“Do We Have to Work in Groups?”: Foundations, Ground Rules, and Reflections Improve Group Work

Group work has been used to help aid in learning, but it needs to be properly structured to be successful. Students often respond to group work assignments with the question, “Do we have to work in groups?” However, there are tools such as a foundational presentation, ground rules designation, and midsemester reflections that help students better understand the benefits gained from group work.


Many successful people have recognized the value of group work, as expressed in the following quotes:

“Coming together is a beginning, Keeping together is progress, working together is success” – Henry Ford

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” – Steve Jobs

It was also recognized that group work skills do not come inherently:

“Teamwork does not come naturally. Let’s face it. We are born with certain inclinations, but sharing isn’t
one of them.” – Pat Summitt

Group work is often assigned to students with little to no guidance on how to best work in the group. There is a difference between working in a group and working with a group.1 It is often assumed that students either inherently have good group work skills or have been taught these skills in their K-12 education.2 However, it appears that many students either have forgotten those skills or have never been taught them. Nevertheless, there are tools that can be implemented to help students realize the benefits gained from group work and establish a better group environment to complete assignments successfully.

Also, it is important to note that there are times when work is assigned to groups when they are best completed individually. It will be important to first assess the assignment to see if a group setting is warranted. If so, the tools mentioned will benefit the group and hopefully increase success in working together.

Description of Teaching Activity

Group Structure

In the upper-level course, PKSC 4160 (Polymers in Packaging), students are expected to work in a lab group to complete lab report assignments based on the lab activity and data that was collected. One of the first hurdles when using groups was determining how to assign students to the groups. For this course, groups were chosen at random intentionally, as group arrangement can play a role in the group’s success, which might influence the results.3 Personalities, abilities, and diversity can influence the group results, so this was left to chance so that the three tools could stand alone as the influence on group success.4 In this course, group numbers often vary from four to six members and are randomly generated using the Canvas group creation tool. The students will complete the lab activities as a group and then will be expected to complete a formal lab report as a group related to those lab activities.

Introductory Group Work Presentation

The use of an introductory group work presentation sets the foundations of the importance of group work. Students will often complain about the difficulty of group work because they don’t see the value and often feel that a single person carries the bulk of the responsibility. With that in mind, an introductory PowerPoint explained the value of group work and helped students understand that it is not just a tool used in the classroom but can also apply to their careers. It also stressed that if structured properly, valuable learning occurs within a group setting.

Group Charter

The use of a group charter can help set the ground rules for a group. The group charter is a contract between group members that helps set the stage for a successful semester as a team. In the charter, the team was able to designate a team name, identify what times members are available to work on group assignments, determine how members would communicate with each other, and define how members plan to complete assignments. The team could also set potential deadlines for themselves to make sure that the team assignments were not completed at the last minute. A copy of the group charter is attached in the Appendix.

The lab group charter was administered as part of a class within the course but was not associated with a grade. The students spent thirty to forty-five minutes working together during class, completing the contract. If they were unable to submit the contract in Canvas at the end of class, they were expected to complete the document and submit it before the first lab activity was to be conducted. The group charter was also administered in class to show the value and importance of this activity. All students could refer to the contracts in Canvas if conflicts were to arise. The contract created a central location for details of the group structure and ground rules that were agreed upon for the group. The group contract is designed to improve the overall group environment due to established foundational information such as communication methods, meeting times, and goals for meeting deadlines.

Midsemester Reflection

An additional component of improving the group environment was the opportunity for students to reflect on team member contributions. The students also evaluated how they were contributing as a group member. During the self-reflection, the students evaluated how they contributed to the group and adjusted if they felt their contributions did not match the ground rules established in the group contract.

The lab group reflection was incentivized by a small amount of bonus points (5 points on a 100-point assignment; 1 of multiple assignments that make up their overall lab grade) on their lowest lab grade for completion. This method was used so that students would not feel pressured to complete the reflection and would only do so if they were going to give it serious attention. These reflections were administered midsemester to reinforce the importance of group work and allow for refinement if not contributing satisfactorily. However, the results were kept anonymous and not shared with the group members, so the adjustments would likely come from self-reflection.

The results from the reflection were not used as part of the lab assignment grade, even if other students ranked them as having poor contributions to the group. This was intentional because it was assumed that students are more hesitant to give critical feedback of their peers if the feedback influenced their peers’ grades.

For the reflection, the following scale was used: Outstanding, Adequate, Needs Improvement, or Unacceptable. This scale was intentional as it gave students several options in both a positive and negative selection as the choice of ‘Unacceptable’ seemed like a strong designation that students might shy away from even though the group mate is not participating in the group effectively. Table 1 is the midsemester survey used in this course.

Reflection Survey Contents

Table 1. Midsemester Reflection of group members, self, and general questions.

