Improving Student Learning with Group Assignments

David McDonald
Lake Superior State University


Group assignments in a cooperative learning environment can improve student learning. This paper discusses the use of cooperative learning in a junior level electronics course where the students work in groups on both complex classroom problems and laboratory projects. The discussion outlines the types of assignments and presents an evaluation of the use of the cooperative learning method in this course. Although the paper focuses on the application of cooperative learning in an electronics course, the method and the types of assignments are appropriate for any problem solving course.


The considerable restructuring and reengineering activities of industry are grounded in deemphasizing tasks and focusing instead on purpose and process.[1] This emphasis on process has resulted in empowered work teams, with some teams even including peer review that affects pay.[2] The increased use of teamwork means that students' teamwork and communication skills are extremely important and need to be developed in college.

It is necessary, therefore, that engineering and technology programs include the development of teamwork and communication skills. This need is reflected in the recent ASEE report, Engineering Education for a Changing World.[3] Action Item 4 of the report calls for colleges to re-examine their curriculum and include, among other things, team skills, including collaborative, active learning. The report also recommends that ``Engineering schools should not seek to develop these skills through separate courses, but by incorporating them into existing curricula.'' This emphasis on active learning techniques, including cooperative learning, is reflected by several recent articles in the ASEE Prism magazine.[4,5]

It is clearly important that faculty consider incorporating teamwork in their courses, not only as part of the laboratory experience, but with assignments in both the laboratory and the classroom. Group assignments in a lecture course provide students with the opportunity to verbalize and share their ideas which improves both their own understanding as well as the understanding of the other group members. In addition, properly structured group assignments force the students to be accountable to each other and thus promote communication and teamwork skills that will help the students when they enter the work place.

This paper will discuss the use of cooperative learning in a junior-level analog electronics course. The students work in assigned groups on complex homework problems and laboratory projects. The remainder of this paper will briefly introduce the concepts and techniques of cooperative learning, present the different types of assignments, and evaluate the use of this learning method in a junior electronics course.

Overview of Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is dramatically different from the individual, competition-based learning experiences that typify much of engineering education. Although group activities are traditionally used in the engineering laboratory, their use historically has been based more on the high cost of laboratory equipment than for pedagogical reasons. Although engineering students frequently work together, they are not necessarily learning together in a team environment.

Johnson, Johnson, and Smith site over 600 studies that indicate that students learn better when they learn together.[6] They explain that in cooperative learning the students work together to maximize both their own learning and the learning of the other group members. They claim that cooperative learning improves learning, understanding, and remembering. In addition, this learning method helps the student to feel better about himself, the class, and his classmates.

As defined by Johnson, Johnson, and Smith there are five distinct elements of cooperative learning: (1) the group must have clear interdependence, (2) members must promote each other's learning and success face to face, (3) they hold each other personally and individually accountable, (4) they use interpersonal and small group skills, and (5) they process as a group how well the members are working together. There is a clear difference between being together and learning together as opposed to simply being together but learning alone.

It is important that cooperative learning techniques be included in both the lecture and laboratory portion of the course. Although teachers frequently lecture when confronted with complex topics, combining group activities with lectures can help students to learn difficult material.[7] In a recent Joint Newsletter of the IEEE Education Society and ASEE Electrical Engineering Division, Karl Smith presents an excellent summary of cooperative learning and discusses the use of problem-based cooperative learning.[8] He explains that this format is appropriate for engineering ``because it helps students develop skills and confidence for formulating problems they've never seen before.''

The students learn best when they interact with the other group members and share their ideas. The group members are expected to support and encourage each other while holding each other accountable for completing the assignments. They are involved in discussing the material, making decisions about ways to approach problems, how to best conduct laboratory tests, and how to prepare the report and present the results.

When the students are working in groups, the instructor is no longer the focal point of the class. He/she becomes more involved in creating the group structure and ensuring that the groups are functioning as teams. The students can be combined in informal groups that exist only briefly for well-defined tasks, or formal groups that last for several weeks or months. The following section will discuss the types of formal and informal group assignments in the electronics class.

