Day 1: Exploring collaborative and group learning

This course is written and facilitated by Russell Waldron and Karlene Dickens from ANU Online.

Welcome to this Espresso Course on collaborative and group learning! In today’s post, we will review pedagogical reasons to create a group and focus on issues common to collaborations designed by lecturers and tutors.

Is this course itself a collaborative learning experience? That depends on you! We’re looking forward to reflecting together on your experiences and insights in the blog posts.

Note: We are specifically not talking about cheating – the inappropriate collaboration that breaks the trust between students and their institution.

Why design learning in groups?

There is growing evidence for the relative effectiveness of collaborative group learning (Weiman, 2014), along with other student-centred, active learning strategies.

Group work can:

  • promote more student engagement,
  • replace some direct instruction by the lecturer or tutor,
  • foster a deeper understanding of course concepts,
  • allow students to exercise some choice over content and strategy,
  •  allow for more complex tasks and projects to be assigned.

Moreover, group work provides the setting for peers to provide formative feedback – reducing the summative assessment burden on instructors.

Teamwork is often mentioned in graduate attributes at many universities, and is highly valued by employers. The challenge of communicating and working well within a team calls for meta-cognition, empathetic imagination and self-regulation.

Group and collaborative learning can help students develop a cluster of skills that are translatable to a work context including:

  • Rapport building
  • Time management
  • Project/complex task management
  • Delegation
  • Sharing of knowledge with peers
  • Supporting others’ learning journey
  • Creative problem-solving and risk-taking
  • Support diverse perspectives

Groupwork and collaborative learning works best when it is:

  • Well-designed
  • Aligns with learning objectives
  • Actively supported and supervised


Notable models to consider when designing a group:

The Jigsaw Method assigns each team member to research one chunk of content, prepare with other students assigned to that topic; then return to teach their team, who are each assessed on all content. This is typically used for prolonged, structured, multidisciplinary projects. Dr Chris Browne explains the use of Jigsaw in Engineering at ANU.



Problem-based learning uses a less structured, problem-case to challenge a group to make its own plans, self-allocate individual research tasks, then seek a consensus solution to present or discuss with a mentor. This method is famously associated with Maastricht University medical school.




Authentic projects engage students on real-world projects from business, government or the broader community. Students recruit peers into multiskilled teams and engage directly with a client from start to finish. Risk management can be complex, so these teams are supported by frequent meetings with an academic or industry mentor. This concept underpins the Techlauncher program at ANU.



Competitive performance teams prepare to meet a real-time challenge such as a Moot (Law), Hackathon (Engineering) or Olympiad (Science). Photo via Wikimedia.




Role plays call students to rehearse skills and reflexivity through inhabiting imagined identities and experiences with each other, actors, and simulations. Other examples.




Informal study groups give students experience joining and building a community of practice – a behaviour which is likely to be crucial later in their professional practice.




Resistance: Why students may hate groups

We need to keep in mind that that by the time students enter higher education, they may have experienced groups not working well and thus may resist being part of a group/s in future.

Student concern Strategy
Academic risk is real, as students’ grades and learning become dependent on others’ effectiveness. Make the expected standard obvious, and provide early formative feedback.
Social risks such as reputational and personal safety are unequal, and yet depend on all members of a team. Be explicit about norms for peer support, and provide support options for students
Inequity can arise from circumstances of one team member, and can trigger conflict or other mishaps. Be explicit about expectations for handling diversity of circumstances and needs and the support options available.
Workload can be inflated by “coordination costs” and the learning load of the group. Choose tasks in which group-effects help individuals. (Nokes-Malach et al 2015)

Great groups

What is the secret of a great group experience? There are many, but perhaps students most need to know this: in order for students to succeed in collaborative learning, they have to succeed in team-building. We will discuss this in detail in Day 2!

Discussion Question

Describe a positive group learning experience that you participated in. What do you think made it work so well? Is there anything else that could have made it more successful?



Nokes-Malach, T.J., Richey, J.E. & Gadgil, S.(2015)  When Is It Better to Learn Together? Insights from Research on Collaborative Learning. Educ Psychol Rev 27: 645. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-015-9312-8

Weiman, C.E., (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (23), 8319-8320. http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/111/23/8319.full.pdf

58 thoughts on “Day 1: Exploring collaborative and group learning

  1. I’m currently on a conference organising committee and it’s working really well. I think the reason is that we all volunteered, thus are individually motivated to be there. In addition, we assigned tasks during the first meeting and have each worked well independently to achieve them. Thus, having clear group guidelines and expectations from the outset has been useful.

