Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Inclusive Groups & Cooperative Learning

With a motto of “Learn By Doing” and a focus on high impact and integrated practices, Cal Poly is a place where group and team based learning is a priority in our learning spaces. However, it can be tricky to know how to construct and use groups effectively in the classroom. When designing your class and curriculum there might be a couple of different ways you would want to use groups in your course.

In this section the focus will be on the two most common:

1) Small group discussion or activities in class (short term) are often used to provide opportunities for students to share ideas, collaborate on in class projects, and then share back to the whole group or to the instructor. You might choose to have students work in groups that are different each time, or they might have an assigned

2) Group projects and presentations (long term) are often assigned to students outside of class work. These groups usually involve working together over the course of a term to co-construct a large project. Students may be given some in class time to work on their group project, but are also responsible for coordinating meetings and work on the assignment outside of scheduled class time.

As with most inclusive teaching practices it is important to know your students when considering group work. Students will come to your class with some prior experience working in groups. These experiences could be positive or negative. Your job will be to help them have a positive learning experience through your group design. One way of setting them on the right path to a good experience is through making visible your collaborative goals and objectives. The syllabus is a great place to introduce your vision for group work in your class. As you draft your syllabus think about answering these questions for your students:

  • Why is group work important in this class?
  • What are the benefits of group work in your discipline?
  • What types of group work will occur in your class?
  • How will groups be constructed?
  • How will groups be evaluated?
  • What protocols are there for group behavior?
  • How will the group experiences connect with the learning outcomes of the class?

After setting the stage in your syllabus your students will be more open to group work experiences and ready to engage with the process in your class. Another good place to make the process visible to students is in the assignment descriptions where group work will be included. This area is a good one to really connect what working within a group will do for the students through the assignment. It is also a place where outlining the responsibilities of the group members, the selection process of groups, and specifics for evaluation of the group experience can be articulated in detail.  

Thinking about the assignment descriptions leads us back to the two most common uses of groups in a course. Once you have decided which style of group work you are going to be doing and when you can start to construct the parameters and details for student engagement. There are several factors to keep in mind when constructing groups for your class. As inclusive instructors we want our classes to be open, safe, and engaging places. This can mean really thinking through the composition of a group. 

Here are several points to keep in mind when assigning groups:


Depending on the size of your class groups of 3-5 are generally good numbers to work with. If a group becomes too large it can be hard for everyone to have a voice in the discussion and some might be excluded. 


Not all classroom spaces are conducive to groups. However, don’t let that keep you from thinking outside of the box. Encourage neighbor exchanges, letting students leave the room to find a space to share, or consider holding your class in a different location (outside) on days you schedule group work. 


Group composition is important. It may seem easy to let students form their own groups, but this can lead to uneven power structures. They might not be intentional, but they can be there. It is especially important when considering gender, race, and ethnicity as well as ability level. 

If possible use a randomization procedure to select groups. Randomization works well if you are changing groups frequently, or, if you don’t know the students well and are trying to get them into project groups right from the start of the class. Here are a few examples (these examples don’t specifically take into account gender, race, and ethnicity – but they do help to disrupt possible power barriers):

  • Counting off
  • Passing out a reading or assignment for discussion with different symbols on the back. Students must find their group through the same symbols
  • Using a randomization computer program

When not using a randomization procedure you can hand select the groups. Keep in mind:

  • Try to include at least two of the same gender in a group. 
  • Work to ensure group diversity by race and ethnicity (visually)
  • If you have had an opportunity to get to know your students beforehand you can select them based upon what you know about them 

Once students are assigned to groups they will need guidance on being inclusive themselves. 


Whether or not the groups are permanent or changing daily it is important for groups to know something about the members. Names are important, but also some getting to know you type questions will help group members connect through similarities or the interest in understanding differences. Think about what is appropriate for them to consider when sharing about themselves and the project. Maybe having students talk about a good group experience and a bad experience might help highlight individual perspectives about group work. 

Provide an organized outline for constructive group relations. This overview can stand in place for short -term groups as well as a starting place for groups who will be together longer. You may want to point out:

  • Shared responsibility
  • Agreeing on leadership and roles
  • Talk dominance
  • Rules of engagement – how to handle conflict

Have groups draft their own rules for workload, assignments, roles, conflict resolution, and participation (this works best for groups who will be working together over a longer period of time). 

These are only a few suggestions to help you consider ways of making group work more inclusive in your courses. It is important to remember that when using groups they are made up of individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. When dealing with a classroom individuals there is always the possibility that someone will not like groups, will have personality conflicts, and will not fit within how you have thought through your process. Keep in mind that as an inclusive instructor, we work to make the process equitable, open, and transparent to our students. Thereby guiding them to engage in deep, meaningful, and enjoyable group work that will benefit their academic and life skills. 

For additional references and resources on inclusive groups see the following:


Brodbeck, F. Yves Guillaume, Nick Lee. (2010). Ethnic diversity as a multilevel
construct: The combined effects of dissimilarity, group diversity, and societal status on learning performance in work groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/09/13/0022022110383314.full.pdf

Davis, B. (1999). Cooperative learning: Students working in small groups. Speaking
of Teaching. http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/cooperative.pdf

Ruggs, E. & Hebl, M. (2012) Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Awareness for
Classroom and Outreach Education. In B. Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.). Apply Research to Practice (ARP) Resources. Retrieved <Month Day, Year> from http://www.engr.psu.edu/AWE/ARPResources.aspx
Shimazoe, J. Aldrich, H. (2010). Group work can be gratifying: Understanding &
overcoming resistance to cooperative learning. College Teaching. http://wikiworld.wmwikis.net/file/view/Resistance.pdf

Web Resources:




Related Content

Teaching Resources

Teaching Resources

CTLT Workshops

Want to learn more?




Cal Poly Canvas...

Learn More


Diversity & Inclusion in the Classroom.

More about inclusion


​Writing across the curriculum.

Writing Matters