How to build group projects your online students will love

College students sitting at desks using laptops in a library

In this post, I’ll explain a few ways you can more effectively facilitate group work for your online students. But first, let’s take a quick look at why we educators care about group projects to begin with. Group projects in education are very similar to taxes: generally we know that they are important and why they are needed, but very few people think fondly of them. Perhaps it wasn’t always like this for us. My daughter in first grade is always thrilled to team up with her buddies to work on art projects and school crafts. Somewhere along the way, the thrill of working with friends on a fun project will inevitably subside as her coursework becomes more scholarly, and she is introduced to the concept of individual accountability as it relates to academic assessment.

Beware of social loafing and the “sucker effect”

What my daughter may encounter is the social loafing phenomenon: when an underperforming member of a group benefits from the accomplishments of the remaining group members while putting in little or no effort himself. Psychologists test social loafing by measuring an individual’s output or effort (e.g. on a rowing machine) to determine a baseline of one’s capabilities, then subsequently measuring that individual’s output as part of a group. What they have found is that often when people are combined with others, their effort as part of a group is less than their effort when they think they are being measured individually. For some, their group contributions are far inferior to their individual performance. These individuals can be identified as social loafers.

On a rowing machine, it is easy to mask one’s output in a group. In an academic group, outputs are promptly gauged by all team members. When a student feels that he or she is doing most of all of the work, then they are at risk of the sucker effect, which is essentially when a group member sees that other people are not contributing to tasks and decides to not contribute – electing perhaps to fail as opposed to shouldering all of the work. Essentially, there are times when good students would rather not be suckers.

The benefits outweigh the challenges

Group projects in online education are met with a myriad of challenges beyond the innate tendencies toward social loafing and the sucker effect. Often the students who matriculate into online programs are working adults who have jobs, families, community responsibilities, and it is likely that they span various time zones (perhaps even continents). One of the main appeals of online education is the flexibility that it provides to students with demanding schedules.

With that said, as a professor in online learning I know that group projects are important for my students. They help students gain multiple perspectives on a topic (I’m always a fan of the constructivist learning theory), they prepare students for workplace task forces and team-based projects, and they give students exposure to the world of project management. Below are guidelines for designing online group projects:

Clear Purpose and goals

My projects are generally small in overall scope and provide individualized value to the student. Students are more likely to benefit from an assignment when they find it meaningful as opposed to a perfunctory task.

Group size

For me, a manageable size for my online groups is typically 3-4 people. This allows students to distribute the workload evenly while holding each person accountable for their deliverables.

Operating guidelines

Consider having each group draft their own team charter by delineating: specific roles, responsibilities, timelines, requirements for participation, expectations for communication, etc. The group may even elect a team leader. You might consider having each member sign/submit it in the form of a group contract.


Clearly state your expectations regarding communication, including the channels that they need to monitor and the need for them to be responsive in a timely manner. Efficient communication is vital for online groups.

Structure of assignments

Make sure that group projects are structured in such a way that they emphasize the collaborative component of the assignment. As assignment that an individual could complete without the collaboration of others is really an individual assignment, not a group project.

Recognition of individual effort

Recognition is a two-way street involving both incentives and penalties. Positive reinforcement, such as providing regular favorable feedback, can be a strong motivator while also serving to alert the student that his or her presence and efforts are being monitored. When students feel as though they are individualized and that their presence is being monitored, they will act much differently than if they can hide behind the ambiguity of a group presence.

Semester-long teams

One way I minimize the sucker effect is to allow group members to genuinely get to know one another over the course of the semester. This is especially important in online learning where students do not see each other regularly in the classroom. Long term projects will not eliminate the social loafers completely, but when students are invested in a more permanent group then they are more likely to be held accountable to (and respect) each other.

Interim feedback and progress reports

Consider peppering the project with low stakes deliverables and provide regular feedback.

Use of technology

Online education profits from a wealth of collaborative technologies. We have the ability to engage in web conferencing, electronic long distance communication, and web-enabled mobile devices have become increasingly common. Despite the many sources of synchronous (i.e. real-time) communication, I often provide and encourage my students to seek out asynchronous (i.e. as schedule permits) mediums to collaborate with each other.

Multiple perspectives

Try mixing up the online groups in order to facilitate a more constructivist perception of the curriculum content. Consider mingling the following demographics in order to foster opportunities for creativity:

  • Academic major
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Career background (if applicable)
  • Age


Although it may be futile to try to abolish social loafers in our online students group entirely, the considerations listed here may help facilitate successful group work in your classes. Do you have any other approaches or methods that you find work well? Please let us know in the comments section.


About the Author

dr-sean-lead-650x720Sean Nufer, Psy.D., has worn many hats at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He began his career there as an instructional designer for the Center for Academic Excellence where he led workshops on educational technologies, and created engaging tutorials and demonstrations for students and faculty. He then transitioned to a role as a lead academic instructional designer and curriculum subject matter expert for online course development – specializing in incorporating technology into the online classroom, while also training other faculty on how to successfully design and implement effective eLearning content. As an instructional designer, Nufer continually worked to refine the institution’s policies and technologies regarding online learning. He eventually redefined this role when he became the institution’s eLearning specialist, where he continues to work closely with the instructional design team, faculty and executives to research industry trends and new developments in order to recommend and apply best practices to better engage and serve students.