    1. Hi Angela,

      Thanks for your story. “Self-organising teams” are great! I think you have pinpointed a team superpower: volunteering. It sounds like you had choices, both to join the committee, and to take on individual tasks. It takes planning and skill to protect student agency in collaborative work. This is something we’ll discuss tomorrow.

      All the best,

  2. Hello everybody,

    Before sending any comment on course content, and considering this course promotes collaborative, group-based interaction, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Rey, I am professor and researcher (https://www.linkedin.com/in/reysgp) at University of Informatics Sciences, in Havana, Cuba (https://www.uci.cu). I have been before in this kind of courses, delivered by ANU, and usually, I have enjoyed the experience.


    1. Hi Rey,

      Great to hear from Havana! Many Australian universities aim for students to graduate with “teamwork” skills – often not clearly defined. Is that also a goal of universities in Cuba?

      Best regards,

      1. In Education, I think, the determination of different approaches to methods, methodologies, strategies, and other components, have three different ways to be obtained: top – down (from theories to practices, the deductive way), bottom – up (from practice to theories, or at least, to good or better practices, or to idea system; it is the inductive way). Finally, both approaches can be combined into a mixed one.

        For historical reasons, most of our institutions follow the cultural historical approach (and Activity theory). Both considering collaboration as one of the key factors in learning. Of course, some have good results, other no so good, one thing is the theory, other, much more difficult is the practice.

        Particularly my University, where all faculties are computer science related (one for CS applied to Medicine, other for CS applied to industry, other to e-Commerce and e-Government and so on), the collaboration is not only a way of learning, it is a key skill for specialists; as you know, tasks in Computer Science, (except in “toys projects”) need a wide range of roles, to develop the full software cycle.

    2. Hi Rey! Lovely to have someone here from Cuba! Havana is beautiful!!!!! I spent about a month living in Baracoa. I have fond memories of Cuba. 🙂

      1. Hi Jules! thank you for your kind words. Baracoa is a nice place, very different from the rest of Cuba, at least by its natural environment; even, sometimes, we feel that people are, in some sense, different too. Might be because they were relatively isolated during first centuries after its foundation by Spaniards. Baracoa was founded in 1511, the first city in Cuba. I was there many years ago, during two weeks, playing in a chess tourney. I really liked it.



  3. I have been involved in some group papers that everybody brought a speciality to the table. We were able to combine that unique expertise to present various sides of the issue, with a few people whose designated role was to synthesize and combine knowledge from various fields. I think this made everyone feel valued, because their knowledge was needed, but we also got to learn from others, and thus accomplish something we could not have done by ourselves.

    1. Hi Danny,

      Thanks for your story. Co-writing can be a very high-level challenge, and can be a very satisfying (or very frustrating) experience. It’s great to be in a group that achieves “synergy” like that. I hope students are hearing that story! Tomorrow we’ll look at who and what goes into a team, and definitely pick up on that issue of making everyone feel valued.

      Best regards

  4. For a course in educational technology I had to do a group project where we used some tool to teach something. My group produced an interactive scenario for students to explore. I did not think much of the tool we used or its usefulness for teaching, but I learned a lot from my fellow team members.

    It worked well because we were from completely different backgrounds (I found it difficult working in a team with someone like me). As we were on different continents, we used Skype to talk in real time wile group editing a document using Google Docs. Like most students I am wary of group work and would have avoided it if I could have, but after being forced into it enjoyed it (especially as this was the only time I got to speak to another student).

    The team exercise could have been better if we had received some training on working in teams and were asked to explicitly reflect on the team experience (teamwork was not a learning objective).

    However, it was useful to experience the advantages and frustrations of working in teams as a student. This helps with my tutoring ANU TechLauncher. I have two teams this semester, starring this-afternoon. One team is building a database for an archaeologist and the other a software tool to test military radars, making this authentic problem-based learning. There is some competition, as teams present their work in front of other teams. But they are also encouraged to cooperate, with one team shadowing another, providing advice.

    1. Hello Tom

      Thanks for that reflection. I wonder how often universities provide training on working in teams, even when teamwork is a learning objective! It’s great to hear from the ANU Techlauncher – we’ll mention it again on Day 3. Striking a balance that combines cooperation and competition is quite an art!

      Best regards

  5. Hello Rey, introductions are a good idea. I am an Honorary Lecturer in ANU’s Research School of Computer Science in Canberra. This semester I am teaching “ICT Sustainability” on-line and tutoring project teams face-to-face (as mentioned in my previous post). We had a flash flood on the weekend, with my apartment’s basement and part of the university underwater. It looked like we might have to switch to e-learning for a while, but most of the campus (and my basement) are now pumped out.

    1. Hello Tom, we had a similar situation here, when Hurricane Irma “visited” almost all northern part of the island. But it included, water from the sky (raining) and from the sea (due the strong winds). But we could recover in several days, and we could continue our normal activities (at least in educational institutions; others were in worse conditions, specially those located near the sea).

