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Project-based and Dynamic Collaborative Learning

By Julaine Fowlin, Bobby Bodenheimer, Corbotte Doyle, Heather Fedesco, Vanderbilt University

Cite this guide: Fowlin, J., Bodenheimer, B., Doyle, C. & Fedesco, H. (2021). Project-based and Dynamic Collaborative Learning. Vanderbilt University Course Development Resources.

21st-century challenges require 21st-century skills. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) lists teamwork and problem-solving among the essential learning outcomes students need to meet those challenges. Echoing the AAC&U list, LinkedIn Learning consistently identifies collaboration among the top five soft skills sought by employers. McKinsey identified problem-solving and communication as two of the “top three areas of missing soft skills.” In a rapidly automating world of work, these human skills are becoming key to the success of professional teams that are increasingly interdisciplinary, culturally diverse, and geographically dispersed. Group work and collaborative learning in the formal classroom provide a form of authentic student assessment that can help students develop the necessary teamwork competencies. This course development resource was developed based on a Conversation on Teaching (CoT) that was held in Spring 2021 facilitated by Julaine Fowlin, Assistant Director, CFT, with panelists:

  • Bobby Bodenheimer, Professor of Computer Science
  • Corbette Doyle, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Leadership
  • Heather Fedesco, Senior Lecturer, Human and Organizational Development


The focus of the CoT was to discuss the shift in doing group work in the classroom and ways to facilitate group work online. Though we will address the online context, we will also examine some aspects of group work that need to be considered for all learning environments, whether face-to-face, online or blended. We will incorporate video excerpts from the CoT throughout. 

When Should Group Work be Used?

Kirschner and colleagues’ (2004) guide to creating a collaborative learning environment provides a framework for thinking about group work. They recommend that the group task should have three dimensions:

  1. Task Ownership: Students have ownership through individual accountability and positive interdependence. Individual accountability helps to avoid “free riders,” which can be achieved by having a grade for individual effort. Positive interdependence refers to group members’ dependence on each other to get the task done. For example, in The Computer Science Course, which Bobby co-teaches with Ole Molvig, Assistant Professor in the departments of History and Communication of Science and Technology (CSET), each student has a different task that is needed to complete the final project. 
  2. Task Character: The task allows for some level of problem-solving and knowledge collaboration. 
  3. Task Control: Students have control over how the task/s get completed and the division of labor. They have the autonomy to direct the learning experience.

Therefore, before considering group work, examine the goals and objectives of your course and use group work to align with high-order objectives that require application and knowledge creation. It also helps to brainstorm authentic problems that students could use the knowledge of the course to solve and use them to create group tasks/projects. Think about the whole end goal first and then decide the smaller pieces and ways to scaffold completion and allow for task ownership, task character, and task control.

What Does the Research Say about Groups?

Should groups be temporary or stable?

In the video clip below, Heather shares best practices from research about temporary versus stable groups.

  • Temporary groups are suitable for the first couple of weeks of the course. Still, there are many more benefits to having more stable/permanent groups as this builds camaraderie over time. However, if groups are not working, it is ok to make changes halfway through the semester (Rogers et al., 2001). 
  • Instructor-assigned groups are best unless the class is more advanced and students know each other. Instructors should exercise caution, though as self-selected and random grouping can exclude and negatively affect minority students, so more purposeful grouping may be better for all students (see “Managing Student Groups” in Baepler et al., 2016).



How many students should be in a group? How do you create a collaborative climate to foster cohesion?

In the video clip below, Heather shares best practices from research and her own teaching experience about group size and fostering cohesion.

  • The recommendation is to have groups of about 3 – 5 students if possible as this produces more cooperation and less social loafing, resulting in better group performance (see “Group work” in Brame, 2019).
  • More diverse groups lead to better decisions and better problem-solving. Diversity, in this case, refers to various factors, not just ethnicity, but includes interest, discipline, etc (Harrison & Klein, 2007). However, it is recommended that “solo status” be avoided. For example, avoid assigning four men and one woman or four white students and one student of color to groups of five (Oakley et al., 2004). 
  • Use student information surveys to get to know students better. In the online context, the time zone is a factor that needs to be considered when grouping students. 
  • Instructors who teach Small Group Behavior at Vanderbilt implement a “getting to know you activity” where group members share family stories in whatever way they feel most comfortable, which helps to build cohesion.


