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Active Blended Learning in practice at VU Amsterdam

Last updated on 25 August 2022
Active blended learning is one of the design principles of education at VU Amsterdam. This design principle puts the learning process and the development of the student centre stage. Read here what this means in practice.

Active learning - the student's learning process is central

Thinking for yourself, working together, formulating a goal, and coming to a solution — that is what activates students in their learning process. This is driven by a diversity of challenging and motivating learning activities. It starts with the activation of prior knowledge, after which deepening takes place. Through active learning, students acquire profound knowledge and skills that sticks. This results in a higher chance of study success.

Blended learning - a mix of face-to-face teaching and independent tasks and assignments

Blended learning is a teaching method consisting of a mix of face-to-face teaching (lectures, work groups, tutor groups, etc.) and tasks and assignments to be carried out independently or in groups by the student. Blended learning often involves technology for the design of (online) learning activities, learning resources and tools.* Ideally, the mix of elements reinforces each other: the best of both worlds. The aim is to create a learning experience in which learning technology is used to facilitate effective, efficient and flexible learning.

* Blended learning is clearly different from education during the corona lockdown. There, education took place exclusively online using, for example, Zoom lectures or hybrid lectures. Blended learning is explicitly not the same as hybrid teaching.

Blended learning with technology connects to the students' life experience by:

  • using rich interactive digital resources;
  • working together on assignments;
  • rapidly exchanging ideas;
  • giving feedback on (and exchanging) assignments with teachers and fellow students.

Active learning - assignments as a motor for learning and teaching

Successful teaching is organised according to the principles of the concept constructive alignment. This concept involves aligning the learning objectives, the learning activities, and the assessment with each other. Assignments as part of assessment are the driving force behind active learning.

Teaching and learning consist of a series of tasks that are well attuned to each other and require increased independence in the higher grades. Students can carry out the tasks and assignments during lectures and work groups, but also in between, both individually and in groups. A variety of digital tools support them in these tasks. The learning journey of the student is the starting point in the educational design. This allows the student to take responsibility for their learning process.

Formative assessment is an integral part of active learning. Students perform a task, they receive feedback, process it, and learn during this process. Apart from the teacher, students also give feedback on each other's concepts or completed assignments (peer feedback) or analyse learning objectives, rubrics, exams or good examples of assignments together. This stimulates reflection on their learning process.

The study guides contain the assignments, which students work on from the start of a course. This way, study manuals become more like workbooks. They clearly describe what is expected of students, what support they can receive from the teacher and at what moments and with what criteria they are assessed. 

Active learning activities

An active learning activity is an assignment (in-class or out-of-class), that stimulates students to take an active and participative role in their learning process, aimed at achieving the learning goals. This can be done in different ways, here are some examples.

Active learning activities and assignments

  • In-class activities and assignments

    Students can become very engaged with the learning material in class. This requires however clever design and execution by you as teacher so students do not run astray. Click on one of the possible active learning work forms below for an explanation and guide.

    Of course, there are many other techniques. But if you are familiar with the above, you have already made a good start.

    For more elaborate group work in class, also check out the implementation guide below.

  • In-class activities and assignments - Implementation guide

    Group work can be an effective active learning method to motivate students, and develop key critical-thinking, communication, and decision-making skills. But without clear purpose, careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time. Use these suggestions to help implement group work successfully in your classroom.

    Designing the group activity

    • Identify the instructional objectives. Determine what you want to achieve through the small group activity, both academically (e.g., knowledge of a topic) and socially (e.g., listening skills). The activity should relate closely to the course objectives and class content and must be designed to help students learn, not simply to occupy their time. Roberson and Franchini (2014) emphasize that for group learning to be effective, students need a clear sense that group work is "serving the stated learning goals and disciplinary thinking goals" of the course (280). When deciding whether or not to use group work for a specific task, consider these questions: What is the objective of the activity? How will that objective be furthered by asking students to work in groups? Is the activity challenging or complex enough that it requires group work and limit free-riding? Will the project require true collaboration? Is there any reason why the assignment should not be collaborative?
    • Make the task challenging. Consider giving a relatively easy task early in the term to arouse students’ interest in group work and encourage their progress. In most cases collaborative exercises should be stimulating and challenging. By pooling their resources and dealing with differences of opinion that arise, groups of students can develop a more sophisticated product than they could as individuals. See our teaching tip “Group work in the Classroom: Small-Group Tasks” for some ideas.
    • Assign group tasks that encourage involvement, interdependence, and a fair division of labour. All group members should feel a sense of personal responsibility for the success of their teammates and realize that their individual success depends on the group’s success. Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (2014) refer to this as positive interdependence and argue that this type of cooperative learning tends to result in learners promoting each other's success. Knowing that peers are relying on you is a powerful motivator for group work and minimizes free-riding.
      • Allocate essential resources across the group so that group members are required to share information (e.g., the jigsaw method). Or, to come up with a consensus, randomly select one person to speak for the group, or assign different roles to group members so that they are all involved in the process (e.g., recorder, spokesperson, summarizer, checker, skeptic, organizer, observer, timekeeper, conflict resolver, liaison to other groups).
      • Another strategy for promoting interdependence is specifying common rewards for the group, such as a group mark. See the teaching tip “Methods for Assessing Group Work” for more information.
    • Decide on group size. The size you choose will depend on the number of students, the size of the classroom, the variety of voices needed within a group, and the task assigned. Groups of four-five tend to balance the needs for diversity, productivity, active participation, and cohesion. The less skillful the group members, the smaller the groups should be (Gross Davis, 1993).
    • Decide how you will divide students into groups. Division based on proximity or students’ choice is quickest, especially for large and cramped classes, but this often means that students end up working together with friends or with the same people.
      • To vary group composition and increase diversity within groups, randomly assign students to groups by counting off and grouping them according to number. Another idea is to distribute candy (e.g., Starburst or hard, coloured candies) and group students according to the flavour they choose.
      • For some group tasks, the diversity within a group (e.g., gender, ethnicity, level of preparation) is especially important, and you might want to assign students to groups yourself before class. Collect a data card from each student on the first day of class to glean important information about their backgrounds, knowledge, and interests. Alternately, ask students to express a preference (e.g., list three students with whom they would most like to work or two topics they would most like to study), and keep their preferences in mind as you assign groups.
    • Allow sufficient time for group work. Recognize that you won't be able to cover as much material as you could if you lectured for the whole class period. Cut back on the content you want to present in order to give groups time to work. Estimate the amount of time that subgroups need to complete the activity. Also plan for a plenary session in which groups’ results can be presented or general issues and questions can be discussed.
    • Try to predict students’ answers. You won’t be able to expect the unexpected, but by having some idea about what students will come up with, you will be better prepared to answer their questions and tie together the group work during the plenary session.
    • Design collaborative work in multiple forms: pairs, small groups, large groups, online synchronously, online asynchronously, etc. Some students might be better at contributing after they have had time to digest material, while others might be better at thinking on the spot. Other students will defer to others in large groups but actively contribute in pairs. All roles should be valued and included.

