How Do I Design Successful Online Group/Collaborative Work Assignments?

              online [Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash]

Successful group work is characterized by trust, psychological safety, clarity of expectations, and good communication; being in the same location while working is not essential to group effectiveness (Duhigg, 2016; Kelly, 2008; Salmons, 2019). Below we offer strategies and examples that work for short-term collaborative group work (e.g., discussions in a synchronous class session) and long-term collaborative assignments (e.g., group projects), ending with additional considerations for long-term collaborative work.   


Provide Opportunities to Develop Connection and Trust

Engage students with community building activities. Groups work best when students feel connected and trust each other. Brief icebreaker activities are fun and allow students to get to know each other before delving into group work. Ask students to type a word or emoji about how they are doing into the chat at the beginning of synchronous class sessions. Let students practice group work in Moodle or Blackboard with some low-stakes group assignments.

Create group norms. For synchronous group work or discussions, you can create participation norms  that all students agree upon in the first few weeks. Discuss with students how certain social identities (e.g., women in STEM, transgender students) can be unintentionally marginalized during group work as a justification for creating norms around respectful and inclusive communication (Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004).  Vary the groups of students in breakout rooms so students can meet other students and hear different perspectives, particularly in the first weeks of class. Refer back to the agreed-upon norms when conflict arises.

Proactively check in with groups. It’s important to pay attention to both process and the accomplished task. As you drop into breakout rooms during synchronous sessions or consult with groups in office hours, note who does and does not speak; ask who is generating ideas and how they know everyone is on board with these ideas. Check in individually with quieter students. Remember, how you address issues and group functioning models how they should interact with each other (Kelly, 2008).

(Over)communicate and Reinforce Expectations

Communicate the purpose. Communicate in writing and orally the skills students will develop by the end of their group work experience and why this is a valuable task or project to do in groups (as opposed to individually). You might ask students to connect skills they will learn to their personal goals and describe how they will know if they’ve developed these skills apart from your feedback.

Describe the tasks. In writing, describe the tasks in detail, including steps in the process with due dates/deadlines, resources needed, technology for communication, and expectations for group work. In synchronous sessions, this means giving students clear topics, questions, deliverables, or goals for small group work. Consider assigning rotating task roles such as discussion director, connector, summarizer, recorder, and reporter (Kennedy & Nilson, 2008). Create a space online for students to submit questions which are publicly answered for all to see; this can become an FAQ forum.

Clarify the criteria. Communicate specific details about how student work generated in groups will be assessed (i.e., rubrics, exemplars, grading scheme). Use positive, “do this” language rather than negative, “don’t do this” language when possible. Show examples that typify important or challenging aspects of the work with narrations (i.e., on video or in commented document) of what makes it an exemplar. During synchronous sessions, have groups submit something that demonstrates their engagement with the task for a small amount of points, such as group decisions, remaining questions, discussion notes.

Additional Tips for Long-term Collaborative Projects

Be sure students have a communication plan they all can use. This can be specified as part of their group norms and processes at the beginning of the project. In addition, be clear how and when groups should communicate with you, where and in what format they should submit materials, and what to do if they encounter a problem.

Break apart the project into phases or milestones with clear deliverables at each stage. Clearly specify how and where students should turn in work online, and use this space consistently for all deliverables.

Have students check in about their group process and report back on their process periodically. At the beginning of the project, ask students to identify how they want to work together, what their expectations are for each other, and what collaborative tools (e.g., a wiki in Moodle) the group wants to use. Have them post their group norms in an online forum. Include a requirement for a "team effectiveness discussion" or evaluation after students have some time to work together (e.g., 2nd milestone; See Oakley et al. 2004 for a “Crisis Clinic” guide). Allow them to adjust norms and set goals for the next phase of groupwork.

Clearly connect homework, lectures, or other learning activities to the group project. For example, after learning new concepts, students might be asked to turn in a brief “Application memo” which connects course content to their group project. A synchronous session might end with an “Integrate it” discussion among group members to integrate new learning into their project. Homework might be called “Project prep work.” Name activities by their purpose to increase transparency.

Foster cross-group peer review. Students will appreciate hearing what other groups are doing and can get ideas for their own projects. For example, have students share their milestones or group work with another group and have them record questions and feedback in a real-time collaborative document. Review that document to provide feedback to the entire class, saving you from giving feedback to each group. This can be done as a workshop activity in Moodle.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at For support with collaborative technology, email

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Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times.

Kelly, R. (2008, August 11). Creating trust in online education, Faculty Focus.

Kennedy, F. A., and Nilson, L. B. (2008). Successful strategies for teams. Team Member Handbook. Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation, Clemson University.

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

Salmons, J. (2019). Learning to collaborate, collaborating to learn: Engaging students in the classroom and online. Sterling, VA: Stylus.