Group Work and the Power of Social Learning

Students laughing at cafe table

Group work is a common pedagogical technique integrated into a vast array of learning situations. Whether it’s a secondary school project or an MBA module, group work is consistently used throughout educational experiences to diversify and expand a student’s thinking, knowledge, and interpersonal skills. Great online or blended courses are rarely self-paced; learners need the immediacy of a teacher-student and student-student interactions. As practitioners, we need opportunities to bring cohorts together to share ideas. Individuals don’t learn in their own bubble; learning is situated and social. Educators create that space and monitor its climate.

Integrating opportunities for learners to participate and learn from each other creates rich, dynamic learning environments rather than static, individualised, and isolated experiences. It is a facilitator of networking, knowledge sharing, collaboration, and it exposes learners to new cultures and ways of thinking. It has been suggested that group work can develop ‘deep’ rather than ‘surface’ learning (Entwistle and Waterston, 1988) and promote ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ learning (Kremer and McGiness 1998; Ruel et al. 2003). Following a Vygotskian approach, it is argued that these outcomes are achieved because group work allows students to negotiate meaning, contrast different perspectives and construct knowledge through interactions with others (Jaques, 1991). It is a core aspect of most online and blended programmes around the world, now supported and enabled by increasingly sophisticated technologies.

The  design of group tasks should be carefully considered when creating online and blended programmes. For example, it is useful to appreciate that students may be working across various time zones in cross-cultural contexts. They may need more time to complete the group tasks—the social processes involved in creating adequate group cohesion can take longer online—and online learners may have multiple competing work or family commitments that  make extended synchronous group meetings difficult. It is also important to consider prior experiences of group work. Davis (2009) observes that group work often requires educators to allow time for a sense of group solidarity to develop. Rovai (2002) notes that a sense of inclusion is imperative for all learners, but particularly for distance learners, as it can not only improve persistence and commitment to learning goals, provide learning support, but ‘may also increase the flow of information among all learners’ (p. 3). Similarly, Fawn (2012) stresses that authentic commitment to collaborative tasks is highly dependent on the extent to which group cohesion and a sense of group identity is established. Understanding the breakdown of the students themselves will help practitioners design effective group work that will enhance the learning journey.

Harasim’s theory of Online Collaborative Learning can be helpful when designing group tasks. Conventionally, there are three steps:

  • Step 1. Idea generating: this is the brainstorming phase, where different thoughts and ideas are gathered. 
  • Step 2. Idea organizing: this is the phase where ideas are compared, analyzed, and categorized through discussion and argument. 
  • Step 3. Intellectual convergence: the phase where intellectual synthesis and consensus occurs, so students go through a process of agreeing and disagreeing, usually through an assignment, essay, or other joint piece of work.

The activities and functionality on the insendi platform is consciously designed around social learning theory, which emphasizes that learning is a social process, dependent on observation, participation, and modelling of behaviours (Wenger 1998). The insendi learning experience platform was designed with the knowledge that group work is a key element to all programmes, whether they be undergraduate, postgraduate, or executive education. The platform allows you to allocate students to different groups, which in turn pulls through to any activity that you deem to be a group activity. The range and sophistication of the in-built insendi activity library allows educators to tailor group experiences to achieve the best outcomes.

Furthermore, the platform has a wide range of activities that facilitate group work. For instance, the forum feature allows students to present ideas as a learning unit, while also creating  spaces for groups to have internal discussions together online. The majority of activities on the insendi platform can be set up as group submissions to allow for collaborative working with their teams. The image tile activity allows for groups to submit a visual aid to support their arguments. For example, if groups were tasked to show a price model for a company, they can submit their model to the rest of the cohort in an organised, visual manner.

It can also support group submissions for graded assignments. On insendi, one student can submit assignments on behalf of the team and moderators are allowed to assign one grade to the whole group that then pulls through to each individual’s grade. This allows faculty and TAs to manage their grading timelines more effectively as well as providing time for detailed feedback for each group.

The insendi platform makes group work easy to set up and design from the outset. With its wide range of collaborative activities as well as clear, easy to use programme design tools, institutions can capitalise on a pedagogically powerful learning approach whilst delivering education in online or blended formats. 


  • Davies, W.M. (2009). 'Groupwork as a form of assessment: common problems and recommended solutions.' Higher Education, 58, 563-584. 
  • Entwistle, N., & Waterston, S. (1988). Approaches to studying and levels of processing in university students. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 258–265.
  • Fawns, T.  (2012).  Position paper on collaborative online assessments.
  • Jaques, D. (1991). Learning in Groups. London : Kogan Page. 
  • Kremer, J., & McGuiness, C. (1998). Cutting the cord: Student-led discussion groups in higher education. Education ? Training, 40(2), 44–49.
  • Rovai, A. (2002). Building a Sense of Community at a Distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 3(1), 1-16. 
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.
Dr Charlotte von Essen

About the author

Dr Charlotte von Essen is Director of Academic Engagement at insendi. She previously worked at Imperial Business School’s Edtech Lab and has a background in university teaching and learning design. She has designed and delivered numerous online and blended programmes and helped faculty across the world develop hundreds of courses for a range of audiences - undergraduates, postgraduates, executive education clients, and corporate learners.

At insendi, Charlotte leads the Academic Engagement team, which is devoted to supporting and nurturing the company’s relationships with current partners. She also supports insendi’s user communities, including the award-winning FOME alliance. Charlotte is fascinated by the ever-evolving models and practices of Edtech. The innovations and insights of this rich and dynamic sector excite her work. She loves learning about new projects and initiatives insendi partners are planning, all of which offer fresh, exciting ways to enrich and deepen learning.