  6. Hi everyone,
    I am a Lecturer in Nursing at the University of Canberra. I am currently convening a pathophysiology unit and teaching a clinical based unit. We are in the process of transitioning into a new curriculum with a concept-based learning framework. The units I am teaching are from the ‘old curriculum’ and are being run for the last time. These student however will be doing their final year in the new curriculum and as such I have redesigned the unit using concept-based learning to support their transition. This was also done last semester and the design was done by a small team. This was a fantastic experience as we all had to reflect on our own teaching philosophies and ‘make the shift’ to a very different pedagogy in our own way, just like the student would. It was fascinating seeing how individual experiences, perceptions and values came into play to tackle challenge of taking complicated content, identifying key concepts and reframing the activities around the concepts. This truly felt collaborative and gave us a great insight into what the student’s may experience when presented with the same challenges. It was also cool to see how we went about identifying concepts. It was very fluid in nature, lots of brain dumping, concept mapping, remapping, more remapping, coffee and hi-fives once we finally got there!

    1. Hi Courtney

      Wow! Thanks for that vivid description of the feeling of synergy in a great collaboration! I think students need to hear this; it is quite possible to get to university without imagining that this is possible in academic work. It’s much more the Australian Diamonds than the Marvel Avengers.

      In Day 2 we’ll talk about forming the team, and I’d love to hear your thoughts: when did you know the team was going to be good?

      Best regards

    2. I must add to Courtney’s Comment – it was such a satisfying and enriching feeling as the facilitator to watch all the work pan out and “click” in the students minds and I must say our own too!

  7. I love multi-disciplinary groups. I think when people from the same discipline get together there is greater tendency to argue over detail or even compete for input whereas people from different disciplines bring genuinely different perspectives to a problem. Part of the reward of working in such a group is that I sense that people from other disciplines genuinely value my input.

    1. Hi Phil!

      Great to hear a vote for cross-discipline work, where the team combines the virtues of specialism and a generalist. Is there a secret to making the differences tolerable and welcome? I think you’ve pinpointed a key contributory behaviour – genuinely valuing the input of other people. We’ll probe that a bit more tomorrow.

      Best regards

  8. Hi
    As a student, I was involved in teamwork. Like many of my students now my experiences varied from having a great experience (including making new friends) to stressful and unproductive sessions.
    I learnt a lot about myself and how I approach work and the expectations I have in outcomes when it comes to studies. I can honestly say that I probably learnt more about collaboration and tolerance in the more challenging experiences than I did when I worked in groups where my collaborators had the same or similar work ethic to my own.
    Despite my own feelings at the time, whether in what I considered to be a good or bad group experience, the measurable outcomes were good (and, in fact, in most instances excellent!). Looking back now it shows me that being able to successfully negotiate and develop strategies that work for myself when working with others whose approach is different, meant that overall it was a good experience and I came away with some additional “working with others” skills that I didn’t have before. For example, learning to trust that the person would get their bit done and not stress because they didn’t get it done in the time frame I would have.
    I’d be interested to see where this course goes and how far it delves into the concept of collaborative learning in the online space.

    1. Hi Helen, thanks for that intriguing reflection – that measurable outcomes can be good regardless of the climate in a group!
      Collaborative learning online is certainly something distinct from co-learning in a physical room. In the espresso course format we’re deliberately brief, but in Day 3 we will mention a scatter of models and it would be great to discuss further either in the comments or in another forum.

      Best regards

  9. Hi everyone,
    Let me share with you about one of the best experiences in collaborative learning that I have experienced and still experiencing. Five of our friends (some of whom have finished their PhD and some are still doing) have created a study community since 2017 and the group is going stronger every day. How does it work? Almost every day (sometimes even on weekends), we get together in one of our friend’s apartment (who is about to submit her thesis) and work together. Before starting our work, we share our goal for that day. We then use pomodoro technique to keep us focused. In every break, we either do some stretching and/or toss our ideas to clear any confusion or generate ideas for our work. We also share each other on the progress that we make. We take turns to cook lunch each day. At the end of the day, we report back to each other on our progress/completion of our goals. Usually, once or twice a week, we go to the National Library or someone else’s place to work. This change of location refreshes our minds and motivation.

    For about a year, this collaboration is working very well for us. It not only helps us to focus on our work but also fosters peer learning. We often read each others’ work and provide peer comments on anything and everything we do, starting from thesis chapters or articles that we write, or even job applications. It has been a wonderful experience so far.

