Making Groups Work: Getting Our Students from 'Forming' to 'Performing' - Fall 2015

Accessible Version

Making Groups Work: Getting Our Students from “Forming” to “Performing”

By Aisha Haque Language & Communication Instructor Teaching Support Centre

“Why would you want us to pool our ignorance?” asked one of my students in shock and horror when I introduced a group assignment in my first year class. I recognized in her outrage some of my own frustrations at entering into collaborative learning experiences when I was an undergraduate student. In fact, my student’s comment forced me to reflect on why I had resented my own teamwork experiences and how I might improve the process for my students.

The benefits of group work for students are numerous and have been well documented, ranging from increased achievement motivation and long term retention of information to acquiring the communication skills necessary for the professional world after graduation (Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000; Oakley, Felder, Brent & Elhajj, 2004).

Despite these benefits, the fact remains that many students face challenges when working in groups with their peers. There are a number of factors that go into making a group experience a successful one for students. These factors include, among others, the criteria used for team formation, assignment/ task design, assessment, and explicitly teaching teamwork skills to students prior to putting them into groups. In fact, numerous scholars have noted that students often do not have an opportunity to learn the interpersonal and logistical skills necessary to equip them for the common issues that arise in group work (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013; Oakley et al., 2004).

In this article, I will outline one theory of group dynamics to help illustrate the challenges groups face in coming together and provide two strategies that instructors can implement to reduce these issues or even prevent them altogether.

Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development (1965; 1977) proposes that teams progress through predictable stages as they seek to grapple with interpersonal relationships and task activities. For Tuckman, certain challenges are inevitable as teams learn how to navigate complex group dynamics while simultaneously responding to the demands of the assigned project (Bonebright, 2010; Tuckman, 1977; Miller, 2003). Figure 1 provides a brief description of four stages of Tuckman’s model.

So how can we get our students from forming to performing as quickly as possible? Tuckman’s model of group development allows us to better understand where and how students might struggle in our group assignments so that we may design appropriate interventions that will help students avoid these challenges altogether.

Strategies for Success

“Team charters [and] team feedback… are easily understood and quickly administered concrete tools that provide a strong foundation for understanding and improving performance” (Hillier & DunnJensen, 2013, p. 706).

1. Ask your students to create a group contract to clarify group processes.

Completing a group contract encourages group members to set clear goals that everyone can agree on and to further discuss how they will work together. This, in turn, makes the norms surrounding participation and performance explicit for all group members. Typical issues that should be addressed in the contract include expectations around attendance and participation during group meetings, the quality of work submitted, and a breakdown of responsibilities to hold all members accountable (Oakley et al., 2004).

A clear understanding of how conflict will be resolved is another pre-requisite for group success, and a contract can simplify this process for students by helping members to identify and resolve problems as they emerge. For example, referring to the contract provides a safe tactic for conflict resolution: “Simply stating ‘we talked about this in the charter and all agreed that…’ is a neutral starting point to begin an otherwise awkward conversation” (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013, p. 709).

It is also important for students to understand that this contract is not a static document; in fact, as the team evolves and gains a better understanding of their needs, the contract can be revisited and revised to better reflect emerging goals and issues.

There are numerous examples of group contracts available that can be easily adapted to meet the needs of your students. Below are two great examples:

a) “Appendix B” of Janet Hillier and Linda Dunn-Jensen’s article contains a template for a team charter that helps members set clear expectations. This three page document outlines questions that help students articulate the norms they would like to set. You can access the charter online: content/37/5/704.full.pdf+html

b) The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence has a sample contract on their website that students can model their own agreements on: https://uwaterloo. ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/ teaching-resources/teaching-tips/ developing-assignments/group-work/ making-group-contracts

2. Provide processes for team members to give each other consistent and structured feedback.

Feedback is a critical component of successful group development because it allows teams to identify ineffective group behaviours and to take corrective actions that will enhance overall group performance. Regular feedback allows the group to conduct frequent pulsechecks to determine what is working and what to change (London & Sessa, 2006). In other words, implementing a culture of consistent and structured feedback is formative to the team learning process: it allows groups to learn from their mistakes and improves the team’s ability to solve problems as a unit (Hillier & Dunn-Jensen, 2013; London & Sessa 2006).

Hillier and Dunn-Jensen propose the “Team Effectiveness Feedback Form” as a concrete tool to structure the feedback process at the group level. (This form is available online as “Appendix C” of their article: content/37/5/704.full.pdf+html.) This short questionnaire can be completed quickly by students and provides them with an opportunity to reflect on what is working well and what needs improvement without blaming any individual team members for the issues.

Implementing a group contract and clear processes for feedback are two strategies that will explicitly teach students the skills they need to succeed at collaborative learning experiences. In fact, with increased confidence in their own ability to navigate complex group dynamics, perhaps your students will even anticipate their next group project with excitement.


Bonebright, D.A. (2010). 40 years of storming: A historical review of Tuckman’s model of small group development. Human Resource Developmental International, 13(1), 111-120.

Hillier, J., & Dunn-Jensen, L. M. (2013). Groups meet . . . teams improve: Building teams that learn. Journal of Management Education, 37(5), 704–733.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Stanne, M.E. (2000). Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

London, M., & Sessa, V.I. (2006). Group feedback for continuous learning. Human Resource Development Review, 5, 303-329.

Miller, D. (2003). The stages of group development: A retrospective study of dynamic team processes. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 20(2), 121-143.

Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 9–34.

Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.

Tuckman, B.W. & Jensen, M.A.C. (1977). Stages in small group development revisited. Group and Organizational Studies, 2, 419-427.

University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence (n.d). Making group contracts. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from https:// making-group-contracts