we talked about this in the charter and all agreed that…' is a neutral starting point to begin an otherwise awkward conversation” (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013, p. 709).
  • Plan to dissolve all teams after 4-6 weeks, unless all team members request to stay intact (most will) (Oakley et al., 2004).
  • Host mini “Crisis-clinics” to back students up if they need to confront fellow students (Oakley et al., 2004).  

Further reading:


If you need help in planning or implementing teamwork and group work in your course, please contact the CTL.


Hillier, J., & Dunn-Jensen, L. M. (2013). Groups meet . . . teams improve: Building teams that learn. Journal of Management Education, 37(5), 704–733. doi:10.1177/1052562912459947

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Stanne, M.E. (2000). Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, Va. : ASCD.

Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 9–34.

Potosky, D. & Duck, J. (2007). Forming teams for classroom projects. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning: Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL Conference, 34, 144-148.

Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.

Tuckman, B.W. & Jensen, M.A.C. (1977). Stages in small group development revisited. Group and Organizational Studies, 2(4), 419-427.