Developing effective approaches to student group activities and teamwork

This is a short practice guide about supporting student group activities and teamwork in learning and teaching.

What is teamwork?

“Teams are composed of individuals who share several defining characteristics: they (1) have a shared collective identity, (2) have common goals, (3) are interdependent in terms of their assigned tasks or outcomes, (4) have distinctive roles within the team, and (5) are part of a larger organizational context that influences their work and that they in turn can influence” (Morgeson, et al, 2009; Kozlowski and Ilgen, 2006, in Hughes and Jones, 2011).

Why does teamwork matter?

“Teamwork is one of the fundamental skills employers look for and it’s on the graduate recruiters’ high priority list” (Target Jobs).

How does teamwork work in learning?

“Working in small groups is hard. For a group to work effectively, they must cooperate, communicate, delegate, and trust each other. For introverts or dominating personalities, this is often a challenging task. Consequently, group assignment is important, and numerous publications have supported instructor‐selected groups, with the goal of forming teams of three to four students that are diverse in both academic skills and demographic properties” (Taylor, 2011).

“Teamwork can lead to an improvement in student learning due to: the development of social behavioural skills (Cohen, 1994; Goldfinch & Raeside, 1990), higher-order thinking (Cohen, 1994), and critical thinking skills (Dochy, Segers et al., 1999; Gokhale, 1995; Sluijsmans, Dochy et al., 1999), the capacity for lifelong learning (Hanrahan & Isaacs, 2001), moving students from a passive to more active learning role (McGourty, Dominick et al., 1998), the ability to tackle more substantially-sized assessment projects (Goldfinch & Raeside 1990), and peer learning within teams (van den Berg, Admiraal et al., 2006)” (Tucker and Abbasi, 2017).

Teamwork and group work in Aston’s Blended Approach

Recognising that students can find classroom-based campus activities difficult, and that Aston’s blended approach has improved accessibility and enabled higher levels of engagement and overall participation in learning, students and staff have reported a range of challenges engaging with online webinars and related breakout room activities. Further discussion has been undertaken with academic staff and students and clear themes are emerging. These include practical and contextual (inc. WIFI connectivity and digital poverty), technical (specific issues with Blackboard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams), and personal (preparedness and confidence with online interactive learning and teaching).

Challenges, what we know works, and success measures for supporting effective teamwork

Challenge area Principle What we know works Why not? Success measures
Students can be unclear about what is expected of them when working in groups and teams. Teamwork is used purposefully with clearly defined aims and intended outcomes. Being explicit about the function, purpose, and reason for collaborating with peers, and active guidance and preparation for related activities.

Being explicit in module specifications and guidance to students about the skills and competencies being developed and assessed.

Being clear for students about the value of team learning.

Invite students from later stages of study to provide peer mentoring as a teamwork induction.

Involve the Careers and Placement Team in explaining the professional value of teamworking skills.

Explore more detailed guidance on collaborative learning in TLC.

Explore and adapt the Aston Team Academy kills Wheel and Teamwork Competencies (Vettraino, 2021).

Students understand what they need to do and the importance of teamwork for their studies and future careers.
Students can be uncertain about how to work in teams. Methods for working in teams are clearly introduced and explained including focus on skills and competencies. Providing clear instructions and structure for group activities including specific notes about listening and communicating.

See Aston Team Academy Competence Skills Wheel (Vettraino, E).

Include active preparation activities for teamwork including reflective activity considering team roles (Belbin)[1].

Include some formative teamwork activities (‘dry run’).

Publish details of useful information and guidance: including the Get Ahead module, via Careers and Placements Team, and details of Mentoring Support.[1] See, for example, Belbin student teamwork exercises:

Students understand how to work in teams and where to access further guidance and support.
Students can find working with others difficult for personal and contextual reasons, especially if they have not ‘met’. Account is taken of individual student circumstances, structured support is provided to overcome engagement challenges, and clear expectations are established regarding conduct and behaviour. Focusing on the importance of intercultural awareness and emotional intelligence, expected conduct and behaviours, and ensuring students are able to access further help and support where required.

Taking active control over group allocations and be mindful of group size (max x 5).

