Forming Successful Groups for Collaborative Learning


In Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty 2nd Edition (Barkley, Major, Cross, 2014), three types of collaborative learning groups are identified.

Informal Groups

Informal groups are formed quickly and randomly and are primarily used for onsite classes as a break out within a single course session.

Formal Groups

Formal learning groups are intended to achieve a more complex goal. These groups may be used for activities that span a single session or multiple sessions. Formal groups should be built to accomplish shared goals, so instructors should consider the makeup of the group and attempt to identify different capabilities and levels of understanding in order to maximize the learning of everyone within the group.

Base Groups

Base groups are long-term groups that work on a variety of tasks to achieve larger goals and objectives. Base groups may stay together for an entire term and their purpose is to form relationships within the group that offer support and encouragement to the group’s members as they achieve an overarching goal.

Instructors should choose to form the type of group depending on the purpose of the group, the type of assignment and the time it will take to complete the assignment. If considering a single-session, short-term activity, it may be fastest and easiest to create informal groups, while a semester-long group project may benefit from forming cohesive, high-functioning base groups.


Key Components

There has been a great deal of research done on the advantages and disadvantages of heterogeneous groupings and homogenous groupings. Heterogeneous groupings provide for rich learning activities based on diverse backgrounds, ideas and experiences but can also produce tension or the marginalization of members based on stereotypical roles. Homogeneous groupings serve learners well when they are asked to take risks or discuss personal issues, and students often prefer working with other similar to themselves so satisfaction with group activities is higher. In homogeneous groups, however, “the greatest that students do not experience the rich interactions and exchange that can occur working with a diverse group of peers.”

As stated in Collaborative Learning Techniques, “in the absence of any clear rationale for assigning group membership, instructors may simply opt for random assignment or choose to mix groups throughout the term” to allow students to experience both heterogeneous and homogenous groupings. 



There are many methods an instructor could use to form different group types.

Informal Groups

Odd/Even, Free Form, Count Off, Playing Cards, etc.

Formal/Base Groups

Interest groupings: Show of Hands or Student Sign-Up, Single-Statement Likert Scale Rating, Essay or Writing Sample

Data groupings: Data sheets, Course-based Test Scores, Discipline-Related, Learning Styles

Instructors may wish to take into consideration the class setting of the course when grouping students for collaborative learning. For more information on forming groups in online or hybrid settings, read the article Collaborative Learning in an Online or Hybrid Classroom. 


Best Practices

To engage students in the learning process while in a group setting, instructors must assure each student understands his/her role in the group. Assigning Group Roles during the activity set-up ensures each learner understands the part he/she plays in the success of the group. Not all group roles will be appropriate for each group project, and instructors should ensure that roles are varied across groups and students. 

Six Common Group Roles

Facilitator: moderates all team discussions, keeps team on task and ensures other roles accomplish their tasks.

Recorder: records any assigned team activities, keeps all written materials including data sheets for attendance and homework tracking, summarizes discussions and completes any written assignments given by instructor.

Reporter: serves as group spokesperson and orally summarizes the group’s activities or conclusions, assists the recorder with completion of written assignments.

Timekeeper: works with the facilitator to keep group on task, keeps group aware of time constraints and can assist in the role of any missing group member.

Materials Manager: manages any paper-based materials (excluding data sheets) and returns all papers, assignments and notes for team members.

Wildcard: Fills in however needed or assumes the role of any missing group member.

For long-term formal or base groups, rotating assigned roles gives all students opportunities to practice various social, communication, and leadership skills and discourages domination by one person. This is perceived as equitable, and supports the idea of successful collaborative learning exercises as being intentionally designed, co-laboring and meaningful.



Barkley, E., Cross, K., & Major, C. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (Second ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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