Making Group Projects Work with Diverse Students!

If structured well, group projects can promote important intellectual and social skills. Group projects also prepare students for real-world work projects in which teamwork and collaboration are critical skills. How can teachers eliminate two common group member stereo types – the lone wolf and the free loader?  

  • Lone wolf – highly individualistic & resist collaboration
  • Free loaders – lack initiative and avoid work

Often in unstructured groups, a mainstreamed student with a disability - such as a student with a visual impairment - is not always fully included in group projects. How can teachers facilitate equality and active participation from every group member, including groups with diversity? 

Making Groups with Diversities Work

Teachers often do not consider that students may not know how to break down the project into manageable tasks and how to delegate these smaller tasks. Students who do not have these skills may shut down on the project and appear to be ‘free loading’. Students who lack good social skills may have a lot to contribute to the group but are overwhelmed with how to appropriately interact within the group. These students may feel flustered, alone and alienated.

  • Process: Initially, the process of working in a group is initially more important than the actual group product. All students need to learn how to identify and delegate team roles, set up short and long term goals, how to plan backward and most importantly how to communicate. Research shows that more than 50 percent of ‘freeloading’ in a student group is due to poor communication.
  • Time:  It takes time for a group to learn to work together, to facilitate equality, interaction and understanding - especially groups with diversity.
  • Trust: Trust in the group process.  Expect failures and learn from them. Focus on strengthens and weakness of the group – not what individuals are doing right or wrong.

Group projects in college tend to be full semester projects. However, simple group projects – and strategies for group work – are introduced early. Elementary school projects may be a quick, 30-minute group activity. Teamwork, social skills and group skills should be age-appropriate and should be developed and expanded as the complexity of the projects grow.

Teaching Group Skills

The following skills focus on group skills for students who are working on bigger projects (middle school and beyond); these skills can be broken down for younger students as well.

  • Reasons for Group: Discuss the reasons behind the group project and the type of learning that will be accomplished through group collaboration. Explain that in some cases, articulating questions, finding connections, probing issues, exploring parameters, formulating ideas and solutions provides deeper understanding and long-term retention. This valuable style of learning comes through collaboration with others.
  • Size of Group: 4 -5 members will balance diversity, productivity, active participation and cohesion. The less skillful the group members, the smaller the groups should be. Instead of grouping by location (friends tend to sit together), organize random group members by group by birthdays, favorite candy, interest/hobbies. In some cases, the teacher may decide to place specific members together.
  • Use an icebreaker to help group cohesion and bonding.
  • Roles & Responsibilities: Brainstorm possible roles and responsibilities – clearly assign and define roles. Roles must be address early to prevent potential conflicts that arise due to misunderstandings!
    • For younger students, the teacher may dictate what types of roles are needed. However, be cautious about assigning roles such as “note taker” on simple projects, as often a visually impaired student is given that role for every project and limits the expectation of hands-on or actively participating.  Better Roles and Responsibilities might be for the group to determine who will research what topic or to complete a specific group goal.
  • Develop Ground Rules:
    • Professional conduct
    • Respect team members’ differences and create an inclusive environment
    • Address accountability
  • Communication: Throughout each step, all team members should communicate! Share successes and work together through unsuccessful attempts. Each ‘attempt’ is an opportunity to learn. As a team, brainstorm ideas about why a goal was not successful and either what can be done differently or if the goal should be modified or changed.
  • Task management: Start with the end goal.
    • Clearly define the end goal and break down tasks to reach that goal.
    • Create a timeline for each task to be completed.
    • Assign tasks (Remember, individual students or smaller teams can work simultaneously on different goals!)
    • Group members need to be taught how to divide tasks fairly and to encourage everyone to fully participate. Allocate essential resources across the group so that group members are required to interact and share information (‘jigsaw’ method)
  • Schedule regular class or teacher updates/presentations/deadlines (for larger group projects); require each team member to talk/share. These updates should include what was successful and what was not.

Engineering Design Process – Group Activities Help Harry directions: Harry is a small red puffball with googly eyes. Task is to build him a new perch.

Engineering activities are a wonderful way to build group skills – including good social and communication skills. The Engineering Design Process for younger students has five steps: 

  • Ask: What is the problem? How have others approached it? What are your constraints?
  • Imagine: What are some solutions? Brainstorm ideas. Choose the best one.
  • Plan: Draw a diagram. Make lists of materials you will need.
  • Create: Follow your plan and create something. Test it out!
  •  Improve: What works? What doesn’t? What could work better? Modify your design to make it better. Test it out!

Use the Engineering Design Process questions to help develop active participation between group members. Model brainstorming (questions and answers) as a class project before working in small groups. The engineering process expects trial and error, improving, and learning from ‘mistakes’. When a design is created, the next step is to improve the design – which means discussing, brainstorming, planning, re-creating and testing again!

Ideas for Group Activities

Pinterest is a wonderful source for ideas on how to teach group skills and specific group activities. 

Group Projects on Pinterest

Activities on Scholastic website

Looking for a simple group (engineering) project for younger kids? Try Help Harry – an Engineering group project.

Help Harry directions and teamwork survey.

It’s Good Till It’s Not  is an article about group project dynamics with team members who have disabilities.


Editor's Notes

The featured imagine in this post is a colorful classroom poster with GROUP acronym:  

G - Get along - compromise

R - Respect your teammates & Respect the rest of the class

O - Offer your ideas and thoughtful feedback

U - Use a plan & quiet voices

P - Participate actively and equally

S - Stay focused & on task


*Help Harry Instructions and Teamwork image is a paper that includes the text:

You will have 5 more minutes to make modifications.

You will have 2 minutes to evaluate your teamwork.

Our Teamwork scores range of 5 - 1:

  • How much did everyone participate equally?
  • How successful was your perch?
  • Did people ask for help and offer help?
  • Did people encourage each other?
  • Did people stay focused and on task?
  • Did your team enjoy the activity?

Collage of making group projects work with diverse students

Read more about: Assistive Technology, STEM