    Preparing for group work

    • Think carefully about how students will be physically arranged in groups. Will it be easy for groups to form and for all students to be comfortable? Also think about how the layout of your classroom will impact volume. Will students be able to hear one another clearly?  How can you moderate the activity to control volume?
    • Insist on professional, civil conduct between and among students to respect people’s differences and create an inclusive environment.
    • Talk to students about their past experiences with group work and allow them to establish some ground rules for successful collaboration. This discussion can be successfully done anonymously through the use of note cards.

    Introducing the group activity

    • Share your rationale for using group work. Students must understand the benefits of collaborative learning. Don't assume that students know what the pedagogical purpose is. Explicitly connect these activities to larger class themes and learning outcomes whenever possible. 
    • Have students form groups before you give them instructions. If you try to give instructions first, students may be too preoccupied with deciding on group membership to listen to you. 
    • Facilitate some form of group cohesion. Students work best together if they know or trust each other, at least to some extent. Even for brief group activities, have students introduce themselves to their group members before attending to their task. For longer periods of group work, consider introducing an icebreaker or an activity designed specifically to build a sense of teamwork.
    • Explain the task clearly. This means both telling students exactly what they have to do and describing what the final product of their group work will look like. Explaining the big picture or final goal is important, especially when the group work will take place in steps (such as in snowballing or jigsaw). Prepare written or visual instructions (e.g., charts, sequential diagrams) for students. Remember to include time estimations for activities. 
    • Set ground rules for group interaction. Especially for extended periods of group work, establish how group members should interact with one another, including principles such as respect, active listening, and methods for decision making. Consider making a group contract. See Group Decision Making and Making Group Contracts.
    • Let students ask questions. Even if you believe your instructions are crystal clear, students may have legitimate questions about the activity. Give them time to ask questions before they get to work.

    Monitoring the group task

    • Monitor the groups but do not hover. As students do their work, circulate among the groups and answer any questions raised. Also listen for trends that are emerging from the discussions, so that you can refer to them during the subsequent plenary discussion. Avoid interfering with group functioning — allow time for students to solve their own problems before getting involved. You might consider leaving the room for a short period of time. Your absence can increase students’ willingness to share uncertainties and disagreements (Jaques, 2000).
    • Expect a lot from your students. Assume that they do know, and can do, a great deal (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999). Express your confidence in them as you circulate the room.
    • Be slow to share what you know. If you come upon a group that is experiencing uncertainty or disagreement, avoid the natural tendency to give the answers or resolve the disagreement. If necessary, clarify your instructions, but let students struggle — within reason — to accomplish the task (Race, 2000).
    • Clarify your role as facilitator. If students criticize you for not contributing enough to their work, consider whether you have communicated clearly enough your role as facilitator.

    Ending the group task

    • Provide closure to the group activities. Students tend to want to see how their work in small groups was useful to them and/or contributed to the development of the topic. You can end with a plenary session in which students do group reporting. Effective group reporting “can make the difference between students’ feeling that they are just going through their paces and the sense that they are engaged in a powerful exchange of ideas” (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999, p. 107).
      • Oral reports: Have each group give one idea and rotate through the groups until no new ideas arise. Or have each group give their most surprising or illuminating insights or their most challenging question. You can record ideas raised to validate their value.
      • Written reports: Have each group record their ideas and either present them yourself or have a group member do so. One variation on this is to have groups record their conclusions on a section of the blackboard or on flipchart paper that is then posted on the wall. Students then informally circulate around the room and read each other’s answers. Alternately, you can ask students to move around the room in small groups, rotating from one set of comments to another and adding their own comments in response. Another variation on written reports is to have students write brief comments on Post-it notes or index cards. Collect them, take a few minutes to process them or put them in sequence, then summarize their contents.
    • Model how you want students to participate. When responding to students’ answers, model the respect and sensitivity that you want the students to display towards their classmates. Be ready to acknowledge and value opinions different from your own. Be willing to share your own stories, critique your work, and summarize what has been said.
    • Connect the ideas raised to course content and objectives. Recognize that groups might not come up with the ideas you intended them to, so be willing to make your lecture plans flexible. Wherever possible, look for a connection between group conclusions and the course topic. However, be aware that misconceptions or inaccurate responses need to be clarified and corrected either by you or by other students.
    • Don’t provide too much closure. Although the plenary session should wrap up the group work, feel free to leave some questions unanswered for further research or for the next class period. This openness reflects the nature of knowledge.
    • Ask students to reflect on the group work process. They may do so either orally or in writing. This reflection helps them discover what they learned and how they functioned in the group. It also gives you a sense of their response to group work.
    • Be positive. In all cases remain positive. End sessions with an uplifting message. This will help smoothen all processes. Read more about this in this didactical tip.

