Multiple hands on a laptop

Structuring Group Work in Online Courses

Instructors may wonder whether group work is feasible in a fully online course, since students are not generally able to meet in person, or even at the same time. But like most things with online teaching, group work is possible, it just takes some thinking through in order to structure it meaningfully.

The Cooperative Learning (CL) pedagogy by Johnson & Johnson (2008), provides a helpful way to think about some different ways that group work can be organized, namely: informal cooperative learningformal cooperative learning, and cooperative base groups. In Table 1, I’ve provided a brief outline of each, which I have slightly modified from Johnson and Johnson’s original descriptions in order to reflect an online learning context.

Table 1: Types of Cooperative Learning Formations

 Informal Cooperative LearningFormal Cooperative LearningCooperative Base Groups
Duration of group work10 minutes up to one full online class session (i.e., one meeting).A single day or across multiple days in the course. Across multiple weeks/modules or potentially the entire course.
Formation of groupAd-hocStructuredStructured

A critical element of Johnson & Johnson’s CL pedagogy is the concept of positive interdependence, which “exists when individuals perceive that they can reach their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked also reach their goals” (2008, p. 11). Using a CL approach in a course means that the instructor intentionally designs tasks and assignments in order to facilitate this positive interdependence among the students.

Below, I provide an example of how each type of CL group might be structured in an online course, and in order to support positive interdependence. 

Informal Cooperative Learning

This type of group work is probably easiest to structure in a synchronous (real-time) online format, such as through a video-conference session using an application like Zoom. For example, one of the functions in Zoom called “Breakout Rooms”, can be used to send students off into smaller, private virtual spaces from within the main session. An instructor might use these breakout sessions to allow students some time to discuss a key question about the course readings or to talk about a case study. Further, using a co-authoring tool (e.g., Google Docs) in conjunction with the breakout session, the instructor could ask students to take notes on the discussion in order to support active listening and to build in some accountability for the group’s output. These co-authored notes would be viewable in real-time by the instructor in order to help monitor how the discussion is going, and these could later be used to support a whole group de-briefing when the class reconvenes in the main session screen.

Formal Cooperative Learning

A formal cooperative learning group could be structured relatively easily in an asynchronous online format, where students are not required to be logged in at the same time. For example, using a tool like Pepper, groups could be organized into weekly reading seminars. The instructor could set up the groups ahead of time and change the members up each week so that the students get to work with different peers each time. Group accountability can be designed through things like, requiring a certain number of posts from each person, creating a co-authored summary of the key points from the discussion, or having students write a personal learning reflection after the discussion (making direct connections back to the conversation).

One point about online discussion groups is that they typically require a very high level of interdependence, which can in turn result in a high demand on time for students, as well as potential frustration when others in the group leave long gaps of time before (or between) posting. Students who are early to post, and who demonstrate a strong commitment to re-visiting the discussion, can be left feeling as though they are literally ‘talking to themselves’. This may be of particular significance in thinking about how to structure online formal cooperative learning groups during the current COVID-19 context. Students may already be feeling very overwhelmed depending on their personal circumstances, and they may not be able to be online to the same degree, frequency, or duration as they might normally be in a position to do (e.g., if they are sharing devices and internet bandwidth with other household members, or having to simultaneously care for a dependent). Therefore, instructors may do well to consider the extent to which online discussion is of critical importance to their essential learning goals for the course. For instance, instructors could potentially plan for just a few online discussions rather than having them every week. Alternatively, instructors could ask students to engage in a co-reading task through an application like Perusall, One Drive, or Google Docs, which allows students to collectively ‘mark-up’ an article by highlighting and/or commenting as they are reading. This kind of formal cooperation can be done on one’s own time, without relying as heavily on others’ responses in order to be successful in completing the learning task.

It’s also possible to have students do the preparatory work around the course readings independently (e.g., posting a reading response), and then hold discussion in small groups in a video-conference session. But this would lean closer to the informal cooperative structure mentioned previously. 

Cooperative Base Groups

One of the ways that I use cooperative base groups in my online courses is to support research teams. At the start of the course, I use some of the time set aside for orientation activities to elicit students’ early questions related to the course content. From there, I create a number of potential broad topic areas based on their interests, which can provide the basis for forming the research teams; students select which topic area they would like to sign up for (which I do through Pepper’s ‘class editable note’ feature). Over the duration of the course, the research teams have specific target tasks they are expected to complete by certain weeks (this is the group accountability piece), such as deciding on their main focus problem and sub-questions, building a collective set of annotated readings on their topic, and eventually posting a co-authored executive research summary which can serve as a shared resource for the rest of the class.

Similar to discussion groups, cooperative base groups can require a high level of interdependence depending on the way it’s structured. One of the ways that I design the collective tasks for the research teams is to allow some of the components to be contributed individually (e.g., each person submits three scholarly resources to the group’s curated list), and some components that I require them to provide a group response (i.e., a single response that they co-construct). In that sense, there is both individual and group accountability structured into the teams, and only some (or part) of the tasks require a more intensive level of interdependence.

These examples are by no means an exhaustive list of the possibilities. And I should say in full disclosure, I have merely scratched the surface of the CL pedagogical approach. But hopefully these examples provide a starting point for instructors to think about the kinds of ways to structure group work in an online learning context.


Johnson, D. W. & Johnson, R. T. (2008). Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning: The teacher’s role. In R. M. Gillies, A. F. Ashman, and J. Terwel (eds), The Teacher’s Role in Implementing Cooperative Learning in the ClassroomComputer-Supported Collaborative Learning Series (Volume 8). Boston, MA: Springer.

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