October 4, 2012

The Instructor’s Role in Group Work

by Eun-Young Lee, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Howard County General Hospital

Teamwork is relevant to my pharmacy practice and the skills I acquired as a student in group exercises in the classroom were critical for building the habits necessary for effective teamwork. Instructors, therefore, have an important role to assist students during group exercises.

Many educators agree that group work fosters social development, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.1,2   These skill sets are desired by many employers and can equip the students for their future career endeavors. There are several ways educators can guide students to work effectively as a team. The instructor should be actively involved in mentoring the groups while providing enough opportunities for autonomy for students to find their own resolutions and answers. Furthermore, there are several things instructors should consider when incorporating group assignments within a course.  Instructors should provide a clear purpose for each assignment and offer strategies to help address non-contributing students.

Providing a Clear Purpose of the Assignment

Instructors should help students understand the purpose of each assignment by clearly stating expectations, goals, and objectives of the group activity.2,3,5 Identifying learning objectives assists students to focus on what needs to be accomplished.

In addition, group assignments should purposefully cultivate interdependence.  Although the instructor is available to mentor students throughout the learning process, group projects should encourage student learning amongst their peers.
5 In other words, collaborators of a team can learn to depend on their group members. There are four types of interdependences:4
  • Goal interdependence: By achieving one common group goal, each individual believes he or she is able to fulfill his or her own goal.
  • Reward Interdependence: Good performance of the entire group leads to a reward, such as a good grade.
  • Role interdependence:  Each member has a specific role and function to fulfill within the group.
  • Resource interdependence: Each member has specific resources or knowledge that must be contributed.  One person does not have all the resources to complete the task independently.
Interdependence in group assignments is critical. Healthcare providers within multidisciplinary teams depend on interdependence to provide the best treatment for patients.  This requires various health care workers to coordinate and contribute knowledge according to their specialty.

Addressing Problems Related to Non-Contributing Students

Ideally, each member should equally participate, but many groups face the problem of social loafers.1 Educators should be aware that there are two types of non-contributing students, a struggler and a social loafer. Students categorized as strugglers have difficulty participating due to a lack of knowledge or are marginally behind in their understanding.1 Loafers on the other hand, can be characterize as “free-riders” who make little effort to contribute to the group’s work.1

Both types of non-contributing students may be mistakenly viewed as loafers.  However, approaches to assisting loafers versus strugglers are different.  Struggling students may benefit from supplementary support from the instructor.1 Conversely, a loafer needs a different approach. Strategies such as using peer assessments, keeping individual diaries, and retaining logs of online cooperation may be applied to monitor participation.1 These strategies allow contributing members to successfully complete their assignment without being hindered by the slackers.1  Social loafers should receive feedback from their group and this may correct their behavior to fully participate.1 A downside to confronting an inactive student by the other group members may lead to the alienation of the loafer or exclusion altogether. Usually, groups are able to resolve this problem without the instructor’s intervention.1

Instructors should define loafers and strugglers prior to assigning the project to the class.  This allows team members to identify and address the issues of loafers and strugglers differently.  Also, instructors should provide counseling to remind students that everyone in the group possess different levels of skills and contribute in different ways.1 This allows the students to recognize that individuals who initially struggle may become highly effective participants once their skills are developed.1 Additionally, instructors should encourage students to assign roles that best suit their expertise or skill level. Thus, I believe that allowing opportunities for all students to contribute will build confidence and allow students to thrive in group settings.


Group assignments offer students opportunities hands on experience to develop teamwork skills. This begins with providing groups with clear instructions to help them understand the purpose of the assignment. Inevitably, during collaborative work, members of the group may face conflicts and issues.  Instructors should utilize strategies to facilitate both contributing and non-contributing students.  This allows groups to achieve a common goal, while giving them enough autonomy to solve problems on their own.

Overall, I believe there are several advantages of incorporating group work into classroom-based courses. Being able to contribute effectively as a team member is a desirable skill employers value.  As a student, I had many opportunities and I am grateful to have worked within many groups with different dynamics.


1.  Freeman L, Greenacre L. An examination of Socially Destructive Behaviors in Group Work.  The Journal of Marketing Education. 2011; 33: 5-17.

2.  Burke A. Group Work: How to Use Groups Effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching.  2011; 11: 87-95.

3.  Group Work. Bloomington: Indiana University; 2011. [cited 2012 Sept 7].

4.  Colbeck CL, Campbell SE, Bjorklund SA.  Grouping in the Dark:  What College Students Learn from Group Projects.  The Journal of Higher Education.  2000 Jan/Feb; 71: 60-83.

5.  Atwood A, Klurfeld A, Kotker J. Using Group Work Effectively: Graduate Student Instructors Teaching and Resource Center. [Internet]. Berkley: University of Berkeley; 2012 Jan 30. [cited 2012 Sept 10].

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