Group Member 1’s Name: Group Member 2’s Name: Group Member 3’s Name: Group Member 4’s Name: Self-Reflection
How well group member 1 was prepared How well group member 2 was prepared How well group member 3 was prepared How well group member 4 was prepared How well were you prepared?
How well group member 1 listened How well group member 2 listened How well group member 3 listened How well group member 3 listened How well did you listen?
How well group member 1 contributed How well group member 2 contributed How well group member 3 contributed How well group member 4 contributed How well did you contribute?
How well group member 1 respected group members How well group member 2 respected group members How well group member 3 respected group members How well group member respected group members How well did you respect group members?
How well group member 1 demonstrated critical thinking How well group member 2 demonstrated critical thinking How well group member 3 demonstrated critical thinking How well group member 4 demonstrated critical thinking How well did you demonstrate critical thinking?
How well group member 1 demonstrated problem-solving How well group member 2 demonstrated problem-solving How well group member 3 demonstrated problem-solving How well group member 4 demonstrated problem-solving How well did you demonstrate problem-solving?
How well group member 1 communicated How well group member 2 communicated How well group member 3 communicated How well group member 4 communicated How well did you communicate?
How well group member 1 demonstrated decision-making How well group member 2 demonstrated decision-making How well group member 3 demonstrated decision-making How well group member 4 demonstrated decision-making How well did you demonstrate decision-making?
Give one specific example of something you learned from that group member that you probably wouldn’t have learned working alone. Give one specific example of something you learned from that group member that you probably wouldn’t have learned working alone. Give one specific example of something you learned from that group member that you probably wouldn’t have learned working alone. Give one specific example of something you learned from that group member that you probably wouldn’t have learned working alone. Describe your major roles and responsibilities in the group with the lab report assignment so far.

General Questions:

  • Do you have any suggestions for improving the lab report assignment for this class?
  • Do you feel the lab activities and the lab report exercises help to prepare you for what you might encounter in your career as a packaging scientist?
  • What was your biggest takeaway from the lab group work/lab report writing assignment?

Discussion of Outcomes

When students are given the opportunity to hear the foundational information about group work, set ground rules through a group contract, and asked to reflect on group member contributions, it is evident that students better understand the value gained from group work activities based on the responses received in the midsemester reflection. The overall perception of group work seemed to shift, as represented in the statements made in the reflection section. One of the more interesting data points included responses to the question, “Please rate this participant on how well they were prepared.” As seen in table 2, the students tend to be slightly tougher on themselves than they are on their group members because the percentage of “Outstanding” responses shifted to “Adequate” when comparing group member evaluations versus self-reflections. However, no one felt like their own preparation was unacceptable, but some group members felt otherwise.

Table 2. Student response rate for the question “Please rate this participant on how well they were prepared.”

Rating Other Group Members Themselves
Outstanding 58% 35%
Adequate 30% 50%
Needs Improvement 9% 15%
Unacceptable 2% 0%

Even when students felt like their group members’ contributions mainly were ‘Needing Improvement’ or ‘Unacceptable,’ they still learned how to navigate in a team environment. Evidence of how they navigated the group environment regarding how team members contributed even when given unacceptable ratings included the following statements.

  • “I learned that as the group’s appointed ‘leader’ that communication is important, and sometimes you have to pull people into conversations, or they will not communicate.”
  • “I learned how to find small pockets of time to collaborate around another member’s very, very busy schedule and build on other member’s writing to improve the assignment.”
  • “I learned how to teach someone else content and nicely tell someone to rework sections of the paper.”

Finally, examples with responses to the question, “What was your biggest takeaway from the lab group work/lab report writing assignment?” showed students the benefit gained from group work.

  • “My biggest takeaway is that you can’t expect everyone to do the work the exact way you would do the work, and that is okay. It’s hard to not get frustrated when you feel team members are not pulling their weight; however, everyone works in their own ways! All you can do is your best and offer constructive feedback to your team members to help make the overall finished report up to your standards. You have to be patient with people and know that everything will work itself out!”
  • “That I struggle in not working with someone who is not as passionate about what they do on a project. This is not at all a bash on my partner but more self-reflection. It is hard for me, who likes to put all I can and time into something, to not be with someone who doesn’t quite have the same mindset. I learned a lot from finding ways that we could productively get our report done in a manner I deem acceptable and know that I seriously didn’t do it alone.”
  • “I really enjoyed doing the lab assignment as a team since we could all use our critical thinking skills together and come up with a great hypothesis and discussion. Talking it out really helped me to understand concepts more thoroughly!”
  • “My biggest takeaway is that it’s important to communicate with others if you need help. My group was able to do this well, and it led us to success. We were able to work together effectively, and it showed in the work we produced.”

Reflection of Outcomes

In the past, group work for this course was given to students with no additional resources regarding effectively working in a group setting. There were often complaints about unfairness, the lack of communication among group members, and difficulty getting assignments completed in a timely manner. However, with the implementation of information that educates the students on the importance of group work and tools that help guide them on how to work in a group effectively, the number of complaints decreased greatly. Furthermore, implementing these tools helped students see that group work is intentional, has benefits, and can aid them in their career as a packaging scientist.

