THE TRANSFORMED TEACHER – Group work (pt. 2). What’s in a name?

Group Work pt 2 header

I wrote a post in mid-October called, ‘Group work part 1 – Let’s get real.’ It focused on how students feel about group work, and using part 1 in the title implied there was going to be a part 2. I’m delivering on that promise.

I’ll be honest – I put off delving into group work again because I found the amount of information on the topic overwhelming. Daunting. Befuddling. And after poring through the literature, I still find the topic overwhelming, daunting, and befuddling.

Uff da!

But group work (in its many guises) is a core component of active, student-centered classes. It’s an effective tool. If you step away from lecturing, you’re likely to use some form of group work. So I’m pushing past my reluctance (ahem, fear) and probing further into this tangled topic.

The real experts.

Essentially all of the hard facts in this post are from a special issue of the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching (2014, Volume 25, Issues 3&4), called ‘Small-group learning in higher education – cooperative, collaborative, problem-based, and team-based learning.’ The introduction by the guest editors (Davidson et al. 2014), and the articles by Davidson and Major (2014) and Michaelsen et al. (2014) were especially illuminating. Maryellen Weimer also has an informative post on this topic (Faculty Focus, The Teaching Professor Blog, ‘Different Types of Group Work: Clearing up the Confusion’).

As the prevalence of group work proliferates, the associated terminology increases, as well as confusion about said terminology. Cooperative learning? Collaborative learning? Problem-based learning? Team learning? Team-based learning? Peer instruction? Perhaps even peer tutoring?

What’s the difference (and the point) (and why do we care)?

Question mark
Pixabay, qimono CC0, cropped

Part of the problem with aligning definitions and concepts related to group work is that the different paradigms have different origins. It’s challenging to communicate effectively with (well-known) friends and family, much less strangers who inhabit foreign academic realms. Forget Mars and Venus, we’re talking the Milky Way meets another galaxy.

The core four.
However, Davidson et al. (2014) have done an admirable job creating order from chaos, and indicate there are four main types of small-group learning approaches:

  1. Cooperative learning
  2. Collaborative learning
  3. Problem-based learning (PBL)
  4. Team-based learning (TBL)

These learning approaches promote: student engagement, individual accountability and responsibility, mutually helpful behavior, interdependence, content knowledge, and critical thinking skills. There are commonalities and overlap among the approaches, and pinning down exact definitions and attributes is an elusive prospect. Instead, here are some broad, general descriptions of the core four.

Cooperative learning.

Typically, teachers randomly or intentionally assign students to groups of 2-4 people and provide some structure (e.g., assign group roles, specify procedures, lead whole-class discussions following small-group activities). The focus is on students working together to accomplish a common goal in an interdependent, mutually helpful manner. Each person is “responsible for learning all parts of the material, not just their own piece” (Davidson et al. 2014). Teachers move among groups, providing assistance as needed. Most cooperative learning activities can be completed within one class period, and examples include: think-pair-share, timed pair share, three-step interview, and jigsaw.

Collaborative learning.

Usually, students take the lead in forming groups of 2+ people (typically 4-5), and groups are mostly self-managed. Collaborative groups tend to be less structured and operate more organically than cooperative groups. There is an enhanced emphasis on students taking responsibility for working together toward the same goal, although not necessarily interdependently. A common analogy is a play, where individuals are responsible for different aspects (e.g., costumes, lights, props, sound, acting), but everyone must work together to create the whole production.

start up
Pixabay, StartupStockPhotos CC0

Problem-based learning (PBL). 

The teacher puts 5-8+ people in a group (typically 5), or team, and these individuals often remain together for the entire semester. The teacher serves as a facilitator by asking questions and monitoring group progress and function. The focus is on students working together in a self-directed way to solve a complex, real-world problem. The problem comes first, and then students determine what information they need to solve the problem.

Team-based learning (TBL).

Like PBL, the teacher puts 5-7 people in a group, or team. These individuals remain together for the entire semester, and ideally will evolve into a self-managed team. There’s an emphasis on doing things that promote team building, such as members receiving prompt feedback on their performance. The entire class is usually structured to support TBL, and students usually cover content prior to class. Class time is primarily devoted to activities in which students use course content and concepts to solve real-life problems.

Most teachers use activities that blend the approaches.

You say po-tay-toe, I say po-tah-toe.

Understanding what you’re doing is always a good thing. Terminology helps you tap into the literature and make informed decisions about what’s best for you and your class.

In reality, most teachers use activities that blend the approaches, and as Maryellen Weimer indicates, their primary goal is doing what works, not the terminology.

One common attribute of the four core approaches is ‘mutually helpful behavior.’ This is NOT necessarily a given. In my experience, group dynamics, or “the ways in which people in a group interact with one another and the effects that this has” (Macmillan Dictionary) can have important ramifications for group function, not to mention everyone’s well-being. Remember Lord of the Flies (Golding 1954)?

Group dynamics is another ‘information-rich’ topic we’ll explore in a future blog post. In the meantime,

Chin up!

The Transformed Teacher

Apple with The Transformed Teacher written on it

The Transformed Teacher is a faculty member who took a bold step out from behind highly detailed lecture notes and a gigantic podium into the teaching-verse, which is a magical place filled with helpful tips, tools, and teachers.

As I learn more about teaching, I find I’m significantly better than I was before, and a lot less neurotic. In fact, sometimes teaching is downright fun. Imagine that.


Davidson N, Major CH. 2014. Boundary crossings: cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 25(3&4): 7-55.

Davidson N, Major CH, Michaelsen LK. 2014. Small-group learning in higher education – cooperative, collaborative, problem-based, and team-based learning: an introduction by the guest editors. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 25(3&4): 1-6.

Golding L. 1954. Lord of the Flies. Faber & Faber. London, England.

Macmillan Dictionary.

Michaelsen LK, Davidson N, Major CH. 2014. Team-based learning practices and principles in comparison with cooperative learning and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 25(3&4): 57-84.

Check out my previous posts:

Top 10 list for day 1
3 nuggets of wisdom for dealing with end-of-semester ‘feedback.’
5 steps to changing behavior.
Stuck in the middle (of the semester) with me.
Group work (pt. 1): Let’s get real.
Justifying just makes life easier.
Say something. Anything. Please…?
Changing educational pain to pleasure.

KeywordsThe Transformed Teacher, OTL Blog whats   Doc ID131367
OwnerLinda C.GroupIT Knowledge Base
Created2023-09-12 09:42:20Updated2023-09-18 06:59:47
SitesIT Knowledge Base
Feedback  0   0