Inclusive small group work

Group work is difficult for many students, particularly where a single mark or grade is awarded to the outcome. Personal differences between group members (eg ethnicity, disability, age, religion, previous educational experience) are often a source of anxiety and stress, and sometimes hostility. Speakers of English as a second language may feel disadvantaged. Anyone who is in a minority within a group can feel excluded or unwelcome.

At its best group work can be a rewarding opportunity for students to develop skills in collaboration, communication, time management and presentation that are transferable to the workplace.


Many students will have little experience of working in groups, and may not see this as a legitimate learning experience.

  • Explain the learning benefits of working in diverse groups.
  • Do you expect all students to perform all roles? eg do you require all students to make a presentation?
  • Encourage students to set ground rules eg
    • What is acceptable
    • Separate role for everyone
    • Clarity about task and individual contributions
  • Remind groups that practical arrangements should work for all.
  • Everyone will be expected to participate.
  • Do you give students guidance on giving presentations before this is formally assessed? It may be a new skill to acquire.

Getting started

  • How will you achieve diverse groups at the start of the course? eg allocation, random groups.
  • Consider ice-breaking sessions, with pre-task question and answer to help everyone understand the task.
  • Give a brief initial task to encourage the group to start working together.
  • Try to break initial tasks into specific briefs for each participant, so that everyone can contribute.
  • Can you schedule time within class for groups to start to work together?


  • Are rooms acceptable and accessible to all group members? eg the bar is unlikely to be acceptable for strict Muslims; is there wheelchair access?
  • Is extra equipment needed? eg hearing loops, computers with assistive software.
  • Can accessible rooms in the School be used by groups?
  • Are meeting times convenient for all? eg consider caring responsibilities, religious commitments, availability of support workers.

Design a task which

  • is better done in groups than individually.
  • involves all group members.
  • makes use of participants’ skills and experiences.
  • makes diverse skills and knowledge an asset.

eg comparative studies, a global marketing campaign, impact assessment.


Summative assessment can be a source of anxiety in group work.

  • Consider the use of group contracts or some form of peer assessment.
  • Do your marking criteria reward working effectively in a diverse group?
  • English language competence can be a source of worry for international students. Be clear about what is being assessed.
  • Encourage students to practice presentation skills before assessment.
  • One option is to learn in groups, but assess individually.
  • Consider alternative assessments for disabled students eg extra written work instead of an oral presentation if this is difficult due to a disability.
  • Do your criteria take into consideration that multicultural groups can take longer to reach the same level of effectiveness as mono-cultural ones?
  • Consider how your assessment will recognise different contributions of group members eg planning, coordinating, research, IT skills, writing skills, presentation skills.

Dealing with conflict

Conflict is inevitable in all groups, and is likely to be more significant in a more diverse group. Anticipate it.

  • Use ground rules and agreements.
  • Discuss potential problems and ways of handling them.
  • Observe groups in action, and intervene if necessary.
  • Ensure that all students know how to seek help if necessary.

Electronic group work

Electronic collaboration in group work

  • improves students’ IT skills.
  • encourages contributions from disabled or part-time students.
  • allows time for students whose first language is not English to formulate their contributions.
  • avoids organisational problems with rooms and timing.

Student issues

  • Check with any disabled student how they want other group members to be informed of their support needs.
  • Remind the group to speak in turns, and check that all have heard what is said and able to contribute.
  • Arrange a notetaker within the group, who can circulate notes to all.
  • Brainstorming in groups can be difficult to follow. Take turns round the group.


  • Check that groups are working satisfactorily.
  • Check that all students are achieving the desired learning outcomes.
  • Break a project down into smaller components, and check progress regularly.

Further information