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Guidelines for Effective Group Work in Remote Instruction

With the recent move to Emergency Remoe Instruction (ERI), many faculty members have asked for guidance on how to run online groups effectively in an online environment. They key to maintaining student engagement is to “design tasks that are truly collaborative, meaning the students will benefit more from doing the activity as a group than doing it alone” (Mandernach, in Bart, 2010, 2).

Basic Strategies for Creating Group Work


Categories of Effective Online Activities

Group activities generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. There is no right answer, such as debates, discussions of controversial issues, readings, or research articles.
  2. There are multiple perspectives, such as analyzing current events, cultural comparisons, problem-solving, or case studies.
  3. There are too many resources/parts of an activity for one person to evaluate, so a jigsaw puzzle approach is needed with each student responsible for one part (e.g., analyzing research articles: literature review, theoretical framework, methods, findings and conclusions/discussion (Bart, 2010, 2).

Students may also be asked to work together on a project or conduct a presentation to a small group of peers.

Recommended Group Size

Group size depends on the task and number of students in the course. Generally, smaller groups of 4-6 are more effective because everyone in the group can actively participate.

With classes of 80+ students, you may need to increase the group size to 8-10 so the number of groups/breakout rooms are manageable for you as the instructor.

Roles and Responsibilities

Assigning each group member a role and responsibility will help hold students accountable for participation. If you have 8-10 students in a group, have two students share the same role. While you may find a long list of potential roles online, some of the more common roles include:


Assigned Role



Makes sure the group works within the time allotted; gives a 2 minute and 1-minute warning.


Takes notes for the group and shares with reporter


Reports group work when class resumes, or within a discussion board.


Makes sure the group stays on task; if group conversation diverges this person gets everyone back on task.


Monitors engagement of group members and individual participation. Makes sure everyone has had an opportunity to contribute.


Planning for Group Work: Asynchronous vs Synchronous Work

Phase 1: Pre-Class Work: In planning for the online group activity, it is wise to determine what students need to do in preparation for effective and meaningful online work with group members (pre-class activities). This may include outside readings or reviewing a case study and preparing notes for the online discussion. Provide a set of clear instructions and expectations.

Phase 2: In-class Work: Once students are placed into the breakout rooms, provide a set of clear guidelines and expectations for the activity. Provide a list of roles and responsibilities and ask each member to volunteer for a role (or you can assign roles).

Phase 3: Post-Class Work: One way to hold students accountable is to have the reporter enter a summary of the group’s discussion/conclusions into the discussion board. The entry should include members’ names and the summary.



Alternative Assignments for Absent Students

Best online practices suggest you always have a plan B – an assignment for any student who has missed the online, in-class group activity. This is especially important during the COVID-19 directive. Some students may have limited computer access, WIFI, and/or have additional responsibilities such as home-schooling and child-care. Other students may fall ill during the semester.

Tools for Group Work

Jigsaw Activity Examples

#1 The class is assigned a research article to review. Each member of the class is assigned a section of the article to review and prepare to discuss/summarize with group members during the in-class activity. For example, some students will review the literature review/theoretical framework, some methods, etc. When in-class groups are formed, place all of those reviewing the literature review/theoretical framework together, those reviewing methods together, etc. give them time to discuss the main points that should be share with the larger group (those who didn’t read that section). The group reporters are to upload a summary (recorder’s notes) into the discussion board in preparation for the next group meeting.

When the group gathers again, distribute a member of each group into a new group such that the new groups have someone who read each of the sections of the article. Group then discusses the entire research article and submits a critique into the discussion board.

#2. If time is limited, do a different version of the above. Assign members of the class with a section of the article (or different research articles; case studies, etc.) to read for the pre-class activity. They need to know they will be discussing this article with others who have not read that article. The in-class groups are made up of individuals who have read different sections or articles. Group work consists of analyzing aspects of a research article or the efficacy of the research. The reporter uploads a summary of the group’s discussion/conclusions into the discussion board.

The importance of the discussion board entries is to hold groups accountable for their work and assign participation points.


Above all, be compassionate, believe the best of your students, and remain flexible during this time.

For your convenience, you can download a pdf of this article here.


Content developed by Cathy A. Pohan, Ph.D.

Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning at UC Merced