    References

    • Brookfield, S.D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
    • Gross Davis, B. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
    • Jaques, D. (2000). Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Improving Group Work, 3rd ed. London: Kogan Page.
    • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 85-118.
    • Race, P. (2000). 500 Tips on Group Learning. London: Kogan Page.
    • Roberson, B., & Franchini, B. (2014). Effective task design for the TBL classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 275-302.

    Information above based on the Creative Commons work of the Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo. VU Amsterdam made small amendments and additions to fit with the VU Amsterdam context. The Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit them and indicate if changes were made. 

  • Out-of-class activities and assignments

    In between teaching sessions, students work on their assignments. This could be individual tasks or group tasks. There are many different types of assignments you could think of. At University, the most common are:

    Literature Review

    The student has to go through the main idea portrayed in literature and has to validate them according to a given topic or current scenario. While drafting a literature review the student should maintain a formal language with a high level of objectivity. Based on the facts and context provided in the sources the student has to provide a tentative opinion. The student should provide a gap in the literature which provides a justification for conducting the current literature review.

    Annotated Bibliography

    Students are required to collect relevant sources associated with a certain topic. The teacher can analyse the student’s understanding of the topic and the proposed pieces of literature by allotting this task.

    Essay

    Students are anticipated to address a topic or question and deliver their ideas and perspective regarding it by referring to relevant sources. The tone of the essay should be factual and for this, it is important that student has conducted vast research pertaining to the topic.

    Case Study

    In case based learning, students are provided with a scenario or a situation along with subsidiary questions. In order to answer the questions, the student has to investigate into the scenario and provide relevant answers portraying their in depth knowledge and critical reasoning. The task of a case study is provided to a student in order to check the student’s aptitude in inspecting and scrutinizing a situation. The student has to portray inordinate critical thinking by recognizing both constructive and destructive aspects of the situation. He should also reveal his capability in recommending valid solutions which are relevant to the case.

    Project Report

    In project based learning, students work in groups for longer periods (2 weeks up to a whole semester or even more) on solving a complex problem. During such project, students may provide a brief narration of the current status of the project to the stake holders. This report is of great importance for the stake holders as it gives the notion of whether the project is on track or any modifications are needed in the approach to achieve the desired goals. The student is provided with this task to develop the ability to create a strategy to organise his works and goals.

    Reflective Journal

    A student has to showcase his understanding and knowledge on a given topic. The task of a reflective report is normally provided to a student in order to evaluate his understanding of a particular topic and his ability to reflect and recollect his learnings gained while in a particular experience. The main audience and the beneficiary of the reflective journal is the writer himself by which he can understand his own weakness and strengths and augment his learning ability. This assignment can be part of a project and play a role in the feedback process.

    Smaller tasks to prepare for lectures and work groups

    Students can be asked to read the literature critically together to prepare for lectures or work groups using, for example, Perusall or FeedbackFruits and to study knowledge clips if necessary. 

    They can also be asked to comment on the learning material online, give feedback on each other's papers or on each other's collaborative skills. The flipped classroom concept is important in this context. Students are encouraged to prepare themselves well for the lesson situation so that they can go straight to the point.

    More ideas for activities and assignments

    There are many more assignments that you could offer your students. Have a look at these pages with more than 25 ideas and this page with another additional 50 ideas.

    Information above based on the Creative Commons work of the Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo. VU Amsterdam made small amendments and additions to fit with the VU Amsterdam context. The Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit them and indicate if changes were made. 

    Tips

    We have collected some tips to stimulate self-study or group work and to keep your own workload under control:

  • Out-of-class collaborative activities and assignments - Implementation guide

    In group work, students work together as a team. They collaborate. Working together is essential. In one way, students acquire knowledge by working together on something; in another way, learning to better work together can be a goal in itself in group work.

    When to opt for group work?

    Research agrees: group work is an effective and efficient way to teach students certain things. But what exactly does group work teach the students? Check if your course unit has any learning objectives that students best achieve by working together in a group. For example:

    • (meta) cognitive goals: actively listening to and thinking along with fellow students, reflecting critically on their own understanding, identifying misconceptions, clarifying confusion, exposing conflicting statements, summarising and explaining topics in own words, developing, adjusting and following up on plans, etc.
    • cooperation skills: communication, management, leadership, etc.
    • social skills: giving feedback in a non-threatening and supportive way, taking into account the suggestions of others, etc.

    Does your course unit have these kinds of learning objectives? Then group work is obviously a good option. But remember that group work is, above all, a collaborative task. That means that students must work together to deliver a product; therefore, the work cannot be split randomly amongst group members and cannot be carried out by one person without the input from other group members. So think carefully: does the assignment generate useful collaborative tasks that will lead to learning? Or is it only a time-consuming task that makes it difficult for students to consult with each other without adding any value? Group work will then result in disengaged and dissatisfied students.

    How to design group work?

    As a lecturer, determine the following elements before starting the group work. That way you get a good picture of the group work and make conscious choices. Then you clarify your choices to the students.