The student responses from the midsemester reflections reinforced the need for these tools in this course. There were fewer complaints throughout the course about the difficulty of working in a group, which can be attributed to the foundational presentation, ground rules set by the group charter, and the ability to reflect at midsemester. The increase in knowledge and decrease in complaints improved the classroom environment and helped reduce emails and questions about group complications. This will allow the instructor to focus on course content and not the management of group dynamics.

To further encourage team participation in group projects, instructors might consider including a grade associated with effort and contribution as a group member based on midsemester reflections. However, this may influence the results and must be done tactfully to ensure fairness to each group member.

Discussion of Potential for Adoption in Other Courses

If group work is a part of your course, it is recommended that you implement these tools. The tools to help improve group work could be applied in many other courses where groups work together on a semester-long project or various projects using the same team. The group charter is generic enough to be applied to most courses with a group assignment with little to no modifications.

It is strongly suggested that all three components mentioned be used together as the results received reflect on the combination of these pieces. The introductory group work presentation helps students remember the importance of group work, the team charter helps set the ground rules that are often overlooked otherwise, and the reflection allows students to pause and think about how they and their teammates are contributing.

The use of these tools can change the narrative in your class from “Do we have to work in groups?” to “Group work in this course will benefit me in my future career.”

References Cited

  1. Hammar Chiriac E. Group work as an incentive for learning–students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014 Jun;5:558. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00558.
  2. Chang Y, Brickman P. When group work doesn’t work: insights from students. CBE—Life Sciences Education. 2018;17(3):ar52. doi:10.1187/cbe.17-09-0199.
  3. Bell ST. Deep-level composition variables as predictors of team performance: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2007 May;92(3):595–615. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.92.3.595.
  4. Manning A. The role of team composition in high performance teams [blog]. Saberr. [accessed 2023 Feb 20].


Class Project Team Charter

Team Name (Create Your Own):

Title of Assignment(s):

Due Date(s):

Team Contact Information

Team Member Name Email and Phone Preferred Contact Method Strengths You Bring to the Team Weaknesses that Might Impact the Team


What is the mission of your team?


What is the vision of your team?

Goals and Objectives

Goals and objectives are what the group wants/needs to accomplish during its time together. Effective goals are specific, measurable, challenging (but achievable), and accepted by the group.

What are your shared goals for the team? What does the team want to achieve?

  • Describe the project challenge to ensure that everyone on the team has a sufficient understanding of the expectations for the project/course assignment.
  • Discuss the possibilities. What will it look like if the team is successful? How will you know that you have succeeded?
  • What does each member of the team hope to accomplish and/or learn throughout the process?
  • Consolidate and agree on shared goals or objectives for the team.

Leadership Structure

Decide on what your leadership structure will look like.

Team Norms

Norms are a list of behaviors expected of team members. Norms create shared values and boundaries that define a team’s culture. If norms do not reflect what the team values or a member violates team norms, then mistrust and conflict arise. Norms should be developed collaboratively to ensure that everyone on the team is committed to the norms.

  • What norms of behavior will support your team in meeting its goals? (e.g., standards for attendance/participation, preparation, information sharing, confidentiality, decision-making, accountability, problem-solving, conflict management)
  • How will the team celebrate successes or manage violations of the agreed-upon norms?

Milestones and Timeline

It’s important to outline a timeline for the team’s work so that everyone on the team has an understanding of what the team is seeking to accomplish and when. If it is not possible to create a detailed timeline in the beginning, it is helpful to outline major milestones and then fill in the details as the team’s work progresses.

Date Description Assigned To


It’s important to create standard processes at the onset of the project to avoid gaps in communication and misunderstandings. This may include a range of things, such as

  • When and where will the team meet? What are the attendance expectations?
  • How will the team communicate and coordinate?
  • Where will the team save files and manage data?
  • How will decisions be made (e.g., majority rules, consensus, or some other method)?
  • How will the team track its progress?


Similar to a staged play, musical group, or sport, it is important that everyone on the team understands their role. While roles may shift over the project, consider

  • What tasks need to be completed (both project-related and administrative)?
  • For each member of the team, what talents and expertise do they have? What new skills are they hoping to develop?

Some roles to consider include

  • Project manager/task lead
  • Document manager
  • Feedback manager
  • Logistics and communications
  • Process reviews
  • Accountability reviews

Feedback/Performance Assessment

How will team members provide feedback to each other, both in terms of positive and constructive feedback? What schedule and/or tools will be used to regularly assess how individuals and the team as a whole are performing?

Team Debrief *(example, to be completed later) – Include at least two debrief sessions in your timeline (we will have time for this in class). The purpose of the Team Debrief session is to provide feedback to improve the general “health” of the team and encourage change for improvement with the goal of self-correction and personal growth. The chart below outlines how to identify what is working (reinforcement) and what needs to be adjusted (refinement). Each member should also assess and provide feedback for member contributions to the team to meet the goals of the project.

Team Member Area of Reinforcement Area of Refinement Contribution to Team

Names and Signatures of All Members

Your signature represents your commitment to your team’s goals, norms, and processes.







Publication Number



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