Designing Group-Based Learning Activities for Online Courses (Part 2)

In May's issue, I discussed the necessary considerations for designing group-based learning activities for online courses. Here, I give concrete examples that can be used to craft different types of group-based learning activities for your classes. For each type of activity, remember to consider the three design elements discussed in the previous article: 1) group formation, 2) group roles, and 3) group conflicts.

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In May's issue, I discussed the necessary considerations for designing group-based learning activities for online courses. Here, I give concrete examples that can be used to craft different types of group-based learning activities for your classes. For each type of activity, remember to consider the three design elements discussed in the previous article: 1) group formation, 2) group roles, and 3) group conflicts. Shared artifacts (i.e., wikis, websites, historical timelines, bibliographies, slideshows) This activity centers on the curation and synthesis of existing materials. The instructor assigns the type of artifact and the group picks the topic, or vice versa. Have students self-select or assign them to groups depending on their interests and skill levels. This activity is great for projects that run throughout a semester. Example #1: Ask students to work in groups to create a resource directory or online annotated bibliographies on a subject. Students form groups and use cloud-based documents that can be viewed with a link by other students. Example #2: Ask students to work in groups to create a wiki within your learning management system (LMS). The wiki is a web-based document that allows for a collection of webpages with text, images, videos, and links. Each student in the group is responsible for a page or two in the wiki. Each group wiki is then listed on a page on the course website. Project-based (i.e., product) This activity centers on developing a product from scratch. Assign groups depending on students' interests and skill levels or give students time to form their own groups. In this activity, there is a heavy focus on group communication, coordination, and collaboration over time. Example #1: Ask students to work in groups to produce an infographic, blog, website, interactive presentation, mobile app, or product prototype. If the class is a nontechnical one, have students use cloud-based tools to minimize the stress of having to learn new technology to create the product. For instance, there are plenty of online tools to create products. For infographic products, students can use easel.ly.com, canva.com, and piktochart.com. For websites, students can use weebly.com or wix.com. For blogs, students can use blogspot.com and wordpress.com. Example #2: Ask students to work in groups to create information-based or theory-based projects such as research studies or frameworks. The main idea here is that students work in groups to create something of use. For instance, in an education class, preservice teachers can work in groups to create an action research study that proposes a lesson plan for classroom teachers; psychology students can work in groups to create a diagnostic survey to be used by therapists in the field. Group discussion forums This activity focuses on knowledge sharing, where students participate in small discussion forums throughout the semester or for a particular assignment. In the first type of group forum, you assign students based on their backgrounds, experience, and interests. You can survey students to obtain this information. This type of activity is good for upper-level classes where students can delve into topics, articles, best practices, and so on. Sometimes, this method can be time consuming and more artificial if the class is large. In most cases, I prefer for the students to form their own groups, which makes the exercises more organic and natural. In the ad-hoc group, the students gather themselves into a discussion thread (room) based on their own position or stance on a topic. This version of the group discussion closely models “communities of practice,” where people share their knowledge, opinions, and best practices with like-minded peers. While assigning groups can accomplish the same communities of practice, I believe it is much more impactful when the students do it themselves. I've noticed that the students who form their own communities of practice in my online classes seem closer and more willing to support each other throughout the semester. In one class, students formed a community of practice around an assignment at the beginning of the semester and then used the same group on their own to form an online study group for the midterm. Example #1: Assign students to groups based on a debate on a topic. The groups can explore viewpoints on the topic area and then present materials to support their point of view. In my computer classes, I've used this exercise to have students explore technology-related rulings from court cases. For instance, one topic that I use is court cases involves electronic monitoring in the workplace, specifically the ability of companies to store data from personal calls and texts made by their employees on company-issued computers and cell phones. All students will read a court ruling and then answer initial questions clarifying the findings. I then create two discussion threads that present various sides of a case. I assign students to discussion threads to take sides and present supporting evidence by researching similar cases or case studies. Once in the thread, students discuss their position on the topic. At the end of the assignment, the students will present a summary post with bullet points on what they discussed. Assigning students to groups forces them to take on a perspective about the case and defend it. Example #2: Have students form communities of practice to investigate aspects of a topic. Then, the groups will use the forum to present their findings. A favorite exercise in my class is the forum on green computing. I divide the topic into three aspects—corporate/government programs or initiatives, tips for recycling electronic devices (i.e., computers, cell phones), and environmental impact. In the LMS, I create a discussion forum with three threads or “rooms.” Students self-select into groups to research each aspect of the topic. Students are encouraged to use their own best practices and experiences from work and personal life. Students are also encouraged to use text, images, animations, and videos they find to express their findings. Therefore, the final discussion rooms are all rich with information once the assignment is done. In my class, we run this assignment for only two to three weeks, and then students use the material as a resource for the midterm and final project. Group coaching (i.e., peer-to-peer) This activity involves students assessing each other's work. Assign students to groups based on their interests, experience, and backgrounds. Students participate in reviewing, assessing, and coaching each other on assignments. Run group coaching throughout the semester for multiple assignments. I recommend group coaching on draft assignments. Students receive feedback from the group on their drafts and then submit the final assignments. Grade students for actual assignments and for their participation in the group coaching. Example #1: Have students self-select or assign groups to conduct peer reviews throughout a semester. Students can conduct formal peer reviews by using checklists that you create to guide them in reviewing work, or you can ask students to comment on the work of other students. I like to put students into groups to comment on each other's work and the work of other students outside of the group. What I've found from peer coaching throughout the entire semester is that students familiar with one another will become supportive and more honest about assessing each other. Thus, this close-knit group of peers becomes a cohesive group that students can depend on. I've even found that students will ask for the opinion of their classmates informally in the class forums. This is very common in online courses where many of the students are more mature and want to help each other through the online learning experience. Example #2: Have students conduct evaluations of other students' work. This is helpful if the class teaches evaluation methods as a learning component. In many fields, such as education, psychology, and instructional design, doing formal evaluations is important. By doing these with peer coaches in class, students gain a great deal of career experience. I've used this example in my web design classes that require students to create a website and then create an evaluation tool such as an online survey for other students to assess their project. For instance, Groups A, B, C, and D develop their websites. Then, each group asks at least two other groups to evaluate their website. The group receiving the feedback will then collect their evaluations and present the feedback in an executive summary that describes the product they created, the feedback they received from the other groups, and improvements they recommend based on the feedback. In an education class, the “product” could be a lesson plan. In a psychology class, the “product” could be an assessment tool. Angela Heath teaches online computer courses at Baptist Health Systems in San Antonio, Texas.