Group Assignments

A teamwork approach to learning has been integrated into some of the junior and senior courses of the Electrical Engineering Technology program at Lake Superior State University with the support of an NSF-ILI grant.[9,10] The students begin working in teams in a junior-level analog electronics course which is the focus of this paper. The teamwork experiences in this class help to prepare the students for more challenging group assignments in both a senior level instrumentation course and a year-long senior project.[11]

The junior electronics course is structured as three, 1-hour lectures and a two hour laboratory session each week for the fourteen week semester. The students work in cooperative groups in both the lecture and laboratory portion of the class. This group work includes both informal groups, which last for a portion of a class period, and formal groups which last for several weeks.

The first class period is used to explain both the technical objectives of the course and the functional objectives of teamwork and communication skills. After an orientation to cooperative learning, the students are randomly divided into informal groups. The students get to know each other, and then complete their first task which is to reach agreement on one of three optional text chapters they would like to see included at the end of the course. After a brief discussion, the groups take turns standing and each student is accountable to introduce another group member to the class and the group presents their group decision. This first class is important because it starts the students working in groups and signals to them that the learning method in this class will be different from their other classes.

Informal cooperative groups are used throughout the course. These groups are occasionally used at the beginning of the class to review material from a prior class, during the lecture to emphasize a topic, or at the end of class to provide closure. As an example, the groups review and discuss the basic concept of differentiation just prior to starting a class period on differentiator circuits.

Early in the course the students are assigned to formal groups of 2-4 students to form balanced, heterogenous groups in terms of grade point, skills, and interests while avoiding having friends and roommates in the same group. The group members immediately exchange schedules and arrange work sessions outside of class. The teams decide their own internal organization to gain experience in selection decisions and to best use the skills of the members. The functioning of the teams is monitored by direct observation and student reflection as described later.

The team assignments consist of class problems and laboratory projects. The class problems are complex homework problems that are too extensive for one student to complete easily. The problems require decision making, problem-solving, and computer simulation. When designated, each group presents their problem solution to the class, using the board or overhead, and submits a written copy of their solution and computer simulation.

When working on the problem assignments, positive interdependence occurs as the group members discuss and agree on a solution process and rely on each other to complete their individual tasks. Both individual and group accountability occurs as the team reaches one solution but each member must be prepared to individually explain the team's solution. Individual accountability also occurs through individual tests. Teamwork skills are promoted as the group learns to make decisions, assign tasks, and resolve conflicts. The team members promote each other's learning as they explain to each other their understanding of the problem. Finally, the students process as a group how well they are doing as a group as they acknowledge individual contributions on assignments and discuss with themselves, in student journals, and with the instructor how well their group is working together and what needs to be done for improvement.

The team laboratory assignments involve the design, prototyping, and testing of 2-3 week projects. The initial projects are structured and the tasks well defined, however later projects are less defined once the teams develop decision making skills. The groups are given directions regarding the problem the group should investigate and the expected outcomes. The groups, however, make their own decisions concerning the circuit design, what tests are needed, and how to collect and analyze the data. Each team member maintains a laboratory notebook where she/he records all the laboratory work and enters recognition for each member's participation on the project. The projects also require one team report on the design, test, analysis and computer simulation, and evaluation of the project.

The cooperative learning elements are present in the laboratory projects as the team members discuss their understanding of the problem, agree on a solution process, and assign individual tasks. Teamwork skills are promoted as the group learns to communicate, agree on a solution, and depend on each other. The group is accountable to complete the project while each member is accountable to complete his or her individual task as well as being able to explain the group's solution. The students promote each other's learning as they discuss the problem and solution process, and assess their team's effectiveness through their laboratory notebooks, journals, and discussions with the instructor.

The course grades are determined by a combination of team grades on problems and laboratory projects, and the individual student grades on quizzes, tests, and writing assignments. All members of the group receive the same grade for the group assignments. Although the quizzes and tests are taken individually, the overall course grades are determined by a fixed scale to prevent competition. The individual writing assignments include informal writing, such as daily student journals, and classroom assessment tools which are explained in the next section.