    Start with clear objectives

    • What do your students need to know and be able to do once they’ve completed the group work? See above for examples of common learning objectives in group work. Check out the course competencies of your course unit and translate them to concrete, clear objectives for the group work. Achievable goals, authentic problem statements and appropriate complexity increase students' motivation to actively participate in the group work.
    • Based on the objectives, determine what the task should look like and what resources the students need to receive. Avoid free assignments: they facilitate free-riding behaviour. Also, use these objectives as a basis to develop the assessment format and criteria. After all, the assessment method determines the way the group functions. Read more about how to assess group work.
    • Finally, remember to clearly indicate on the course sheet how the marks for end-of-term and continuous assessments are calculated and what portion of the exam mark they carry. Always mention on the course sheet that as lecturer-in-charge, you are ultimately responsible for the final grade of the group work. For example, if it is really necessary, you may deviate from the mark given by others (e.g., fellow students or external parties) or from the pre-arranged calculation key (e.g., if, according to that key, each group member should get the same mark). In such a case, always provide sufficient justification.

    Group composition

    Decide how to organise and divide the groups. Also, determine the size of the groups.

    Format of the groups

    Make a considered choice between possible group formations: jigsaw, the master system, interdisciplinary group work, complementary group work, project work, parallel-group work, problem-based learning... How group work is organised has an influence on what students learn during group work, e.g., endurance, ways to deal with conflicts or to build knowledge collaboratively.

    Any competition between the groups can be motivating and stimulating. Also give each group a clear identity, for example, by assigning a different research topic to each group. Both elements promote a team spirit.

    Group size

    A group of four to six people is ideal. According to the Ringelmann effect, the greater the group, the lower the individual performance.

    If you choose larger groups, make sure that individual contributions are visible to avoid free-riding behaviour. For example, ask students to keep a logbook and to draw up and submit an allocation of tasks, follow up in the interim, organise peer feedback or assessment, etc. You can also give students roles which may vary throughout the group work. Examples are:

    • organisational roles such as chairperson, reporter, equipment manager, timer, mediator, etc.
    • substantive or field-specific roles as a customer-manager employee, pupil-parent-education minister-director-teacher,  builder-architect-contractor, lawyer-accused-judge-civil party-prosecutor, etc.

    Organize groups

    Consider forming random groups. For example, students should learn to work with people whom they do not know very well. That in itself can be an educational experience, but it is also recommended when students have to judge each other in group work and you want to minimise the impact of friendships.   

    For heterogeneous groups, if possible. Heterogeneity can mean:

    • differences in intellectual skills, prior knowledge, etc.
    • differences in task-related skills, interpersonal skills, knowledge of group dynamics, etc.
    • differences in areas of interest, balance between men and women, etc.
    • Heterogeneous groups are a powerful tool for students to learn to deal with differences and to learn to exploit the added value of diversity. A heterogeneous group creates a variety of new perspectives that stimulates thinking.

    Do not change the group composition during an ongoing assignment (unless it is part of the group formation, for example, a jigsaw). If different assignments are offered in a course unit, change the group composition with each assignment. That way, students are more motivated to take on different roles within the group processes and connect with different group dynamics.

    How to supervise group work?

    Provide interim feedback. Students generally find that very meaningful. Feedback is motivational as it provides students insight into their own learning process and functioning. In group work, especially when it comes to long-term assignments, it is advisable to organise interim contact moments with the different groups.

    If you are the evaluator of the group work, it is better not to guide the group work yourself. Leave the guidance to other lecturer(s), assistants or external persons. Also schedule different feedback moments. There are different forms:

    Scheduled contact moments

    A weekly contact moment is especially relevant for students who participate in group work for the first time. A rigid follow-up motivates and lowers the threshold. In the beginning, leave enough room for the students to ask additional questions about the assignment. Towards the end you will notice that the contact moments are more focused on the content. Ask the students to write a report on the contact moment after each meeting. That is an added value for both the supervisor and the students. Writing down agreements facilitates later follow-ups as you can refer to them at a later stage. Depending on the assignment and the experiences of the students with group works, you can also choose to provide only one or a few contact moments, rather than one a week.

    Supervision and intervision

    In supervision and intervision, you have a process-oriented conversation with less focus on the content of the task. When that conversation takes place under the guidance of a supervisor (read: counsellor), there is talk of a supervision interview. When the group is composed of equivalent interlocutors, there is an intervision conversation.

    Consulting credit

    In the case of consulting credit, each group is entitled to a predetermined number of hours of guidance. Whenever they are stuck, groups can make an appointment with a supervisor. By limiting the consulting credit, you encourage students to think for themselves and actively look for solutions.

    What are the different phases of group work?

    The instruction phase

    During this phase, you explain the assignment to students: What is involved? Why did you choose group work?

    Info about the assignment 

    • Introduce the topic, activate prior knowledge and evoke interest in the topic and assignment. This can be done, for example, by presenting a lecture, organising a study visit or inviting a guest speaker.
    • Explain the assignment and provide instructions on the working method. What method(s) can students handle for the assignment, how much time can they spend on certain phases, what roles should they distribute amongst group members? The least experience students have in collaboration, because, for example, it has not yet been brought up in the programme, the more guidance you offer as a lecturer.
    • Clarify what is expected from students in terms of the assessment. What is being assessed and how, and what are the assessment criteria and instruments? What are the assessment points and what are the (interim) deadlines? Who are the assessors?
    • Also, indicate what the guidance will look like. Who can the student approach with questions and when? Who can they contact if they don't find a solution for an unproductive group member?
    • Provide time to deal with students' questions about the assignment.  It is not recommended to change the assignment during the process. Take any issues with you to the next time you organise the group work.