Including relevant ice-breaking activities.

Reviewing student study circumstances to ensuring safe and inclusive approaches.

Establish a clear framework for reviewing student study circumstances, gradual release of responsibility to students, and protocols for ‘I’m sorry I can’t at the moment’ communications within teams and with tutors.

Highlight guidance for students in Blackboard – ‘We realise it can be daunting speaking to students you may not have met in person but getting actively involved is an important way of developing new connections in your learning and with each other.’

Focus on conduct in online learning and netiquette.

Publish information about how to access further help and support at module level and via their Personal Tutor or Student Services.

Students feel safe, supported, and can access practical help to develop their engagement with their studies.
Students can find tools for collaboration difficult to use. Tools for coordinating and engaging with teamwork are carefully selected, introduced and explained. Providing students with opportunity to access, test and practice using tools, and relevant additional help and guidance.

That resolution of technical and other issues in collaborative work are built into teaching and learning activities.

Ensure appropriate tools are selected to support collaboration and teamwork.

Ensure students can access technical guidance to improve connectivity using Solve.

Ensure students are actively engaged with guidance about learning technologies in TLC.

Students are actively supported in using tools for teamwork and in developing digital capabilities relevant to their studies.
Students can find teamwork challenging especially when connected with summative assessment Clear mechanisms are established to monitor and manage student teamwork activities including procedures for addressing and resolving difficulties. Acknowledging that teamwork can be challenging – It’s meant to be – but being mindful of individual student experience and group dynamics.

Giving active attention to risks including ‘social loafing’, ‘groupthink’, and ‘choice-shift’ in teamwork (North-Samardzic, 2021).

Working cautiously with peer-assessment and complaints processes and emphasising developmental and supportive approaches.

Publish details of useful information and guidance: including the Get Ahead module, via Careers and Placements Team, and details of Mentoring Support.

Take a strengths-based rather than ranking or rating approach to peer evaluation in teamwork.

Focus on personal reflection and individual responsibility for evidence of contribution to teamwork.

Teamwork positively supports the development of student networks and structured processes are in place to resolve difficulties.

Teamwork activities and software tools map

Activity Software/tool Notes Useful Links
Group discussion and note-taking Blackboard Collaborate Breakout Groups, white boards, chat, share screen/content. Active Learning in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra

Working with breakout groups

Group discussion and note-taking Microsoft Teams Breakout rooms, chat, share screen/content. Setting up a Teams meeting for teaching
Group discussion and note-taking Blackboard Groups Self, manual, and random enrol, file exchange, wikis, journal, group tasks. Can be used for small groups or to manage tutorial groups in large cohort modules. Blackboard Groups guidance

Blackboard Group tools

Document sharing and co-production Blackboard Wiki Collaborative writing and editing. Blackboard wiki guidance
Document sharing and co-production Office365 Sharing links to editable Microsoft documents. Using Office365 for synchronous group work
Social learning Office365 Communicating, scheduling meetings, sharing documents and files, meeting online.


HUGHES, R.L. and JONES, S.K. (2011), Developing and assessing college student teamwork skills. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2011: 53-64.

NORTH-SAMARDZIC, A. (2021) Teamwork effectiveness: benefits and challenges, Future Learn:

TAYLOR, A. (2011), Top 10 reasons students dislike working in small groups … and why I do it anyway. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ., 39: 219-220.

TUCKER, Richard; ABBASI, Neda. Bad Attitudes: why design students dislike teamwork. Journal of Learning Design, [S.l.], v. 9, n. 1, p. 1-20, apr. 2016. ISSN 1832-8342. Available at: Date accessed: 02 Aug. 2017. doi:

VETTRAINO, E. (2021) The Skills Wheel, Business Enterprise Development. Team Academy Aston.

VILES DIEZ, Elisabeth; ZÁRRAGA-RODRÍGUEZ, Marta; JACA GARCÍA, Carmen. Tool to assess teamwork performance in higher education. Intangible Capital, [S.l.], v. 9, n. 1, p. 281-304, apr. 2013. ISSN 1697-9818. Available at: Date accessed: 25 feb. 2021. doi: