Setting Students Up for Successful Group Work with Dartmouth’s Team Formation Tool


Group work has been shown to support deep learning, long-term information retention, strengthened communication and teamwork skills, and a greater sense of purpose and dedication to course materials––if groups are formed thoughtfully and given clear parameters. This article will briefly explore some of the major factors that go into making longer-term group work successful before exploring how Dartmouth’s new Team Formation Tool can help support the creation of successful student groups.


Group work has been shown to support deep learning, long-term information retention, strengthened communication and teamwork skills, and a greater sense of purpose and dedication to course materials––if groups are formed thoughtfully and given clear parameters (Monson; Oakley et. al.; Davis). Many students and faculty alike have (or have heard) horror stories about group work gone awry. But, research and student feedback show that with a bit of preparation, clear guidelines, and mechanisms for group troubleshooting in place, group work can be more than worth the effort. 

This article will briefly explore some of the major factors that go into making longer-term group work successful before exploring how Dartmouth’s new Team Formation Tool can help support the creation of successful student groups.

Setting Groups Up for Success

“Professors have three major responsibilities concerning the implementation of [group work]––forming groups, training students to be effective collaborators, and managing collaborative groups.” ––B.W. Speck

There are many ways to use student groups in your classes, from informal, short-term think-pair-share duos to small discussion groups that are formed and disbanded each class session, writing circles that persist for an entire essay cycle, and formal, long-term groups collaborating on a major course assignment. All of them require some level of instructor guidance on how groups should be formed, how group work should be approached, and what the goals of the work are. In some cases, asking students to turn to a classmate and share a question or comment is sufficient preparation. In others, much more scaffolding needs to be in place if students are to navigate their work successfully as a group. See the figure below for a quick overview of what such scaffolding might look like, based on the duration and goals of group work. 


For the purposes of this article, we will focus on groups that will be working together for a week or more, because the length and complexity of the work such groups do together requires more planning and support. While the specific needs of such groups will depend upon the nature of the assignment, subject matter, and course learning objectives, the literature on group formation and collaborative student work provides some important considerations that are relevant to many cases, across disciplines. Here, these considerations are broken out into three categories: group formation, group training, and group management. 

Note: COVID has, predictably, affected students’ experience of group work, and not only due to the pivot to remote learning. For an in depth discussion of COVID and student group work, see “Student Teamwork During COVID-19: Challenges, Changes, and Consequences” (Wildman, et. al.). Click here to see a summary of the paper’s key insights.


Group Formation

  • For long-term collaborations, groups should be created by instructors

    1. Student-selected groups are more likely to lead to “social slacking” and self-segregation.

    2. Additionally, student-selected groups are less likely to lead to interdependence and collaboration. Students in the same group may end up breaking apart the project and working separately, or, one student may end up bearing the brunt of the workload.

    3. One study indicated that “students found by a two-to-one ratio that their worst group work experiences were with self-formed groups” (Feitchner and Davis).

    4. Self-selected groups tend to be homogeneous in terms of student skill-level and subject-matter experience, gender, and race.

  • For many types of group work, the ideal group size is 3-4 students

    1. Exceptions include groups formed for team-based-learning, which works well with 5-7 students, and ensemble practices in the arts, which range widely in group size. STEM-specific studies suggest groups of 3-5. 

    2. These smaller sizes help ensure that every group member has a meaningful role, while also making sure that there are enough perspectives represented to prevent inquiry from stalling (see group training, below, for resources on group roles). 

    3. In general: “The less skilful the group members, the smaller the groups should be. The shorter amount of time available, the smaller the groups should be” (Davis).

  • Groups thrive when their members are diverse (in terms of skill, prior subject-matter experience, and, yes, demographics). 

    1. More specifically, “groups that are gender-balanced, are ethnically diverse, and have members with different problem-solving approaches have been shown to exhibit enhanced collaboration” (Wilson, Brickman, and Brame).

  • Conversely, minority group members are most successful––in your class, and in their academic lives more generally––when they aren’t isolated.

    1. Isolated students may not feel empowered to speak and contribute at the same level as their fellow group members. “Studies have shown that when members of at-risk minority groups are isolated in project teams, they tend either to adopt relatively passive roles within the team or are relegated to such roles, thereby losing many of the benefits of the team interactivity” (Heller and Hollobaugh qtd in Oakley et. al.).

      • We know, for example, that men are 1.6x more likely to speak in class than women (Lee and McCabe 2021). This issue is compounded by isolation within groups. 

    2. In fact, such unsuccessful group experiences may contribute to student retention issues: “The isolation these individuals feel within their teams could also contribute to a broader sense of isolation in the student body at large, which may in turn increase the dropout risk” (Heller and Hollobaugh qtd in Oakley et. al.).

  • There is some evidence that teamwork- or working-style has more of an impact on group cohesion than prior academic experience or skill with the subject matter.

    1. “Generally, groups that are gender-balanced, are ethnically diverse, and have members with different problem-solving approaches have been shown to exhibit enhanced collaboration. The data on academic performance as a diversity factor do not point to a single conclusion” (Wilson, Brickman, and Brame).

  • And, finally, from a logistical viewpoint: if you don’t provide dedicated group working time in class, group members will need common blocks of free time to meet outside of class.

    • X-hours can be fantastic as dedicated group-work time, if your course plan allows. 

Group Training

“When a professor assumes that students will automatically work well together and provides little or no training in group success, groups can fall apart.” ––B.W. Speck

  • Students express higher levels of satisfaction when instructors are explicit about the process and expectations of group work. 

    1. Setting expectations can help ameliorate student aversion to group work rooted in past negative experiences (Felder and Brent 1996).

    2. Groups tend not to differentiate between “social loafers” and team members who are struggling with the project or course content, exhibiting destructive behavior toward group members who fall into either category equally. By being transparent about the benefits of group work as well as the expectations about how group work should proceed, instructors can prevent much of this potential for group dysfunction (Freeman and Greenacre).

  • Giving students individual (rotating) roles within their group can help instill individual ownership of the project as well as foster collaboration and interdependence.

    1. For instance, Oakley et. al. outline a four person team using the following roles:

      1. Coordinator - “keeps everyone on task and makes sure everyone is involved.”

      2. Recorder - “prepares the final solution to be turned in.”

      3. Monitor - “checks to make sure everyone understands both the solution and the strategy used to get it.”

      4. Checker - “double-checks it before it is handed in.” 

    2. Other roles might include:

      1. Encourager  - “encourages group members to continue to think through their approaches and ideas. The Encourager uses probing questions to help facilitate deeper thinking, and group-wide consideration of ideas” (Fournier).

      2. Questioner - “pushes back when the team comes to consensus too quickly, without considering a number of options or points of view. The questioner makes sure that the group hears varied points of view, and that the group is not avoiding potentially rich areas of disagreement” (Fournier).

      3. Reflector / Strategy Analyst - “observes team dynamics and guides the consensus-building process (helps group members come to a common conclusion)” (Fournier).

      4. Spokesperson / Presenter - “presents the group’s ideas to the rest of the class. The Spokesperson should rely on the recorder’s notes to guide their report” (Fournier).

    3. Requiring group members to rotate through these roles during the term “can help students develop communications skills in a variety of areas rather than relying on a single personal strength” (Fournier).

  • Functional groups develop “norms,” “charters,” or social contracts with agreed upon behaviors, values, and conflict-management practices. 

    1. For example, The 3 Be’s of Collaborative Writing B.W. Speck uses with collaborative writing groups: 

      1. Be Responsible

      2. Be Organized

      3. Be Honest

  1. The University of Connecticut Writing Center offers this group contract template to be used after forming groups, but before assigning roles as a means to “prevent group discord” and “create a consensus on expectations.

Group Management

Even the most strategically formed groups may still fail if they aren’t given sufficient guidance, or management. Some of the most important things to consider when determining how you and your students will work together to manage groups are: 

  • Group Persistence (will students stay in a single group all term, or will groups be formed and reformed throughout the term?)

  • Motivation (what scaffolding needs to be in place to keep groups motivated?)

    • “To promote both accountability and autonomy, instructors should create milestones and deadlines for groups but also provide time for the students to expressly assign duties and roles to meet those deadlines” (Wilson, Brickman, and Brame).

    • Dartmouth faculty member, Professor Deborah Brooks, recommends building in opportunities for Peer Recognition

      • For discussion groups, you may want to consider occasional opportunities for peer shout outs  (for example, a student might want to shout out a group member who helped them understand something in a new way). 

      • For longer, more formal group projects, peer awards can offer groups a fun way to recognize and celebrate their work as well as providing faculty some insight into the way groups worked together. 

  • Assessment (how will group and individual work be assessed? how will students assess their own work and the group as a whole?)

    • Although it may not be appropriate for all types of group work to be graded, for group projects or assignments, it can be beneficial to assess both the work of the group as a whole and the work of individual group members.

      • Felder and Brent suggest:

        • Giving “individual tests that cover all of the material on the team assignments and projects” (Felder and Brent 2007).

        • Making “groups responsible for seeing that non-contributors don’t get credit” (Felder and Brent 2007).

