How Group Dynamics Affect Student Learning


The research is clear: students can learn from and with each other in groups. But that learning is not the automatic, inevitable outcome of small group interactions. Dysfunctional group dynamics, such as free riding, leadership problems, poor time management, and unaddressed conflict frequently compromise learning outcomes. Faculty have tackled these problems with a variety of strategies, but few of their approaches have been tested empirically. The study below starts by exploring details of group dynamics that may counter some of these dysfunctions.

The study

Theobald, E. J., Eddy, S. L., Grunspan, D. Z., Wiggins, B. L., & Crowe, A. J. (2017). Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter. PLoS ONE, 12(7). [Open access]

The research questions

  • Does having a group member who dominates discussion help or hinder individual efforts to master the content? Does being comfortable in the group or working with a friend make it easier to learn?
  • Do structured activities that encourage interdependence and collaboration facilitate participation among group members better than loosely structured activities?

Interesting background information

Students who participate minimally or not at all in groups compromise their groups’ overall effectiveness. Do we know what prevents them from joining the interaction? We have some ideas. Group members who dominate discussion can discourage others from speaking up. Typically, students who talk too much are bright, articulate, and worried about the grade. They may make less confident students feel uncomfortable in the group, worry that they aren’t as smart as the others, and fear saying something stupid. Sometimes being the only one in a group—the only female, person of color, or engineering major, for example—makes it hard to participate. Finally, the amount of individual participation may depend on the task itself. If it calls for open-ended discussion or debate or if the grading stakes are high, those design features may encourage one or several students to dominate the group’s interaction. By contrast, a task that is structured so that each group member is responsible for part of the solution can encourage more equitable participation.

The study cohort

The cohort consisted of 770 pre-science, health, and engineering students enrolled in two sections of an introductory biology course.

Methodology overview

Students in one section participated in a group activity that involved completing a worksheet independently and then conferring with other students about the results. Students in the second section completed a type of jigsaw activity. They worked through one section of the worksheet independently, conferred with other students who also completed that section, and then formed a new group in which each member shared results from their section. Eight pre- and post-test questions were used to assess students’ conceptual knowledge of the topic. Finally, all students took a survey to assess their perceptions of the group experience (Wiggins et al., 2017). Data analysis occurred via a complex model designed through a backward selection process.

Key findings

  • “We found that students demonstrate lower content mastery (measured by a post-test) when agreeing more that someone dominated their group than when agreeing less that someone dominated their group.”
  • If students reported that they were comfortable in their groups, content mastery increased by 27.5 percent. Working with a friend was the single biggest predictor of comfort within the group. Working with that friend, however, had no impact on test question performance.
  • Students were 67 percent less likely to agree that someone dominated their group when they participated in the jigsaw version of the group activity.

Cautions and caveats

The jigsaw activity included specific prompts. Each student was told to explain their section to the rest of the group. That made for equal participation. So it may have been less about doing the task in a group and more about following instructions that caused the results. Additionally, students formed their own groups in this study. This random method of forming groups may have resulted in a disproportionate number of groups of a particular type—groups with lots of students who were friends, for example. Finally, the cohort consisted of STEM students, who may not be representative of students in all fields.

Practical implications (what you might want to do about the findings)

The design details of a group task influence how the group does its work. In the study, the tasks were reasonably complex but not impossible. Challenging tasks make the benefits of working with others more clearly obvious. If a task requires input from everyone, that greatly improves the chances that everyone will participate, but jigsaw models can diminish the amount of free-flowing, back-and-forth discussion.

A comfortable group environment makes it easier for students to communicate, and this study demonstrates the value of being in a group with friends. But letting students form their own groups is not without some risks. Groups of friends have trouble transitioning from social to work relationships, and friend groups are typically not very diverse.

In sum, this important research begins the process of sorting out the causes of and cures for group dysfunction. Its answers are less prescriptive solutions than promising possibilities for individual teachers to explore.

A survey that teachers can use to assess students’ group work experiences was developed and validated in research related to this study. It’s a great diagnostic tool. You can find it in the open-access article below.

Related research

Wiggins, B. L., Eddy, S. L., Wener-Fligner, L., Freisem, K., Grunspan, D. Z., Theobald, E. J., . . . Crowe, A. J. (2017). ASPECT: A survey to assess student perspective of engagement in an active-learning classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(2). [Open access]