A Project-based Approach to Group Formation

In Bobby’s course, students work on projects. He uses permanent groups as the projects are complex and mirror what students would experience in the computer science profession, where a constant, often interdisciplinary team would work on a project from start to finish. 

In the video clip below, Bobby shares how he forms his stable groups:

  1. Before groups are formed, students work on individual low-stakes assessments to allow the instructors to get a sense of their skillset and understanding of the course content.
  2. Later, all students are asked to pitch ideas for projects they would like to work on, and then he and the co-instructor selects a few from their experience on what is doable and would make for good collaboration. For example, from a class of 54 students, they would choose about 11 projects.
  3. Next, students “bid” on the top 3 projects they would like to work on and include, who they would like to work with, their time zone, among other things.
  4. Next, the instructors determine how the projects are distributed based on interest and their performance and attitude toward the low stakes assessment. In the past, they did group composition via a paper mechanism, but in Spring, 2021 they used Trello boards, a collaborative online project management system. We will talk more about this later when we discuss technologies.


A Dynamic Approach to Group Formation

Corbette employs a more hybrid approach of temporary and stable groups, which she calls dynamic groups. While she agrees that stable groups have benefits, she also makes a case for more dynamic groups. In some organizations, the nature of the work necessitates people to be on many short-term projects with different people with whom they may not have a prior working relationship. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, refers to this as Teaming (Learn more about teaming by watching a video (2:25): What is Teaming? or reading an article: The Importance of Teaming)

In the video clip below, Corbette shares her approach to dynamic groups:

Before the first day of class, she asks students to complete a survey that includes things like the context they are interested in studying and working, experience with using the tools they will be using in the class, and a ranking from 1-5 of their fear factor for the course content. 

She forms groups that reflect a common interest, and then she uses a formula that balances experience with the tools and the fear factor. She creates groups for students to excel through peer teaching, as learning is enhanced when we teach someone else, and novices learn more when they can listen to someone from a more comparable level. 

 She uses three types of groups. 

  1. She starts the class off with assigned groups, and they do the first two projects of the course together.
  2. For the third project, students get to choose their groups. Notably, she has seen significant overlap between the assigned and self-selected groups; students frequently decided to stick with the people they worked with for the assigned groups. This seems to indicate the value of doing purposeful assignments first before giving students an option to self-select. 
  3. Students complete a series of 5 small group homework assignments using a Try, Pair, Share strategy.
    1. Students attempt the homework individually and upload it before class.
    2. In class, she puts students in random groups of 3, and they are asked to share their approach to solving the homework problems, which can have multiple correct solutions. 
    3. As a whole class, they take turns reporting on different questions.
    4. Corbette then shares an example.
    5. Students then do self-reflections rating their own effort before class, their contributions to the small group conversations, and their competence by the end of the class session. 


How can we prepare and support students to function effectively as a group?

Earlier, we discussed how important it is to ensure that group work aligns with the goals and objectives for the course. It is also vital to explicitly include learning objectives about teamwork in the course syllabus and make plans to develop teamwork competency. Students don’t inherently come to the classroom with effective teamwork skills. We have to recognize that teamwork is an additional skill to the domain knowledge and skills of the course. 

To support students in functioning effectively as a team, Corbette uses Group Promises. In the past, she would use group contracts for the big projects and give students a template to complete; the template included headings related to leadership, goals, approach to conflict resolution, etc. However, she now calls the document Group Promises instead of a group contract. She also embeds the notion of promises in the syllabus to communicate what she promises and what she would like students to promise her. Her inspiration came from a session that Cynthia Brame, Associate Director, CFT, led based on an article by Ken Bain on the Promising Syllabus. In the article, Bain shares how the learning environment can be transformed by changing the language of a syllabus to promises rather than demands. She usually gives students the group promises template to complete at the beginning of the project. In the past, students evaluated one another relative to their group promises at the end of the project. Last year, she implemented mid-project evaluations. Students found this so effective that they suggested making the check-ins even more frequent. This semester, at the end of each class where project groups meet, Corbette asks teams to quickly share with one another one thing each person should keep doing and one opportunity to improve. 