    Info about working together

    • Specify why collaboration is necessary for the assignment and what its added value is. If learning to work better is an objective of the assignment, clarify it to the students. What collaborative skills should students develop?
    • Encourage students to put a plan of action on paper. This plan includes how they want to approach the task, who carries which responsibilities, what their short-term, interim and long-term objectives are, the minutes of the meetings, etc.
    • Allow students to get acquainted with working in groups by, for example: giving a small assignment in which each student plays a role, providing training in meeting techniques or applying a practice case study, etc.

    The implementation phase

    In the preparation phase, you’ve already determined who will give guidance and when. During the implementation phase, guidance is task-oriented, then relationship-oriented, depending on the stage the group is at. At the start of the group work, task orientation will prevail, but do not lose sight of the relationship orientation.  

    Interventions for taks-oriented guidance

    Answer questions from students and steer the group where necessary. Depending on the level of students and the experience in group work, you can provide relevant resources, give references or guide the students in their research.

    Interventions relationship-oriented guidance 

    • Often students don't know how to work together and that is also something they need to learn. By creating a setting during guidance moments that promote interaction, you teach students how to have a greater impact on the group’s performance. For example, make sure that several students can voice their opinion or occasionally ask questions around the group. Watch out for cross-talking and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
    • Observation of groups can also provide input for relationship-oriented guidance. Give students feedback on their way of working together through a review. Especially if collaboration or social skills are part of the objectives of the assignment, such a review is relevant.
    • Finally, during a guidance moment, you can also ask students to rate themselves, each other and the general group functioning.

    The reporting and assessment phase

    Finally, students need to report on their process and product, so that you can evaluate both elements as a lecturer. This reporting and assessment can be done in different ways. Learn more about how to assess group work.

    What are the points of interest in group work?

    How do you deal with dysfunctional groups?

    In group work, problems such as free-riding (piggybacking), social loafing (the individual contribution decreases as it becomes less visible) or other (social) conflicts between group members. By making conscious choices when you design the assignment, you can largely  avoid these problems:

    • An authentic problem statement with clear and achievable objectives increases the motivation of students.
    • A well-thought-out group composition ensures that individual contributions from each group member are necessary and visible.  
    • Appropriate guidance and monitoring ensure that you can detect and resolve problems early.  
    • An adequate assessment takes account of the contributions of all group members. For example, consider the group process, a group presentation, the attitude of students, the individual input, peer assessment in which students rate each other, etc. Learn more about how to assess group work. 

    What do you do if, despite the above measures, students indicate that there is conflict amongst each other that they cannot solve by themselves as a group? Here are some tips:

    • Intervene in relationship conflicts, not in constructive conflicts. In the case of relationship conflicts (e.g., interpersonal contradictions, tensions and hostilities...) productivity of groups can decrease very quickly. Allow constructive conflict relating to task-related aspects. This stimulates discussion, promotes a critical view of problems and lead to better decisions. Conflict-free teams have the risk of becoming apathetic and stagnating. 
    • Don't ignore the signal. It is advisable to intervene as a supervisor. If not, the productivity of such groups will decrease significantly.
    • Avoid splitting up the group. Instead, listen to the students' complaints and especially, check what the problem is by talking to all group members. Take on a neutral position so that the group members can solve the conflict and continue to work on the assignment constructively.
    • Dig deeper into factual and concrete information in discussions, filter emotions from the conversation. Ask about the distribution of tasks and how it is working out for the group members. Don't be guided by the version of one part of the group; talk to all group members. Always obtain the objective facts to decide which steps to take to move forward. 
    • Solutions for group conflicts can often be found in a change of role distribution, the clear demarcation of the sub-assignments and responsibilities of the group members, individual guidance of (a) group member/group members, etc. What solution do the students themselves propose?
    • Don't feel compelled to give students an immediate answer when students don't find a solution or propose a doubtful solution. Solutions such as excluding a group member or dissolving a group can have major implications. Ask the students for a moment of reflection and tell them you will get back to them later with an answer.
    • Dissolve a group only if there is no other option.
    • Only deviate from a group mark or calculation key if there is no other option. By mentioning on the course sheet that you as lecturer-in-charge remain ultimately responsible for the final mark of the group work (see also UGent test principle 15), you can, if absolutely necessary, deviate from the mark given by others (e.g., fellow students or external companies) or from the proposed calculation key (e.g., if, according to this key, each group member receives the same mark). As a lecturer, always ensure you can justify the final grade.

    Information above based on the work of the Universiteit Gent. VU Amsterdam made small amendments and additions to fit with the VU Amsterdam context.

    Want to know more?

    Bulteel, L., Van Damme, J., Braeckman, L., Defloor, T., Gemmel, P., & Maes, L. (2010). Kwaliteitsvol evaluatiebeleid in masteropleidingen.

    Clement, M., & Laga, E. (2005). Steekkaarten doceerpraktijk. Antwerpen: Garant.

    Cohen E.G. (1994). Disigning groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (2nd ed.). Teachers college, NY: Teachers college press.

    Davis, M. H., & Karunathilake, I. (2005). The place of the oral examination in today's assessment systems. Medical Teacher, 27(4), 294-297.

    Ebbens, S., & Ettekoven, S. (2005). Samenwerkend leren. Noordhoff Uitgevers Bv.

    Hoogeveen, P., & Winkels, J. (2008). Het didactische werkvormenboek. Uitgeverij Van Gorcum.

    Kallenberg, A. J. (2003). Leren (en) doceren in het hoger onderwijs. Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers.

    Pauli, R., Mohiyeddini, C., Bray, D., Michie, F., & Street, B. (2008). Individual differences in negative group work experiences in collaborative student learning. Educational Psychology, 28(1), 47-58.

    Valcke, Martin. (2018). Onderwijskunde als ontwerpwetenschap : van leren naar instructie : deel 1. Leuven: ACCO.

