By Cynthia Rutz, Director of Faculty Development, VITAL

Putting students in groups during class improves engagement, retention of knowledge, and deep learning according to several studies (see list of further resources at the end of this article). Students learn better when they can build knowledge together or when a fellow student explains a concept in language they can understand.  In this article, two of your VU colleagues share their experiences  with group work. Amy Atchison discusses a free app that  you can use to employ groups easily and organically online and Kevin Gary gives some tips for using student groups to dig deeper into a text.


A Wonder-ful App for Groups

Amy Atchison (Political Science & International Relations) had tried several ways of using student groups online, but was frustrated with their limitations.  She wanted her students to be able to switch groups quickly, as they do in an actual classroom. She wanted to be able to monitor whether group members were actually talking with one another. Finally, she wanted to move easily from group to group to join the conversation. She finally found all of that in Wonder.

Wonder is a free app that describes itself as  “a virtual Space that makes conversation fun, spontaneous, and completely natural. No more video fatigue!”

Some of you experienced Wonder when it was used for the all-faculty workshop last spring.  When a student logs in, Wonder takes a quick photo of them to use as an avatar.  That way an instructor can tell at a glance who is in which group.  Both the instructor and students can see 4-5 groups at once, shown as circles on a single page. You choose the background for this page, perhaps based on the text or idea you are discussing.  When students are speaking, their avatar glows, so you will know right away by the “glow” whether people in a group are talking or not.   

Amy can stop discussion at any time and broadcast a message to the whole class or she can broadcast to a single group and give them special instructions.  For example, she might say, after a few minutes of discussion, “OK. Now the person whose first name is alphabetically first in your group, move one group to the left and summarize your discussion to that group.”  

She used Wonder for her Zombie Pandemic Simulation last year. Students took on the role of different countries, so their avatar was that country’s flag.  She could ask them to group by country at first and then, as she changed the world pandemic situation, each country needed to consult with other countries in order to plan their response.  During the simulation she could feed intel to certain countries and not others.  

She also used Wonder at an academic conference  for a cocktail reception.  For that session she pre-named the interest groups with funny titles such as “Mom-ademic” or “Introverts Trying Too Hard.”  But she found that, just as at a real cocktail party, people tended to drift from group to group anyway.

Even though we are back to in-person learning, Amy continues to use Wonder for her online office hours.  She still likes to use it for group work because she is concerned that in-person groups are not socially distanced enough, even when we are all masked. Her one caveat is that Wonder works best on a computer, not so well on a cell phone. 

Only the professor needs to register with Wonder, then you can share a password with your students.  Because the app is so intuitive to use, students like it much better than, say, Zoom  breakout groups.   So if you want a fun, organic way to use student groups online, try Wonder.


Best Practices for Student Groups

Kevin Gary (Education) uses student groups frequently and has some tips to share based on his experience.

  1. Most important: Provide a strong, clear,  divergent question–a goldilocks question that is not too easy or too hard generates the best discussion. Ideally, it should be a question that is informed by a careful reading of the assigned text but does not require it. That way students who may have forgotten to prepare are still able to participate, and students who have prepared can engage more deeply.


  1. I ask each group to appoint a spokesperson to report on the group discussion. This is a rotating task that happens 3-4 times in a 75-minute class. This ensures wider ownership for the class discussion. Also, I usually only let discussions go for 5-7 minutes. I circulate around the room in case some groups need clarification or additional priming for the discussion.


  1. I always use name games on the first two days of class so that students get to know everyone by name (this ensures greater warmth, humor, and civility). When a student says, “I agree with what they/he/she said,” I gently ask what that person’s name is. I myself forget names the first few days, so we all work through this together.


  1. Once groups have participated in a conversation, I occasionally call on students randomly, but I always allow them to take a pass if needed.


  1. Sometimes I have groups write a beautiful, elegant, concise paragraph that captures the heart of the reading. Each group assigns someone to read the paragraph with rhetorical skill, with the paragraph on the screen for all to see. I praise each attempt, but I also decide on my favorite and explain why.


  1. Lastly, aim to create a culture where students, to quote the American actor Peter Dinklage, “give themselves permission to fail.” Dinklage is riffing on Samuel Beckett’s wonderful quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In other words, religiously praise student effort.


Further Resources for Group Work 

  1. Effective Group Work in the College Classroom  A 15-minute video that focuses on group work in science classes using case studies, worksheets, and white boards.  Students and faculty, including Nobel-laureate physics professor Carl Wieman, explain the value of their group work.
  2. Guidelines for Using Groups Effectively | CRLT  From the U. of Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching.
  3. Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively | Center for Teaching | Vanderbilt University  Includes examples of specific techniques such as think-pair-share, peer instruction, and jigsaw.  
  4. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching: Special Issue on Small-Group Learning  This special issue is from 2014. Even without subscribing, you can read many of the articles here.