    1. Joyce, that’s fantastic! Shared kinaesthetic and sensate experiences, meeting in a home, eating together, and preparing food for each other, are all thresholds to a greater connection or intimacy, not mentioned much in guides given to students. Did this evolve naturally, or was there a conscious application of cultural or anthropological understandings?

      Best regards

      1. Hey Russell,
        I think the start of this group was a conscious effort. But once it was formed, it has evolved more organically. For example, the cooking for each other came after sometimes. Now we have a roaster each week who is joining the group when and who is cooking when.

  10. Working in a Career Centre we offer group projects and workshops to a number of students particularly leading up to the graduate recruitment period. One that is often popular is the mock assessment centres (similar to the Authentic projects/Problem Based Learning approaches). We often work with students in advance to attending these simulated assessments and encourage them to consider a variety of ways they can participate (beyond taking the lead or contributing verbally) including considering inclusive body language or performing other key activities (that are valued in the workplace) such as taking notes, coordinating the final presentation or playing the role of time keeper. In this context people are developing skills in team work and importantly demonstrating their ability to think logically and communicate effectively as these are often the skills employers are looking for (more so than reaching the ‘best’ outcome of whatever the group challenge happens to be). Students have often provided us with feedback indicating that by being encouraged to shift their focus from “simply trying to contribute” to “thinking about broad ways to help the group reach success” (such as those outlined above), interestingly they feel more confident and are able to achieve more individually within the group context.

  11. Hi everyone!

    As my time as an undergraduate student at the ANU, I participated in a multidisciplinary course called “creating knowledge”. It really sticks out as a great experience in collaborative learning. One group task we completed was creating video game controllers from makey-makey boards. I think that the group learning experience was positive, as it allowed each member of the team to comment and contribute on a concrete problem, providing their own disciplinary expertise.

    I remember once learning about the “zone of proximal development”, where the problem/challenge to be solved has to be within reach of the individuals current knowledge state. I think that in the group learning experience I participated in, perhaps alone, the task of creating a game controller would have been outside of my ZPD, but together, we were, able to combine knowledge to solve the problem together – that is why it was so rewarding.

    Now that I am beginning to lecture courses, I want to be able to bring some of these problem based, or collaborative learning experiences into my teaching. I think it is a great way to apply the knowledge we consume at university. However, I can see that one issue with these sorts of techniques is trying to introduce structure into the learning experience, to ensure that learning outcomes are achieved.


    1. Bec, the ZPD is a particularly relevant concept in social learning. The grandfather of the theory, Vygotsky, described children’s interaction with a “More Knowledgeable Other”, who is sometimes a teacher but often another student, demonstrating and then allowing the learner to try with diminishing guidance and correction until independently successful.
      Good luck with problem-based learning. I look forward with interest to your findings.

      Best regards

  12. Hi Angela!
    I’m on that same organising committee and I attribute our success and the general enjoyment of the experience to that same key feature, volunteering. No one was forced to participate and we each selected a task that was manageable and enjoyable. I’ve participated in other organising groups with a similar dynamic and I’ve found that it relies on at least one person taking a lead role. The lead organiser is either selected purposefully or one emerges from the ranks. In a learning scenario, this could cause problems wherein one student feel like he/she is doing to heaviest lifting. For a volunteer-like dynamic to work in a learning environment, the educator could instruct the students to consider not just the roles but the work load associated with those roles. This would give the students power over their learning as well as support growth in project management, time management, and delegation.

    1. Cool: Triangulation!
      Hi Erin. Thanks for confirming and bringing these thoughts on volunteering. It can be tempting to forestall conflict by designing the group and process for students in detail, so much that their sense of agency and autonomy is compromised.
      Priming the students with consideration of workload sounds wise. High performing teams divide up the work fairly – not necessarily equally – and then go further; they share the load of adjustment as their task and circumstances evolve. We’re going to think more about conditions for this relational work in Day 2.
      Best regards,

  13. Hi everyone.

    I noticed that the PTD program and the tutor training sessions in our own college emphasize more and more on group work. I benefited a lot from collaborative learning both as a student and as a tutor.

    The story is that I just came back from a colleague’s first tutorial. She divided the class into small groups to work on the tutorial questions. But maybe because some essential items were not covered in the lectures, or the course itself is intense and abstract, few students were engaged in this collaborative learning. The tutor was encouraging and eager to help. The classroom was in a complete silence three minutes later. I had exactly the same experience last semester as a student. The tutor tried hard to promote group work. But the students felt the course was too difficult and theoretical that they “have nothing to talk about” on the tutorial.

    My understanding is that our goal for group learning is to enhance the students’ learning experience. We should not do group learning for “group learning”.

    And my question is, how could we promote collaborative learning when the students are not prepared?

    1. Hi Sunny.

      Deadly silence in tutorials sure feels bad. Was this discussed in the PTD program?