    Watkins, R. (2004). Groupwork and assessment: The handbook for economics lecturers. Economics Network, 1-24.

  • Assignment design quick overview

    Assignments do require careful design and execution to get the most out of the assignments. Do you want to know the main steps? Then take a look at the following list:

    1. What will be the goal of your assignment. What is it that students know and can apply after they completed the assignment. Check this with the intended learning outcomes of your course.
    2. Use scaffolding is needed. For first year students you can provide clues on which they can build.
    3. Be as clear as possible to communicate when intermediate results must be delivered.
    4. Provide worked examples that show what high quality and low quality results are. you could present and discuss these in your in-class activities.
    5. Let students develop the result in phases and provide (peer) feedback for each phase.
    6. Do not call assignments 'homework' but rather 'Sprints', 'Mini-Projects' 'Challenges', 'Master tests', 'Demonstrations', 'Puzzles', 'Hot topics' 
    7. Let student do a peer review of their final concept before handing in a final version.
    8. Provide a list of common errors and mistakes that students have to correct before handing in the final result.
    9. Limit your own work by using a simple grading scheme: fail, pass, good, exemplary.
  • Out-of-class collaborative activities and assignments - Implementation guide

    In group work, students work together as a team. They collaborate. Working together is essential. In one way, students acquire knowledge by working together on something; in another way, learning to better work together can be a goal in itself in group work.

    When to opt for group work?

    Research agrees: group work is an effective and efficient way to teach students certain things. But what exactly does group work teach the students? Check if your course unit has any learning objectives that students best achieve by working together in a group. For example:

    • (meta) cognitive goals: actively listening to and thinking along with fellow students, reflecting critically on their own understanding, identifying misconceptions, clarifying confusion, exposing conflicting statements, summarising and explaining topics in own words, developing, adjusting and following up on plans, etc.
    • cooperation skills: communication, management, leadership, etc.
    • social skills: giving feedback in a non-threatening and supportive way, taking into account the suggestions of others, etc.

    Does your course unit have these kinds of learning objectives? Then group work is obviously a good option. But remember that group work is, above all, a collaborative task. That means that students must work together to deliver a product; therefore, the work cannot be split randomly amongst group members and cannot be carried out by one person without the input from other group members. So think carefully: does the assignment generate useful collaborative tasks that will lead to learning? Or is it only a time-consuming task that makes it difficult for students to consult with each other without adding any value? Group work will then result in disengaged and dissatisfied students.

    How to design group work?

    As a lecturer, determine the following elements before starting the group work. That way you get a good picture of the group work and make conscious choices. Then you clarify your choices to the students.

    Start with clear objectives

    • What do your students need to know and be able to do once they’ve completed the group work? See above for examples of common learning objectives in group work. Check out the course competencies of your course unit and translate them to concrete, clear objectives for the group work. Achievable goals, authentic problem statements and appropriate complexity increase students' motivation to actively participate in the group work.
    • Based on the objectives, determine what the task should look like and what resources the students need to receive. Avoid free assignments: they facilitate free-riding behaviour. Also, use these objectives as a basis to develop the assessment format and criteria. After all, the assessment method determines the way the group functions. Read more about how to assess group work.
    • Finally, remember to clearly indicate on the course sheet how the marks for end-of-term and continuous assessments are calculated and what portion of the exam mark they carry. Always mention on the course sheet that as lecturer-in-charge, you are ultimately responsible for the final grade of the group work. For example, if it is really necessary, you may deviate from the mark given by others (e.g., fellow students or external parties) or from the pre-arranged calculation key (e.g., if, according to that key, each group member should get the same mark). In such a case, always provide sufficient justification.

    Group composition

    Decide how to organise and divide the groups. Also, determine the size of the groups.

    Format of the groups

    Make a considered choice between possible group formations: jigsaw, the master system, interdisciplinary group work, complementary group work, project work, parallel-group work, problem-based learning... How group work is organised has an influence on what students learn during group work, e.g., endurance, ways to deal with conflicts or to build knowledge collaboratively.

    Any competition between the groups can be motivating and stimulating. Also give each group a clear identity, for example, by assigning a different research topic to each group. Both elements promote a team spirit.

    Group size

    A group of four to six people is ideal. According to the Ringelmann effect, the greater the group, the lower the individual performance.

    If you choose larger groups, make sure that individual contributions are visible to avoid free-riding behaviour. For example, ask students to keep a logbook and to draw up and submit an allocation of tasks, follow up in the interim, organise peer feedback or assessment, etc. You can also give students roles which may vary throughout the group work. Examples are:

    • organisational roles such as chairperson, reporter, equipment manager, timer, mediator, etc.
    • substantive or field-specific roles as a customer-manager employee, pupil-parent-education minister-director-teacher,  builder-architect-contractor, lawyer-accused-judge-civil party-prosecutor, etc.

    Organize groups

    Consider forming random groups. For example, students should learn to work with people whom they do not know very well. That in itself can be an educational experience, but it is also recommended when students have to judge each other in group work and you want to minimise the impact of friendships.   

    For heterogeneous groups, if possible. Heterogeneity can mean:

    • differences in intellectual skills, prior knowledge, etc.
    • differences in task-related skills, interpersonal skills, knowledge of group dynamics, etc.
    • differences in areas of interest, balance between men and women, etc.
    • Heterogeneous groups are a powerful tool for students to learn to deal with differences and to learn to exploit the added value of diversity. A heterogeneous group creates a variety of new perspectives that stimulates thinking.

    Do not change the group composition during an ongoing assignment (unless it is part of the group formation, for example, a jigsaw). If different assignments are offered in a course unit, change the group composition with each assignment. That way, students are more motivated to take on different roles within the group processes and connect with different group dynamics.

