Managing Student Groups in the Online Course

A photo of a computer lab classroom.

Working in groups is possibly one of the most difficult aspects of a learning situation, and it is something that many students (and instructors!) can be resistant to. However, most of our work in the real world is not typically conducted solo, so providing students with opportunities to practice working together in the course environment can be helpful in preparing them for their future classes and careers.

With some forethought and management, group work can be a way to help students become more competent in not only the skills for the course but also interpersonal skills they will need for future jobs and experiences. Providing materials that help to organize and clarify expectations for group work can relieve anxiety and help enhance the experience of everyone involved.

In their book, Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community, Palloff and Pratt (2005) provide a good outline of what is needed to prepare for and manage successful group interaction online. In preparing students for group activities, it is important to:

  • Set the stage: Provide information and explanation that will help students fully understand that parameters of the group activity.
  • Create the environment: Provide information on where students should meet and conduct their work (for example, the discussion forum, group area, an external tool such as a wiki, etc.).
  • Model the process: Work throughout the course to model collaborative behavior in a way that students can see (be visible interacting on the discussion forum, provide timely feedback, essentially demonstrate all the qualities normally expected from a good group member).
  • Guide the process: Explain how you will be involved in the process during group work and check in periodically to ensure that things are progressing for each group.
  • Evaluate the process: Take time at the end of the activity to evaluate whether the activity addressed the outcomes that you wanted it to, as well as things that went well and things that can be improved.

Setting the stage for successful group work can be done in many ways, but one of the most effective is to begin by explaining to students what you expect from the group: how they should interact, how to plan for sharing responsibilities and the use of their time, and how to handle accountability issues. Palloff and Pratt also share some suggestions for how to think about and create guidelines and expectations, including ideas such as:

  • Communicating that working within a group is a requirement, rather than allowing some students to resist and work individually.
  • Creating small groups of five or less learners based on the purpose of the project.
  • Integrating group level ice-breaking and team-building activities to help form community.
  • Providing clear instructions for not only the assignment but also any technologies that will be used.
  • Supervising the work that is going on within the groups and being prepared to intervene as needed.
  • Having groups share their product with the rest of the class.

Adding an element of peer evaluation as an aspect of the overall activity grade is also a technique that can work well. Many instructors create an additional participation rubric so that group members can “grade” each other on how well they worked within the group. Typically, this portion of the individual’s grade is substantial enough to be a motivator, and often an average of all the group member’s responses for an individual is used as a portion of the student’s final group participation score. Here is an example of a group rubric that could be modified for a variety of situations:

Directions: Each student is required to submit a completed grading rubric for each member of their specific group, including one for himself/herself. The points will be totaled and averaged for each group member. The score will be added to the instructor’s grading rubric to contribute 5 points to the total participation score. If a student does not turn in the grading rubrics, the 5 points possible will be deducted from their personal score.






Group member participation

Participated actively all of the time

Participated actively most of the time

Participated actively some of the time

Did not actively participate

Group member communication

Communicated effectively and on time

Communicated adequately and on time

Communicated inadequately or not on time

Rarely communicated or did not communicate

Group member preparation for group work

Was fully prepared for group work all of the time

Was fully prepared for group work most of the time

Was fully prepared for group work some of the time

Was not prepared for group work most of the time

Group member dependability and responsibility

Completed assigned tasks on time and in the agreed manner

Completed most assigned tasks on time and in the agreed manner

Did not complete some of the assigned tasks or did not complete some in the agreed manner

Did not complete the assigned tasks or did not complete them in the agreed manner

How effectively your group worked together on this assignment




Not at all


An additional way to ensure that groups get off to a good start is to create group agreements at the beginning of the course. These can be “contracts” that are created by the instructor or the students, and which the group members adhere to. The main goal here is for transparency in interaction and responsibilities. Palloff and Pratt include some suggestions for areas that groups may want to consider, such as:

  • the way the group will communicate (email, discussion forum, etc.);
  • the time frame in which members should be expected to respond to emails and other communications;
  • who is responsible for various duties; and
  • how non-participation will be handled.

The time spent working on these group agreements at the beginning of the course can help ensure that all members are engaged in the process and have a clear understanding of what is expected from them. This can help relieve much of the anxiety related to group work and create a better sense of community.

You also need to plan for challenges that may arise. Even with the best of preparation, it is possible that group conflicts will arise during the semester, so having a plan for how you will deal with them is important. Here are some questions to think about:

  • How will you handle technical difficulties that come up? It is important to have a back-up plan in case networks or tools become unavailable.
  • At what point will you intervene in a group conflict due to non-participation? What will you require the group members to do to work this out before you intervene?
  • How will groups restructure if a student drops the course? How will this affect the division of work within the group and any peer scoring that might be in place?

While you can’t plan for every eventuality, thinking through some of these questions ahead of time will help tighten up your plan for group work in your course. And, with some planning and foresight, you can create a setting in which groups work well together and as part of the larger community.

Lastly, you need to be mindful of the kinds of tools that you require or encourage groups to use when working collaborative. When selecting tools for groups to use, think carefully about which outcomes of your course the group work applies to and choose tools that will best help students meet those outcomes. You may want to visit with your instructional consultant to learn more ways in which you can manage student groups online.


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Palloff, R.M., & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online: Learning together in community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.