Bobby explicitly addresses group work by sharing at the beginning of the semester that learning to work with people you do not choose to work with is an essential skill that they will need to be successful professionals. He establishes that one of the goals of the course is to develop teamwork competence. Bobby also recommends that instructors should be prepared to handle group dynamics challenges as these will occur. 

In the video clip below, Bobby shares his approach to handling conflicts and Heather shares about consulting groups.

  • From Bobby’s experience, there are usually two types of problems
  1. Students who do not pull their weight or social loafers. In a project-based course, this can be frustrating as the group usually cannot compensate for the lack of effort of the others. 
  2. Students who believe they are experts in the domain area assume they can do the project independently without the rest of the team. These students tend not to trust that the other group members will do a good job, and in some cases, they are concerned about group work affecting their grades, so they attempt to do the project on their own and exclude others. If the group project is designed correctly, one student cannot complete the project.

Heather uses an approach called Consulting Groups, where a few times per semester, students can share with a member of the class who is not in their group how things are going and get advice. Students then reflect on the discussion with her (the instructor) to ensure that the discussion is constructive. 

What are some strategies to scaffold students in completing group work?

 In discussing the three types of group work that Corbette does in her class, we shared the Try, Pair, Share strategy. This is an excellent strategy for balancing individual accountability and positive interdependence for smaller group tasks. For Bobby’s course, which has a semester-long project, he uses the Agile Framework. Agile means iterative or incremental development. In the course, groups have several short 2-week sprints, which are development phases, and they have a deliverable at the end of each sprint that they can demonstrate (think of it as a milestone). Each sprint moves the groups further along to full project completion. As for each sprint, they have to figure out what piece of the project they can get working in that short time. In a typical semester, they would have about 5 sprints. The deliverables for each sprint are graded using a sprint rubric that clearly outlines the metrics of success. The key here is to consider balancing individual accountability and group interdependence and allowing small deliverables to help students meet the deadline for a bigger project.

In the video clip below, Bobby shares his approach to using the Agile framework in class.

Bobby recommends deciding on the skeleton of or framework for a big project to make sure it is big enough so that it can’t be done by a single person. You also want to make sure that the framework is general enough to leave room for learners to have some autonomy in the outcome. Also, consider the possible functional roles that each group needs to have. For example, for a virtual reality project, the components would be someone to:

  1.  Create the environments (scenes) where users will experience the virtual world 
  2. Work on the interactions with the environment that the users will have
  3.  Work on the collaborative capabilities of the virtual environment so that it can become a social space
  4. Document the project, manage the audio and other external media and ensure the environment is usable. 

Based on those components, typical roles might be environment modeler, documentation manager, tool-pusher, networking coder, and interaction coder. Each project is progressively developed to scaffold students and to assess how well the groups are functioning. In the Agile framework that is used in the course, this progressive development, a sprint as described above, is assessed at the end of each sprint. Sprints are fixed time intervals, so the deadlines for each development and assessment cycle are known in advance by students. Also, built-in mechanisms to promote individual accountability. For example, aligning the role that each member would play with a task report. Using the VR project course as an example, each sprint cycle presents an opportunity to reflect upon progress using typical Agile metrics, things such as burndown charts, which are visualization aids that chart a group’s progress toward the final deliverable project. In addition, however, a project report consisting of a modest amount of documentation is required, as well as a demonstration that the project is in some form of a workable (if incomplete) state, such as a small narrated video. Additionally, each student could be asked to complete a personal reflection at the end of each sprint.


What are some redesign considerations for shifting face-to-face group work to online learning?

Trying to recreate an in-person activity to look precisely the same online may become frustrating. However, focusing on the goals of each activity allows us to explore how the new environment and tools we have can enable us to achieve those goals in similar and, in some cases, even better ways. 