        • Using “peer ratings to make individual adjustments to team assignment grades” (Felder and Brent 2007).

      • In addition to assessment via grading, it is important to structure in opportunities for student and group self-assessment.

        • “Once or twice during the group work task,” Barbara Gross Davis suggests, “ask group members to discuss two questions: What action has each member taken that was helpful for the group? What action could each member take to make the group even better?” (Davis).

        • Felder and Brent suggest making plans for “periodic self-assessment of team functioning” every few weeks via written responses to questions such as (Felder and Brent 2007):

          • How well are we meeting our goals and expectations?

          • What are we doing well?

          • What needs improvement?

          • What (if anything) will we do differently next time?

  • Troubleshooting (what happens when groups encounter a problem? what if a group fails to cohere?)

    • Make a contingency plan to chart out what happens when

      • Students drop the course, leaving groups too small or imbalance

      • A group fails to cohere.

        • Some research suggests that giving students the ability to “fire” a group member who isn’t contributing can be an effective strategy (Felder and Brent 2007).

    • But resist the urge to dissolve and reform groups frequently.

      • Studies have shown that:

        • “It takes at least [one month] for the teams to encounter problems, and learning to work through the problems is an important part of teamwork skill development” (Felder and Brent 2007).

    • Build in opportunities for students to tell you how the group work is going:

      • “Conduct a midterm assessment to find out how students feel about teamwork” (Felder and Brent 2007).

  • and, Opportunities for Reflection and Feedback (will students have a chance to reflect on their group work? how will students report what’s happening in their group to you? how will you provide feedback to groups?)

    • Thomas Wenzel notes that peer- and self-assessment, combined with instructor observations, are critical in courses using group work not only to identify dysfunctional groups but also to identify the contributions of each group member (Wenzel). 

    • See this Team Peer Assessment developed by Angela R. Linse of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence 

    • See the final pages of Oakley et. al. for a useful set of reflective and evaluative worksheets. Namely:

      • Evaluation of Progress Toward Effective Team Functioning

      • Team Member Evaluation Form

      • Peer Rating of Team Members

      • Autorating System

    • Note: peer rating and assessment are likely to be most useful as a conversation starter regarding group dynamics and norms.

Quick overview of the Team Formation Tool

The Team Formation Tool, a Canvas app developed at Dartmouth, is a survey-based tool for the creation of optimized student groups. With the Team Formation Tool, instructors can create custom surveys designed to sort students into groups based on a cluster of predetermined criteria including time zone, teamwork and working style, preferred time of day to study, and more. 

Each question can be weighted by not important, somewhat important, and very important, and the tool can be instructed to use responses to a particular question to sort students into similar or dissimilar groups. For example, a question about which time zone students are located in would ideally be used to sort students into similar groups so that there is less of a time difference to navigate for group meetings. 

Once surveys have been deployed and groups are created in Canvas, instructors can then use group data to create pre-formed Zoom breakout rooms.

In addition to integration with Canvas and a workflow for using the tool with Zoom, what sets the Team Formation Tool apart from other survey and spreadsheet tools is an algorithm that parses student data and uses the question weighting parameters to sort students into strategic groups. While other spreadsheet and survey tools can be used to collect student responses to questions and then to sort students into groups using their answers, this process is time-intensive. Using the Team Formation Tool, well-balanced student groups can be created in minutes rather than hours, all within the same tool you use to manage your course (Canvas).*

Note: Team Formation Tool’s scoring algorithm works best with responses that can be sorted neatly into like and unlike categories. Not all of the questions you may wish to ask will be of this type, so some manual sorting may be required. 


Team Formation Tool Survey Questions

The Preset Questions in the Team Formation Tool address several of the considerations that have been outlined in this article so far. Upon creating a new survey, instructors will have the option to add the following questions before creating their own:

  • Is there anyone in the class that you do not want to work with? (Note: will require manual sorting)

  • In which time zone will you be completing the majority of your coursework?

  • How would you describe your teamwork or working style?

  • What time of day (Dartmouth local time) would you prefer to work with your team?

Drawing on the research presented above, additional questions you may wish to ask could include:


Questions that can be sorted by the algorithm

Logistical questions

  • What role(s) would you most like to take on in group work? (Note: choose dissimilar weighting)

    • Coordinator

    • Recorder

    • Monitor 

    • Checker

    • Etc.

  • What role(s) would you least like to take on in group work? (Note: choose dissimilar weighting)

    • Coordinator

    • Recorder

    • Monitor 

    • Checker

    • Etc.