    How to supervise group work?

    Provide interim feedback. Students generally find that very meaningful. Feedback is motivational as it provides students insight into their own learning process and functioning. In group work, especially when it comes to long-term assignments, it is advisable to organise interim contact moments with the different groups.

    If you are the evaluator of the group work, it is better not to guide the group work yourself. Leave the guidance to other lecturer(s), assistants or external persons. Also schedule different feedback moments. There are different forms:

    Scheduled contact moments

    A weekly contact moment is especially relevant for students who participate in group work for the first time. A rigid follow-up motivates and lowers the threshold. In the beginning, leave enough room for the students to ask additional questions about the assignment. Towards the end you will notice that the contact moments are more focused on the content. Ask the students to write a report on the contact moment after each meeting. That is an added value for both the supervisor and the students. Writing down agreements facilitates later follow-ups as you can refer to them at a later stage. Depending on the assignment and the experiences of the students with group works, you can also choose to provide only one or a few contact moments, rather than one a week.

    Supervision and intervision

    In supervision and intervision, you have a process-oriented conversation with less focus on the content of the task. When that conversation takes place under the guidance of a supervisor (read: counsellor), there is talk of a supervision interview. When the group is composed of equivalent interlocutors, there is an intervision conversation.

    Consulting credit

    In the case of consulting credit, each group is entitled to a predetermined number of hours of guidance. Whenever they are stuck, groups can make an appointment with a supervisor. By limiting the consulting credit, you encourage students to think for themselves and actively look for solutions.

    What are the different phases of group work?

    The instruction phase

    During this phase, you explain the assignment to students: What is involved? Why did you choose group work?

    Info about the assignment 

    • Introduce the topic, activate prior knowledge and evoke interest in the topic and assignment. This can be done, for example, by presenting a lecture, organising a study visit or inviting a guest speaker.
    • Explain the assignment and provide instructions on the working method. What method(s) can students handle for the assignment, how much time can they spend on certain phases, what roles should they distribute amongst group members? The least experience students have in collaboration, because, for example, it has not yet been brought up in the programme, the more guidance you offer as a lecturer.
    • Clarify what is expected from students in terms of the assessment. What is being assessed and how, and what are the assessment criteria and instruments? What are the assessment points and what are the (interim) deadlines? Who are the assessors?
    • Also, indicate what the guidance will look like. Who can the student approach with questions and when? Who can they contact if they don't find a solution for an unproductive group member?
    • Provide time to deal with students' questions about the assignment.  It is not recommended to change the assignment during the process. Take any issues with you to the next time you organise the group work.

    Info about working together

    • Specify why collaboration is necessary for the assignment and what its added value is. If learning to work better is an objective of the assignment, clarify it to the students. What collaborative skills should students develop?
    • Encourage students to put a plan of action on paper. This plan includes how they want to approach the task, who carries which responsibilities, what their short-term, interim and long-term objectives are, the minutes of the meetings, etc.
    • Allow students to get acquainted with working in groups by, for example: giving a small assignment in which each student plays a role, providing training in meeting techniques or applying a practice case study, etc.

    The implementation phase

    In the preparation phase, you’ve already determined who will give guidance and when. During the implementation phase, guidance is task-oriented, then relationship-oriented, depending on the stage the group is at. At the start of the group work, task orientation will prevail, but do not lose sight of the relationship orientation.  

    Interventions for taks-oriented guidance

    Answer questions from students and steer the group where necessary. Depending on the level of students and the experience in group work, you can provide relevant resources, give references or guide the students in their research.

    Interventions relationship-oriented guidance 

    • Often students don't know how to work together and that is also something they need to learn. By creating a setting during guidance moments that promote interaction, you teach students how to have a greater impact on the group’s performance. For example, make sure that several students can voice their opinion or occasionally ask questions around the group. Watch out for cross-talking and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
    • Observation of groups can also provide input for relationship-oriented guidance. Give students feedback on their way of working together through a review. Especially if collaboration or social skills are part of the objectives of the assignment, such a review is relevant.
    • Finally, during a guidance moment, you can also ask students to rate themselves, each other and the general group functioning.

    The reporting and assessment phase

    Finally, students need to report on their process and product, so that you can evaluate both elements as a lecturer. This reporting and assessment can be done in different ways. Learn more about how to assess group work.

    What are the points of interest in group work?

    How do you deal with dysfunctional groups?

    In group work, problems such as free-riding (piggybacking), social loafing (the individual contribution decreases as it becomes less visible) or other (social) conflicts between group members. By making conscious choices when you design the assignment, you can largely  avoid these problems:

    • An authentic problem statement with clear and achievable objectives increases the motivation of students.
    • A well-thought-out group composition ensures that individual contributions from each group member are necessary and visible.  
    • Appropriate guidance and monitoring ensure that you can detect and resolve problems early.  
    • An adequate assessment takes account of the contributions of all group members. For example, consider the group process, a group presentation, the attitude of students, the individual input, peer assessment in which students rate each other, etc. Learn more about how to assess group work. 

