Annual NTF Symposia

Groupwork can level out educational differences during the transition to university – but class division can confound group cohesion

Prof. Heather McQueen, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh 

At the 2024 ANTF symposium I was delighted to have the opportunity to present my analysis of the effectiveness of a new group working strategy that we have embedded in our re-designed biology first year curriculum. The new courses, which launched in 2022, were designed to support student transition and belonging as well as to scaffold deep learning for all students irrespective of background. Groupwork was one of many interlinked interventions. 

Of our approximately 250 biology students, more than half come from educationally experienced families with around one third attending fee-paying school while one fifth report as first-in-family with almost half coming from state school.  

Understanding that the difficulties of transitioning to university are exacerbated by educational and socioeconomical disadvantages1, we planned our group work carefully to capture cognitive, motivational and affective benefits2. Considering the varied educational backgrounds of our students, our design prioritised sharing and discussion of skills such as assessment literacy, ethics and good scholarship in an inclusive way, and included a novel method of forming groups based on shared interests3 whilst maintaining within-group diversity4. We attended to the essential pillars of effective group work such as time (within contact hours) and structure for social face-to-face interactions and group processing (such as forming own group rules for peer rating), accountability and, importantly, interdependence (where for one student to succeed their group must succeed)5,6,7. My presentation included examples of students collaborating on unwieldy assessment tasks, such as our creative task with almost complete freedom on the media and topic of their presentation.  

Weekly focus groups involving 18 students, five of whom were first-in-family, were used to collect qualitative data around transition experiences, sense of belonging, and learning experiences as the course unfolded. Interpretive analysis8 highlighted group work as important to students. The results (figure 1) confirm that our strategy has led to meaningful connections, inclusion, and effective collaboration within groups, supporting skill building and individual learning, including for those with educational disadvantages. Success! However, there was one striking and disappointing revelation: students unequivocally asserted experiencing lack of cohesion due to class division which confounded collaboration and blocked learning in some groups.  

One International Baccalaureate student explains; 

‘There is a very huge divide when it comes to students of private school…versus all the people that went to public schools, international students as well, and that did not grow up with the private school kind of mindset. You can very clearly see the division and they do not mix’ 

A first-in family student states;  

‘referencing, I haven’t done that, but then we kind of brushed over it…it would be nice to be in a group of people who would sit there and be like, oh, I don’t understand. Let’s figure it out, but I’m not.’ ‘Obviously we’ve got a diverse cohort which is great, but it’s also diverse and segregated… but all my friends who are at Russell Group unis are also saying the same thing’ 

A gnarly problem that certainly operates more widely and may well require extra vigilance as collaborative learning becomes more widespread across the sector. No university would knowingly compromise the physical safety of their students but arguably social safety also matters9

Figure Legend: Figure 1:  Findings of a qualitative analysis of students’ groupwork experiences.

Four themes arising are shown as coloured clouds with their relevant codes attached and outlined in the same colour. Boxes that are filled with a background green colour, and arranged towards the top of the image indicate codes describing positive student attitudes while boxes with white backgrounds show codes where student attitudes were negative. Where student attitude was mixed (some positive some negative) boxes are filled with a gradient from green to white. Arrows show causal relationships between themes and codes and the red ‘stop’ sign indicates where one code blocks another. 


  1. Matheson, R., Tangney, S., & Sutcliffe, M. (Eds.) (2018). Transition In, Through and Out of Higher Education: International Case Studies and Best Practice (1st ed.) Routledge. pp149-151. 
  1. Springer, L., Stanne, M.E. and Donovan, S.S. (1999). Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), pp.21–51. 
  1. Glassey J, Case Study 20: The T-shirt exercise: developing rapid integration and social cohesion among first-year students. In; Matheson, R., Tangney, S., & Sutcliffe, M. (Eds.) (2018). Transition In, Through and Out of Higher Education: International Case Studies and Best Practice (1st ed.). Routledge. pp149-151. 
  1. Theobald, E.J., Eddy, S.L., Grunspan, D.Z., Wiggins, B.L. and Crowe, A.J. (2017). Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter. PLOS ONE, 12(7), p.e0181336. 
  1. Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. and Smith, K.A. (1998) Cooperative learning returns to college What evidence is there that it works?, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 30(4), pp. 26–35. 
  1. Tanner, K., Chatman, L.S. and Allen, D. (2003). Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Cooperative Learning in the Science Classroom—Beyond Students Working in Groups. Cell Biology Education, 2(1), pp.1–5. 
  1. Wilson, K.J., Brickman, P. and Brame, C.J. (2018). Group Work. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(1). 
  1.  Adu, Philip (2019). A Step-By-Step Guide to Qualitative Data Coding, Taylor & Francis Group. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  1. Edmondson, A. (2004). Psychological safety, trust, and learning in organizations: a group-level lens. In Trust and Distrust in Organizations: Dilemmas and Approaches, ed. RM Kramer, KS Cook, pp. 239–72.