      Personally, when I get surprised/disappointed in a tutorial I like to seize on it to trigger *collaborative thinking* about learning expectations and processes, and to model listening behaviours. “Well, folks, that’s not what I had in mind! What’s happening here? What were you expecting?”

      Looking through other comments here I see some hints about conditions for collaborative learning. The answer to unprepared students might involve reconsidering their sense of agency and control over their situation.

  14. Hi all,

    As a PhD student in the US, I was involved in a course that aimed to teach research skills through a semester-long group research project that began with raw data and ended with a publication (submitted and accepted or otherwise). Each group created the research question and then assigned tasks within the team. The groups met weekly to discuss their progress with the rest of the class but all the project work was left to us to manage at our discretion. It was very enjoyable and I learned so much. One reason it worked so well was that we were instructed to think about not just our strengths but our own learning objectives when dividing up the tasks. For example, I was in a group with a computer scientist but I asked to take on a heavy chunk of the bioinformatics work because I desperately needed hands on programming experience. Likewise, the computer scientist needed experience in developing biological models so he dug into the literature and wove together a testable biological model. So, even when the course became painfully difficult, I felt ownership over my part in the project and I knew I was going to get something out of it.



    1. Hi Erin,

      What a bold program! That’s a great example of adult learners trading to optimise both individual interests and the group’s mission. It sounds like the level of interdependence was constantly under negotiation either tacitly or explicitly: that’s real work, even though it may not be recorded. Terrific outcome!

      Best regards,


  15. Hi All

    I’m from the university of Canberra and part of the teaching team there.

    Great conversation on here – I didn’t know it existed. I picked up on a student experience in the conversation earlier:

    “The team exercise could have been better if we had received some training on working in teams and were asked to explicitly reflect on the team experience (teamwork was not a learning objective).” From Tom Worthington.

    From my experiences as part of team teaching, we have often toyed with the idea of teaching how to learn in addition to teaching the curriculum and Tom you seem to reflect this on the working in teams point.

    Perhaps the emphasis of new teaching and learning techniques to be successful, needs to be shared with the learners. The idea of concept based learning has prompted some critical discussions amoungst the teaching team and it’s been a vulnerable experience to really challenge the facilitators/educators/mentors to not only open their minds to a different method perhaps an uncomfortable one for themselves. As a promoter of role modelling, the question has often surfaced about role modeling our team approach and concept mapping approach for the learners to really grasp the idea of team or group work.

    Which brings me to your comment Russell regarding week 2… forming the team, and when do we know when the team is good. We all have own perspective and interpretation of standard and I think that would be an interesting exploration of dynamic collaboration and how do we create the environment for the vulnerability and genuine conversations to develop such a team and in turn a really great learning experience, where group work and team work is genuinely role modelled.

  16. Hello everyone,

    From undergraduate to postgraduate I always loved working groups, as I always believe outcomes of collaborative works are much better than individuals working separately. However, it all depends if we form the right groups. But a good question we can ask our selves is can we always form the right group for the work or can we do the work right with any group formation. I always encourage students to form their own groups rather depending on their lectures or tutors to form suitable groups.

    I also agree with Phill’s comment on multi-disciplinary groups. Recently I have attended a workshop that included researchers from three different disciplines. It was a great experience for me as I managed to learn many different things from other people. To improve the interactions between the participants the organizers also introduced several interactive sessions that follow a “speed-dating” approach where participants in short pair-wise discussions present to each other their background and interests and issues and challenges they see. I found this approach helped us to form more small informal groups which are more manageable than larger groups.

    1. Hi Thilina,

      That question of selecting the right team is a big one – see Day 2! The speed-dating approach is interesting: what was the plan for the “unwanted” students? Did this create “The Almight Ducks” – a team of remnants?

      Best regards,


      1. Hi Russell,

        I think the main idea of speed-dating approach was to allow all the participants (please note the participants are basically either PHD students or academics from different universities) to get to know each other, what they do in their research and what their interests are. This helps us to forms small groups very easily since we knew what part we have to play in each group. And of course the formation is flexible which helped us to change the group structure the way we want. For example, if we fell we lack in expertise in a specific are we can always join with another group to overcome that barrier.


  17. Hi Everyone,

    Some fantastic experiences and reflections are being shared here: thank you all very much for your contributions.

    I am currently engaged in a very positive group learning experience – participating in an online 4-week workshop (Introduction to Educational Change). The participants are mostly from the UK, with a few internationals (Australia, China, Germany). Participation in the course is via asynchronous discussion in online forums. So perhaps this is related to Helen’s query about “delve[ing] into the concept of collaborative leanring in the online space”.

