Source: Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation.

Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work:
Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Retrieved [05/01/19] from

Benefits for students

Group and team projects can help students develop a host of skills that are increasingly important in the professional world (Caruso & Woolley, 2008; Mannix & Neale, 2005). Positive group experiences, moreover, have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention and overall college success (Astin, 1997; Tinto, 1998; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2006).

Properly structured, team projects can reinforce skills that are relevant to both team and individual work, including the ability to: 

  • Break complex tasks into parts and steps
  • Plan and manage time
  • Refine understanding through discussion and explanation
  • Give and receive feedback on performance
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Develop stronger communication skills.

Team projects can also help students develop skills specific to collaborative efforts, allowing students to…

  • Tackle more complex problems than they could on their own.
  • Delegate roles and responsibilities.
  • Share diverse perspectives.
  • Pool knowledge and skills.
  • Hold one another (and be held) accountable.
  • Receive social support and encouragement to take risks.
  • Develop new approaches to resolving differences. 
  • Establish a shared identity with other team members.
  • Find effective peers to emulate.
  • Develop their own voice and perspectives in relation to peers.

Further, Mills (2002) found that when students work in groups or teams, they can learn to synthesize: “students often take new material–including disparate viewpoints—and integrate, reinterpret, and transform it until new knowledge is forged.  Thus learning is produced, not reproduced.”  Group work is among the “high-impact educational practices” cited by students as increasing their engagement in college courses (AAC&U and Kuj, 2008).  In addition, pedagogies that engage students in collaborate learning have been shown to improve student learning (e.g., Eberlein et al., 2008).

David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith performed a meta-analysis of 168 studies comparing cooperative learning to competitive learning and individualistic learning in college students (Johnson et al., 2006). They found that cooperative learning produced greater academic achievement than both competitive learning and individualistic learning across the studies, exhibiting a mean weighted effect size of 0.54 when comparing cooperation and competition and 0.51 when comparing cooperation and individualistic learning. In essence, these results indicate that cooperative learning increases student academic performance by approximately one-half of a standard deviation when compared to non-cooperative learning models, an effect that is considered moderate. Importantly, the academic achievement measures were defined in each study, and ranged from lower-level cognitive tasks (e.g., knowledge acquisition and retention) to higher level cognitive activity (e.g., creative problem solving), and from verbal tasks to mathematical tasks to procedural tasks. The meta-analysis also showed substantial effects on other metrics, including self-esteem and positive attitudes about learning. George Kuh and colleagues also conclude that cooperative group learning promotes student engagement and academic performance (Kuh et al., 2007).

Springer, Stanne, and Donovan (1999) found similar results in their meta-analysis of 39 studies in university STEM classrooms. They found that students who participated in various types of small-group learning, ranging from extended formal interactions to brief informal interactions, had greater academic achievement, exhibited more favorable attitudes towards learning, and had increased persistence through STEM courses than students who did not participate in STEM small-group learning.

While the potential learning benefits of group and team work are significant, simply assigning group or team work is no guarantee that these goals will be achieved. In fact, team projects can – and often do – backfire badly when they are not designed, supervised, and assessed in a way that promotes meaningful team work and deep collaboration.

Benefits for instructors

Faculty can often assign more complex, authentic problems to teams of students than they could to individuals. Team work also introduces more unpredictability in teaching, since teams may approach tasks and solve problems in novel, interesting ways. This can be refreshing for instructors. Additionally, team assignments can be useful when there are a limited number of viable project topics to distribute among students. And they can reduce the number of final products instructors have to grade.

Whatever the benefits in terms of teaching, instructors should take care only to assign  team work that truly fulfills the learning objectives of the course and lends itself to collaboration. Instructors should also be aware that team projects can add work for faculty at different points in the semester and introduce its own grading complexities.


Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Caruso, H.M., & Wooley, A.W. (2008). Harnessing the power of emergent interdependence to promote diverse team collaboration. Diversity and Groups. 11, 245-266.

Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R. S., Platt, T., Varma‐Nelson, P., & White, H. B. (2008). Pedagogies of engagement in science. Biochemistry and molecular biology education, 36(4), 262-273.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in University Teaching25(4), 1-26.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J. A., Bridges, B. K., & Hayek, J. C. (2007). Piecing Together the Student Success Puzzle: Research, Propositions, and Recommendations. ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 32, Number 5. ASHE Higher Education Report32(5), 1-182.

Kuh, G.D. (2008).  High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.  AAC&U.

Mannix, E., & Neale, M.A. (2005). What differences make a difference? The promise and reality of diverse teams in organizations. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 6(2), 31-55.

National Survey of Student Engagement Report. (2006).

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 96(1), 21-51.