Evaluation of Group Assignments

Several classroom assessment techniques and evaluation tools are used to determine both how well the groups are working and the students' impressions of the cooperative learning approach. The classroom assessment techniques include individual daily journals and both individual and team memos. The student journals are used as a writing-to-learn tool where the students reflect on their understanding and the application of the classroom theory. The journals are also used for communication with the teacher with several entries dedicated to reflection on how well the groups are processing the assignments.

The students write a mid-semester memo and end-of-semester memo that serve as a ``customer satisfaction letter.'' With the mid-semester assignment, the individual group members first write an individual free-write and then the group processes the individual writings into a one-page group memo. The assignment directs the groups to reflect on what they have learned and participated in and, based on that information, to identify the progress of the class and their progress as a team. The end-of-semester memo is written individually, and the students express their observations and opinions about the cooperative learning method as they have experienced it.

At the end of the course, the students complete a several page evaluation instrument of 21 short discussion questions. This instrument includes general questions about the nature of the assignments, the group culture, the instructor's role, specific questions on some of the assignments, and the environment relative to other classes. These assessment tools are treated as informal writing assignments. The writing is not corrected or graded, but the students receive credit for completing the assignments.

The cooperative learning method is well received by the students. There is some adjustment as the students get to know each other and get accustomed to working in groups. The students report that working together in groups and discussing the material helps their understanding of the subject. They learn to discuss group problems, share responsibility, and are more conscientious about completing tasks because they know that other students are depending upon them. They appreciate the classroom presentations, and report that they overcome the fear of talking in front of the class. The students believe the learning method will help them in future group assignments. A few representative student responses are included below.

``The learning environment in this course really helped me. I need the interaction with other people to further my understanding of the material. I feel part of something and want to get it done because I know other people are counting on me. It doesn't allow me to procrastinate nearly as much.''

``This class was definitely different than the traditional go to class, take notes, and eventually take a test type of class. The group work of having us put problems on the board was very beneficial. At first I was quite scared to get up in front of a group of people, but towards the third week of class it really didn't bother me anymore.''

``The class was a positive experience that I will not forget any time soon. The group learning was a plus and I look forward to it in future classes.''


Group assignments in a cooperative learning environment can help improve student learning while developing essential teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. The students report that the group assignments improved their understanding of the course material because of the interaction of the students' views, the need to listen and to express ideas, and the opportunity to see other ideas. The students believed the group work helped them accomplish more and understand concepts better than by working alone.


The laboratory environment that supported the classroom instruction was supported by an Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation, ``Active Learning: Group Design Projects;'' DUE 93-51807.


  1. Hammer, M. and Champy J.; Reengineering The Corporation: A Manifesto For Business Revolution; HarperCollins Publishers; 1994.

  2. ``Firm (Motorola) gives workers say in pay;'' The Toronto Star, Friday, November 25, 1994.

  3. ASEE Project Report, ``Engineering Education for a Changing World,'' ASEE Prism, V4, N4, December, 1994.

  4. Wankat, P.C. and Oreovicz, F.S., ``A Different Way Of Teaching,'' ASEE Prism, V3, N5, January, 1994.

  5. ``Learning Through Cooperation'' article by Vincent Ercolano, ASEE Prism, V4, N3, November, 1994.

  6. Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith K.A., Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

  7. Stearns, S.A., ``Steps for Active Learning of Complex Concepts,'' College Teaching, V42, N3, Summer 1994, Pgs 107-108.

  8. Smith, K.A.; ``Cooperative Learning: Effective Teamwork for Engineering Classrooms;'' Joint Newsletter of the IEEE Education Society and ASEE Electrical Engineering Division; April, 1995.

  9. McDonald, D., ``Group Projects in Electrical Engineering Technology,'' ASEE North Midwest Section Conference Proceedings, Duluth, 1994.

  10. McDonald, D. and Niemi, A., National Science Foundation Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement Grant, Active Learning: Group Design Projects, DUE 9351807.

  11. McDonald, D., ``A Team Design Approach for Control Systems Student Training,'' Instrument Society of America, International Conference Proceedings, Toronto, 1995.
Tue Oct 3 16:39:29 PDT 1995