Previous experience / skills questions

  • How confident do you feel about [course topic, project, or  important methodology]? (Note: choose dissimilar weighting)

    • Very confident

    • Somewhat confident

    • Neutral

    • Somewhat apprehensive

    • Very apprehensive


Additional questions you may wish to ask

Logistical questions

  • Is there anyone in this class you do want to work with?

  • Are there any days or times you cannot meet with your group?

  • What would make this group assignment accessible and equitable for you?

  • How would you prefer to communicate with your group outside of class?

Previous experience / skills questions

  • Please describe your prior experience with [insert course subject here]. Include pre-requisite courses.

  • What skills or experiences do you bring to [group assignment] that haven’t already been addressed in this survey?

Personality questions

  • What is something about you that is probably not true of other students in the class (for example, an unusual experience, hobby, skill, or interest)?

  • What is your favorite [movie/song/book/other media]?

  • What is your preferred pet?

    • Dog

    • Cat

    • Fish

    • Plant

    • Rock

  • What is most exciting to you about [group assignment]?

  • What are you most concerned about going into [group assignment]?

For more information

To learn more about the Team Formation Tool, contact To have the Team Formation Tool installed in your Canvas course, submit a Canvas Support Request here, and enter Team Formation Tool Installation in the Short Description of Problem field.


Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Vol. 1st ed, Jossey-Bass, 1993. EBSCOhost,,url,uid&db=nlebk&AN=26088&site=ehost-live&scope=site. 

Feichtner, S. B., and E. A. Davis. “Why Some Groups Fail: A Survey of Students’ Experiences with Learning Groups.” Journal of Management Education, vol. 9, no. 4, Nov. 1984, pp. 58–73. (Crossref), doi:10.1177/105256298400900409.

Felder, Richard M., and Rebecca Brent. “Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction.” College Teaching, vol. 44, no. 2, Apr. 1996, pp. 43–47. (Crossref), doi:10.1080/87567555.1996.9933425.

Felder, Richard M., and Rebecca Brent. “Cooperative Learning.” Active Learning, edited by Patricia Ann Mabrouk, vol. 970, American Chemical Society, 2007, pp. 34–53. (Crossref), doi:10.1021/bk-2007-0970.ch004.

Fournier, Eric. “Using Roles in Group Work.” Washington University in St. Louis Center for Teaching and Learning, Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

Freeman, Lynne, and Luke Greenacre. “An Examination of Socially Destructive Behaviors in Group Work.” Journal of Marketing Education - J Market Educ, vol. 33, Apr. 2011, pp. 5–17. ResearchGate, doi:10.1177/0273475310389150.

Gaunt, Helena, and Danielle Shannon Treacy. “Ensemble Practices in the Arts: A Reflective Matrix to Enhance Team Work and Collaborative Learning in Higher Education.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 19, no. 4, SAGE Publications, Oct. 2020, pp. 419–44. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/1474022219885791.

Hassanien, Ahmed. “Student Experience of Group Work and Group Assessment in Higher Education.” Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism, vol. 6, no. 1, July 2006, pp. 17–39. (Crossref), doi:10.1300/J172v06n01_02.

Heller, Patricia, and Mark Hollabaugh. “Teaching Problem Solving through Cooperative Grouping. Part 2: Designing Problems and Structuring Groups.” American Journal of Physics, vol. 60, no. 7, American Association of Physics Teachers, July 1992, pp. 637–44. (Atypon), doi:10.1119/1.17118.

Monson, Renee. “Groups That Work: Student Achievement in Group Research Projects and Effects on Individual Learning.” Teaching Sociology, vol. 45, no. 3, SAGE Publications Inc, July 2017, pp. 240–51. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0092055X17697772.

Oakley, Barbara, et al. “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams.” Journal of Student Centered Learning, vol. 2, no. 1, 2004, pp. 9-34. 

Speck, Bruce W. Facilitating Students’ Collaborative Writing. Jossey-Bass, 2002,, Accessed 2 Feb 2021

Wenzel, Thomas J. “Evaluation Tools To Guide Students’ Peer-Assessment and Self-Assessment in Group Activities for the Lab and Classroom.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 84, no. 1, 2007, p. 182.

Wildman, Jessica, et al. “Student Teamwork During COVID-19: Challenges, Changes, and Consequences.” Small Group Research, vol. 0, no. 0, 2021, pp. 1–16.

Wilson, KJ, et al. “Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Group Work.” CBE Life Science Education, Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.


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While Team Formation Tool is a Canvas app, it can also be used to pre-assign breakout rooms in Zoom. This is useful if you plan to assign students to persistent discussion or project groups and plan to use the breakout rooms feature to facilitate group work.