    What do you do if, despite the above measures, students indicate that there is conflict amongst each other that they cannot solve by themselves as a group? Here are some tips:

    • Intervene in relationship conflicts, not in constructive conflicts. In the case of relationship conflicts (e.g., interpersonal contradictions, tensions and hostilities...) productivity of groups can decrease very quickly. Allow constructive conflict relating to task-related aspects. This stimulates discussion, promotes a critical view of problems and lead to better decisions. Conflict-free teams have the risk of becoming apathetic and stagnating. 
    • Don't ignore the signal. It is advisable to intervene as a supervisor. If not, the productivity of such groups will decrease significantly.
    • Avoid splitting up the group. Instead, listen to the students' complaints and especially, check what the problem is by talking to all group members. Take on a neutral position so that the group members can solve the conflict and continue to work on the assignment constructively.
    • Dig deeper into factual and concrete information in discussions, filter emotions from the conversation. Ask about the distribution of tasks and how it is working out for the group members. Don't be guided by the version of one part of the group; talk to all group members. Always obtain the objective facts to decide which steps to take to move forward. 
    • Solutions for group conflicts can often be found in a change of role distribution, the clear demarcation of the sub-assignments and responsibilities of the group members, individual guidance of (a) group member/group members, etc. What solution do the students themselves propose?
    • Don't feel compelled to give students an immediate answer when students don't find a solution or propose a doubtful solution. Solutions such as excluding a group member or dissolving a group can have major implications. Ask the students for a moment of reflection and tell them you will get back to them later with an answer.
    • Dissolve a group only if there is no other option.
    • Only deviate from a group mark or calculation key if there is no other option. By mentioning on the course sheet that you as lecturer-in-charge remain ultimately responsible for the final mark of the group work (see also UGent test principle 15), you can, if absolutely necessary, deviate from the mark given by others (e.g., fellow students or external companies) or from the proposed calculation key (e.g., if, according to this key, each group member receives the same mark). As a lecturer, always ensure you can justify the final grade.

    Information above based on the work of the Universiteit Gent. VU Amsterdam made small amendments and additions to fit with the VU Amsterdam context.

    Want to know more?

    Bulteel, L., Van Damme, J., Braeckman, L., Defloor, T., Gemmel, P., & Maes, L. (2010). Kwaliteitsvol evaluatiebeleid in masteropleidingen.

    Clement, M., & Laga, E. (2005). Steekkaarten doceerpraktijk. Antwerpen: Garant.

    Cohen E.G. (1994). Disigning groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (2nd ed.). Teachers college, NY: Teachers college press.

    Davis, M. H., & Karunathilake, I. (2005). The place of the oral examination in today's assessment systems. Medical Teacher, 27(4), 294-297.

    Ebbens, S., & Ettekoven, S. (2005). Samenwerkend leren. Noordhoff Uitgevers Bv.

    Hoogeveen, P., & Winkels, J. (2008). Het didactische werkvormenboek. Uitgeverij Van Gorcum.

    Kallenberg, A. J. (2003). Leren (en) doceren in het hoger onderwijs. Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers.

    Pauli, R., Mohiyeddini, C., Bray, D., Michie, F., & Street, B. (2008). Individual differences in negative group work experiences in collaborative student learning. Educational Psychology, 28(1), 47-58.

    Valcke, Martin. (2018). Onderwijskunde als ontwerpwetenschap : van leren naar instructie : deel 1. Leuven: ACCO.

    Watkins, R. (2004). Groupwork and assessment: The handbook for economics lecturers. Economics Network, 1-24.

  • Assignment design quick overview

    Assignments do require careful design and execution to get the most out of the assignments. Do you want to know the main steps? Then take a look at the following list:

    1. What will be the goal of your assignment? What is it that students know and can apply after they completed the assignment? Check this with the intended learning outcomes of your course.
    2. Use scaffolding is needed. For first year students you can provide clues on which they can build.
    3. Be as clear as possible to communicate when intermediate results must be delivered.
    4. Provide worked examples that show what high quality and low quality results are. You could present and discuss these in your in-class activities.
    5. Let students develop the result in phases and provide (peer) feedback for each phase.
    6. Do not call assignments 'homework' but rather 'Sprints', 'Mini-Projects' 'Challenges', 'Master tests', 'Demonstrations' , 'Puzzles', 'Hot topics' 
    7. Let student do a peer review of their final concept before handing in a final version.
    8. Provide a list of common errors and mistakes that students have to correct before handing in the final result.
    9. Limit your own work by using a simple grading scheme: fail, pass, good, exemplary.
  • Engaging assignments for Super Courses

    Assignments are preferably challenging and as relevant as possible for the future professional and scientific practice of students. The starting point is preferably a problem or assignment from a real company, a societal organisation or a societal problem.

    If you want to make a big leap and design a course that truly has an impact on your students, consider designing a Super Course.

    Read more about educational formats geared towards putting engaging and passion driven assignments central:

A safe and inclusive learning environment

An important condition for successful active learning and collaboration, both in a classroom and an online setting, is an inclusive and safe learning climate. A safe learning climate ensures that all students feel invited and safe to participate actively. VU Amsterdam considers diversity as an important value and incorporates it in its teaching methods. The study content, processes, and methods include different cultural and personal perspectives (mixed classroom). This encourages students to reflect on their development.

An inclusive learning environment also means considering special circumstances  regarding learning and providing support where possible. Think of situations such as high giftedness or limited access to the Internet, a lack of a safe or good study environment, autism, or functional limitations such as a visual or hearing impairment. An example of a solution for the latter to this, is making sure to subtitle all videos and weblectures. 

VU Amsterdam policy encourages openness in research and education by using open educational resources as much as possible. This widens the accessibility of the material for all students. 

Better learning and more personal growth

Through active blended learning, students experience the advantages of campus education, alternating with location-independent and online study, collaboration, and knowledge sharing. This motivates both students and teachers. It also offers a wide repertoire of possibilities for the structure of a course and for teaching, with room for individual creativity. Active blended learning encourages students to engage in deep learning, involvement, and reflection, and thus ensures better processing of the study material and more personal growth.

Animation Active Blended Learning

This animation gives a bird's eye view of what active blended learning entails for VU Amsterdam.