    One of the reasons that I think the course I am participating in is working so well is that the design of the course explicitly starts each week with a discussion of values. This is scaffolded by asking us to comment and reflect on (with some specific questions to link our reflections back to our own contexts), in turn each week, one of the values statements of the organisation that is supporting the course (Staff and Educational Development Association, SEDA, UK – akin to HERDSA in Australia). The effect of this has been to open up a values dialogue with the group that establishes a common sense of ‘group agency’ that can carry forward the other discussions that we have. It has been a powerful means, for me, to ‘identify with the group’, and thereby commit to working with the group – which is quite remarkable I think, given this is fully online, asynchronous and none of us have ever met (and we have now ‘known’ each other for little over a week).

    This leads me to some reflections to share, and to ponder what others think about the labels of ‘teamwork’, ‘collaboration’, ‘groupwork/learning’ and ‘co–operation’, which have almost all been used in the posts thus far in this coffee course. We (in my SEDA course) are not working as a team, but there is definitely learning happening by virtue of being part of a ‘group’. We are not co-operating to ‘produce’ any artefact (yet?), although we are definitely working toward some common learning goals. Are we collaborating? What does that mean?

    What is the difference between ‘teamwork’ and ‘collaboration’? ‘Co-operation’? IS there a difference? Does it matter? Why?


    1. Great questions, Joe! Some educational literature does differentiate the degree and types of interdependence in Cooperative learning and Collaborative learning . Team-based learning is distinguished by mutuality not only of task but of identity. When you finish, will you say “I helped build the bridge” (a collaboration) or “I was one of the Royal Engineers” (a team)?

      It’s great having you on the ANU Online team!


  18. Hi Everyone
    There are some wonderful reflections posted so far in this course, and I am pleased to be able to read what others have shared. Thankyou.

    My positive experiences working in teams largely stem from problem based learning. When working with self motivated team members, I have found team work in this environment to be supportive and a ‘safe space’ to test ideas and strategies, without feeling judged or insecure. The ability to be able to gain the insight and views of other team members tends to help develop well considered and thoughtful approaches to solving problems. This has often meant that I have found myself working with ideas and strategies that I would not have necessarily come up with on my own, but with the benefit of team members, we were able to draw on a range of experiences and opinions to develop detailed strategies and solutions.

    I certainly encourage this approach with my teaching now, so that students are exposed to problem based learning and all that team work in this space can offer.


    1. Hi Tracey,

      It’s great that you have been able to find a “safe space” for learning in a PBL group, and harness the value of difference in the group. You’ve highlighted the importance of social/emotional/attitudinal elements of teamwork, which leads nicely into issues in Day 2. Thank you!

      Best regards,


  19. Hi All
    My name is Jules and I am with the Student Experience and Career Development team at ANU. It is really wonderful to see such diversity in the participants and experiences in this course!
    Personally, my favourite style of groupwork as a teaching tool is the Jigsaw method. The example given is much more complex than I am used to, but I used jigsaws a lot in language teaching and when large amounts of information needed to be read in a short amount of time. Giving individuals the responsibility of thoroughly reading and understanding to be able to provide a concise summary to other group members usually means a deeper understanding and that everyone has equal responsibility – the group can’t all rely on that one person who gets frustrated and takes on the majority of the work. I found students engaged well with this method and it provided better opportunities to work with more people. I also like it as a participant because I am not a fast reader and quickly lose concentration when reading large chunks.
    I also wanted to comment on PBL. I visited Maastricht University last year and was really impressed with how they use PBL. It is compulsory for all new students to attend PBL training during O-Week. I think this achieved two things; a great student experience where students felt connected and made friends, and students clearly understood the expectations for their studies. Maastricht felt wonderful. Students sitting around chatting everywhere and everyone was super friendly. Not sure if this was because of PBL or something else…(I was told I had brought exceptionally good weather with me and it was an unusually beautiful day). I did, however, meet with some ANU exchange students that were studying there and I asked them about their experiences with PBL. They felt that it was very similar to how their tutorials ran at ANU, but just took a lot longer to get to the point and into deeper discussion.

    1. Hi Jules

      Great to hear direct experience of teaching with Jigsaws and Problem Based Learning. That policy of actually providing training to all new students on the signature pedagogy of the university sounds, well, very sane! Fantastic if it is effective in making students feel connected to others and the university: surely that will reduce stress around all of the ordinary uncertainties of university study.