In the video clip below, Corbette, Bobby, and Heather share examples of redesigned group activities.

One of Corbette’s major group tasks in her face-to-face course was a hands-on in-person group bake sale in the Commons. The bake sale activity was designed to introduce students to concepts they will be learning throughout the semester in a low-risk environment and to enable them to build camaraderie. However, during remote learning, it was not possible to have a bake sale. She took a step back and focused on the goals of the activity, and with her faculty peers from the CFT Online Course Design Institute, she brainstormed a new approach. They came up with a virtual “Shark-Tank-like” competition with alumni as judges, and it went exceptionally well. Shark Tank is a TV show where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to a team of investors to convince them to invest in their product or service.

For Bobby’s Computer Science course, they address virtual reality in interdisciplinary teams. In class, students would immerse in virtual reality with head-mounted displays and shared headsets. With the shift to remote learning, it was clear that they would not be able to use shared hardware. In focusing on the goals of the course rather than just the activity, they switched to networked virtual reality. They made the decision very early and worked in the Summer to redesign the course for the Fall, and they found the CFT Online Course Design Institute very helpful. 

Heather had a similar challenge to Corbette and Bobby as many of her group tasks before the shift to remote learning involved shared materials and face-to-face interactions. For example, there was a tower-building game competition day. The purpose of this activity was achieved via asking students to develop a commercial. The commercial involved trying to sell an object that they have repurposed. 



In the video clip below, Bobby, and Heather share examples of how they have used technology to afford collaborative work online.


Bobby illustrates his use of Trello for group formation and discusses how he uses Slack for group communication and GitHub for collaborative development and repository for the software projects. Heather uses Brightspace groups to create a space where groups can communicate and work together.

In the video clip below, Corbette illustrates how she uses Mural a digital whiteboard to get students to pitch and prioritize ideas. She also shares how she uses TimeTrade for calendaring for office hours, it is especially useful for group work as she requires all groups to schedule at least one meeting with her. 



Below you will find examples from the panelist as well as links to other resources and technologies. 

Examples from Panelists

Content Resources

    1. Pope-Ruark, R. (2017). Agile faculty: Practical strategies for managing research, service, and teaching. University of Chicago Press.
    2. Rebecca Pope Ruark discusses her book, Agile Faculty, on episode 219 of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast
    3. A short introduction to agile methods 
    4. An extended introduction to agile methods 

Technology Resources

Bobby used the card feature to organize students into diverse groups.

Software for collaborative development that Bobby used in his class.

Both Bobby and Corbette used slack to facilitate dynamic communication through the channel and other features. For more information, View recorded Conversations on Teaching facilitated by Derek: Teaching with Chat and Channel Apps.

An alternative to Zoom that one participant will be trying because of a more dynamic approach to short group discussions.

Corbette used the education-free version to get students to pitch ideas and settle on the top idea. She used the Idea Prioritization template.

Collaborative whiteboard with free educator license.

Heather will be using Brightspace Groups and Discussions which are the default tools available with the university LMS.

Both Bobby and Corbette found using a scheduling app helpful, and Bobby’s students mentioned it was good to have a mechanism to schedule a quick talk with faculty when needed. 


Baepler, P., Walter, J. D., Brooks, C., Saichaie, K., & Petersen, C. I. (2016). A guide to teaching in the active learning classroom: History, research, and practice. Stylus Publishing. 

Brame, C. J. (2019). Science teaching essentials: Short guides to good practice. Academic Press. 

Harrison, D. A., & Klein, K. J. (2007). What’s the difference? Diversity constructs as separation, variety, or disparity in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 32(4), 1199-1228. 

Kirschner, P., Strijbos, J. W., Kreijns, K., & Beers, P. J. (2004). Designing electronic collaborative learning environments. Educational technology research and development, 52(3), 47-66.

Mason, K. (2020, May 4). Essential learning outcomes. Association of American Colleges & Universities. 

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. 

Rogers, E. C., Reynolds, B. E., Davidson, N. A., & Thomas, A. D. (2001). Cooperative learning in undergraduate mathematics: Issues that matter and strategies that work. Mathematical Association of America. 

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