      Best regards


    2. Hi Jules
      Same here, I used jigsaws A LOT when I worked as a language teacher.
      Here is an example: my intermediate students (CEFR Level B2.1 Vantage) had a unit on natural disasters. I distributed four texts about different natural disasters amongst them. They read them at their own pace while marking important information. They then formed groups with students who had read the same text, and had to make sure each student in their group had understood the text. In the next stage, each student was matched with three others who had read a different text. They then had to ask each other questions to find out what the disaster was; e.g. “How is your disaster caused?”; “Where does your disaster occur?” They then guessed which disaster their classmate had read about. Worked really well!
      I also did some more complex jigsaw variations, but they’re a little tricky to explain. Might need to make a video like Chris Browne did 😉 (Really enjoyed that one, by the way!)

  20. Hi All,
    My last student experience was as a graduate student I had participated in a problem based group project in which we were assigned to develop an online learning unit. Each group member volunteered to take on roles and responsibilities. I think it worked well because we knew each other from class and had self selected to work with each other on this task. Also we each had similar dedication to seeing the project through to completion. I have been in spontaneous problem based group projects at conferences and some how those don’t seem to work. So I think an important part of group work is building the personal connection and communicating your dedication to the group or task.

  21. Hi Brent,

    Thanks for that reflection. Building the personal connection is real, significant work, a front-end investment in preparing the team for its task. You have pointed out a number of ways in which your group participants were able to make significant choice and experience agency – including recruiting, task allocation, and modulating the intensity of the work.

    “Communicating your dedication” is nicely phrased. I’ll use that!

    Best regards,


  22. Thank you, Russell. Your thoughts, together with Day 2 materials lead me to think over the case in a more structured way.

    The first point is that the group project should be well designed. Both of the tutors just asked the students to “work on the tutorial questions”. The students did not know what content they should discuss to what extent. A task such as “drawing a diagram to summarize last week’s lectures” might be more achievable in these difficult and abstract courses.

    Day 2 material reminded me an important factor in all my past successful group learning experiences: a good leader. In contrast, most groups in the disappointing tutorials didn’t have a leader. Ah, there! In one PTD discussion session where the group members were average, Glen observed the behavior of each member and picked out a representative. So it’s also the tutor/facilitator’s job to help construct a well-organizing group.

  23. I participated in a f2f group leadership course where collaborative learning exercises were the “gold”. It was in those exercises that real learning took place as we put into practice the theory behind coaching, process facilitation, active listening, devising smart plans etc.
    The small group collaborative model worked well for a number of reasons:
    1. TRUST – participants were willing to be vulnerable – I noticed those who weren’t dropped out of the course.
    2. DIVERSE VOICES FOR EFFECTIVE OUTCOMES – diversity in experience of leadership and leadership styles made for a rich range of perspectives to inform collaborative/negotiated solutions to problems posed.
    3. CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK – peer feedback and observations were kept neutral and included positive affirmation as well as critical analysis of performance
    4. PROGRESS/MOMENTUM – exercises were well structured to demonstrate the strengths of a range of approaches to, for example, managing difficult people – the progression week by week built skills effectively.
    4. APPLICATION OF LEARNING – the final task allowed each participant to determine which tools they would utilise from their personal leadership arsenal to address a particular challenge. By adopting an approach fitting their particular style or skills, participants explored unique ways to tackle the challenge which perfectly demonstrated that there is not a one size all approach to management/leadership. The opportunity to learn by doing and watching others was invaluable.

    1. Hi Imogen

      Wow! Thanks for sharing your insights about the leadership course – it sounds like a terrific learning experience! I really like how collaborative learning was integral to the course – it also sounds like it was well designed and structured to allow time for trust to build up as well as offering choice and autonomy at the optimal times plus opportunities for peer observation.
      Can I ask what was the duration of the course? Also, how was trust created in the group? Was it through more formalised activities, the facilitator approach or more informal avenues? Or a mix of the above?



  24. Hi There,

    My name is Samantha and I work in Student Experience at the ANU. I find group activities to be most effective in achieving the best possible outcome – ‘two minds are better than one’ so to speak. This is why I signed up for this course 🙂

    I am most interested in exploring the required interpersonal skills for a high functioning group. The basics of listening and appreciating a diversity of opinions can be more challenging than first thought. I feel this is another contributing factor to ‘resistance’, although not everyone in the group will openly admit this.

    This is why I find ice-breakers i.e. trust building exercises, prior to tackling a challenge as a group to be particularly useful (despite often being found annoying by students). It builds rapport and works to break down barriers, working to create an open and friendly learning environment. Once you know more about how a group interacts with each other, you can assign the most appropriate pedagogy.

    All food for thought!


  25. Hi everyone,

    Thank you for sharing all of your experiences. I am emboldened to tackle group-work again.

    In trying to recall a positive group learning experience, I realised that I had to trawl back to my undergrad days. The class had to form groups of 4-5 people to work on multiple assessments throughout the semester. Most students teamed up with their friends. However, a few groups, including ours, were made up of the leftover students. I noticed that year that most of the friendship groups struggled over the semester. Our group worked well, probably because we were all there for one reason: to get on with the assignment. We weren’t side-tracked by personal issues. We couldn’t rely on past histories. We all started on a level playing field, and had to prove to each other that we were reliable. Setting goals and expectations at the beginning might have improved things, and reduced the few issues that our group did face. However, we finished the semester as a tight-knit team, and the peer evaluations on each other were all positive.

    This leads me to the following question: Is my lack of positive experiences across 2 Masters and half a PhD a reflection of the poor learning opportunities, or of the poor teaching/understanding of how to build successful teams?

  26. Like most students, I must say that most of best learning experiences within a group context have come when I have known others in the group and when the personalities seem to just fit well together. It also helps if there are synergies in our skill set and working styles. While some of these features (e.g. synergetic skills) could be organized and worked out prior to the formation of groups, for the most part I have found the learning groups that I have been in and have come about this more through chance then through a coordinated effort to create this kind of group

    1. Hi David, this has been my experience as well, where some students seem to naturally “gel” and work well together and others struggle. In more recent group work I have organised, I have tended to approach it more with a “social engineering” approach where I purposefully try to put people together in certain ways to help create effective groups. But this was extremely time consuming for me as the teacher and I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend it for that reason. Besides, students do need to learn to work with all kinds of people, particularly when they are in a work environment. Interesting things to think about for the next few posts!

  27. I find one of the most important things in collaboration and group work is communication. All too often I see students who sign up to be on a team together and then don’t communicate at all, to the point where one person drops the course and the rest are unaware of this. Communication is of paramount importance throughout the project: from assigning roles so that everybody knows what their responsibilities are to evaluating progress or lack of it.

  28. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group project that worked really well unfortunately. Most of the projects I have done have resulted in one or two people doing the work for the rest of the group. However, I am a part of an informal study group which often hosts our own ‘writing retreats’. It’s an amazingly supportive group to balance the social and the study aspects of our lives. The group also sometimes gives each other feedback on written work such as article drafts, abstracts, etc, and we support each other through a lot of the university processes too. That type of collaboration has been really important to my time here at ANU.

  29. I’ve had very few positive group learning experiences. One of the good ones would be the group I had in one of my online classes. We were a group of 5, and 4 were working professionals. One of our groupmates was a fulltime student. Our group worked so well together because despite being situated in different continents, everyone was committed to make the group work. And we came from different backgrounds so we always had interesting discussions. Each of us were also willing to sacrifice when it came to meeting times. Because we lived in different time zones, we had to, at some point stay up either really late or wake up really early. Having one fulltime student who was so organized and willing to do more for the group was a bonus. Another success factor would be that we had roles to play in the project and someone was accountable for something. We would discuss, collaborate, argue, disagree, agree about things but at the end of the day, person 1 was in charge of part A, person 2 with part B and so on. The teacher checking up on our progress regularly was also a success factor. She would “eavesdrop” on what was going on in our group and offer suggestions. Her manner was not intrusive and she did say in the beginning that she was going to track our discussions just to see if we were on the right track.

  30. Positive group learning experiences…
    For the past four years, I have been co-convening regular intensive group workshops that each are structured over four days. When I stepped in as co-convenor, the formula had already been polished and honed in, such that this was regularly the highest-evaluated component of the Masters course overall and one of the selling points for the course. I have been very lucky to have been able to learn all about group work in ideal settings and can see how absolutely rich and rewarding the experience can be for students and teachers. 8 separate group exercises are spread out over the four days, ranging from simplest to most complex. The teaching staff very carefully allocate students to working groups, and I think this is one of two keys to our ongoing success, namely that from the start of theccourse we are scanning the room to allocate specific communication styles and aptitudes for different roles. The second key to success has been the mode of assessment. We originally did not assess any aspect of the workshops (although participaiton was mandatory). Then we moved to a model where students were assessed, not on the final negotiated outcome, but on their analysis after the workshop of their individual strategies and notably how they addressed the question, ‘what would you do differently next time?’.

  31. I really like the videos on jigsaw and problem based learning. I have used these methods before but not so purposefully. I plan to redesign group activities so students can more deliberately achieve better learning outcomes, thank you.
    Sometimes we assume that students know how to participate and behave in groups. I now get students to use a team charter so that clear expectations are defined for team roles & responsibilities, team culture, dealing with conflict, etc. Using a charter has helped in situations when teams were both randomly or self assigned. It has been particularly useful as a reflective tool when teams are ‘forming’ but I have recently discovered the need to also include processes to remind students to refer back to the document as a resource to help manage the teams throughout the project. Overall though I have had much less problems with teams after using a charter.

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