Fostering Effective Small Group Collaboration in Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences

Mark Lord and David Kinner, Western Carolina University


Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are a way to improve the quality of STEM education, attract and retain STEM majors, and provide wide and equitable access to undergraduate research experiences. Several of our courses are designed to provide students with a significant, authentic research experience. For practical and pedagogic reasons, we use collaborative groups in the CUREs. To maximize group function and learning, we intentionally design groups and explicitly discuss expectations. We've used this approach in eight different courses ranging from 100-level (general education) to upper-level to carryout research using our Western Carolina Hydrological Research Station. Here, we highlight our approach to using small groups of students to complete research projects in a 300-level geomorphology course. To support our CUREs, we also use undergraduate research fellows, a hybrid role of a research and teaching assistant (Kinner and Lord, 2018).

When effective, the use of small groups in CUREs benefits the students, the instructor, and makes the CURE more sustainable. Our CUREs include key parts of the research process similar to described by Auchincloss et al. (2014).


CUREs at all levels have used the station for their research. Class sizes ranges from 10 to 40 students; group size is usually 3 or 4. The geomorphology course, Geol 302, targets sophomore and juniors; the course serves geology majors (most) and students from majors in environmental science and natural resources.

Class Size

15 to 30 students

How the Activity is Situated in the Course

The research project is fully integrated into the course and designed to support course-learning goals. Typically, the research project encompasses a quarter to a third of the course but is intertwined with traditional course components over the semester. Student research groups are assigned (see below) with student input.


Our overall goal is to have students reap the benefits of completing an authentic research projects in our courses (ex. critical thinking, synthesis, field and analytical skills, confidence, and communication).

Student goals specific to collaborative groups include:
- Strengthen teamwork skills
- Build leadership skills
- Learn a positive model for how groups should function
- Learn how to capitalize on the diversity of group members
- Take part in a larger-scale and/or more diverse research project than they could individually

Goals related to using small groups for the instructor include 1) reducing the number of research projects in the course (saves time) and 2) fostering positive peer instruction to help achieve course and research student learning goals.

As an example, in our Geomorphology course, there are six broad learning goals. The research project helps achieve all of these goals, especially numbers 2, 3, 5, and 6.
  1. Analyze how geomorphology can be used to aid society
  2. Make fundamental observations by learning where, what and how to observe
  3. Interpret landforms for understanding what geomorphic processes are at work or the geomorphic history for a particular area
  4. Understand how fundamental physics and chemistry impact geomorphic processes and be able to apply equations of simple geomorphic phenomena (i.e., driving/resisting forces, budgets, infinite slope equation, resistance law, etc.)
  5. Apply tools of the trade (topographic maps/images, spreadsheets, field equipment) towards solving geomorphic processes
  6. Define and address a geomorphic research question using standard methods and data analysis techniques, and be able to communicate those results to scientific and nonscientific audiences.


Group Formation: We assign groups, though we do solicit student input about potential group members they would especially like or not like, primary research interests, and schedules. Groups are assigned, so, ideally, each group has some members with strong experience, responsibility, and initiative. We make group assignments a few weeks into the semester so we have first-hand knowledge of student traits in our course. Though individuals within a group will likely be heterogeneous, we try to minimize differences between groups.

The Ideal Group? In an ideal group, each individual wants their group mates to fully participate in the research project—physically and intellectually. Three key things we do to try to achieve this ideal: set group expectations, scale the project to group size, and used mixed accountability in grading individuals in a group.

1. Setting Group Expectations: We lead our classes through an explicit discussion of group work, drawing on their past experiences. In general, as a class, we construct a list of negative and positive aspects of group work; this is followed by a discussion of how to grapple with 'negatives' and, if possible, how to make it a positive experience. Doing a think-pair-share is a good way to kick start this class discussion. By the end of this discussion, we also make our expectations of groups clear; we do expect groups to handle most 'personnel' problems themselves but to seek us after they have made reasonable efforts. By the end of this, we've discussed 'slackers', 'work hogs', disrespectful actions, communication strategies, scheduling, setting group goals and expectations, and how to run group meetings.

2. Research Project Scale: We scale the expectations of the research project to the group size. If a student correctly thinks they could have done the project better alone, the scope of the project was likely too small. We scale projects through expectations of data collection (in the field or lab), depth of data analysis, length of research papers, etc.

3. Mixed Accountability: Final research project grades are the sum of projects tasks completed individually or as a group. Typically, about 1/3 of the project grade is based on grades for individuals and 2/3 for groups (see Example Research Project Grading Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 68kB Jan9 18)). Further, students complete a confidential peer- and self-evaluation during and at the end of the project. These evaluations can (and do) cause grade adjustments past simply summing assignment scores. This mixed accountability can motivate individuals to best support the group and, conversely, can help mollify high-performing students by knowing the slacker will not get a 'free ride'.

To support individual accountability and learning within a group, we usually give our students groups an oral quiz in the field at their project site. We grade this oral quiz as a group and do provide them with general question topics prior to the quiz. Almost invariably, students do what we hope in order to prepare—they review their project, share ideas, and review quiz topics areas so all members are prepared for questions. After the quiz, we move on to address any questions they may have of us. These quizzes are educationally rich and offer the students a key opportunity to get direct feedback from us about their project (see Example Field Quiz Grade Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Jan22 18)).

Key words: groups, undergraduate research, course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs), geomorphology, team skills.

Project Funding: The NSF TUES program provided funding to develop and evaluate a model of our CURE's. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality provided groundwater wells for the Western Carolina Hydrologic Research Station. Western Carolina University provided funding for some equipment in the research station.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations

We think one of the most important steps in creating effective groups is having the explicit discussion of collaborative work. Doing this early on in the process sets the expectations. We also emphasize that group work is a reality of life for most all occupations and that the ability to work well in teams is a top item sought after by employers.


We assess students using the project approach described above. We assessed our CURE approach and student impact using qualitative and quantitative assessment data. We collected qualitative data in four courses and quantitative in eight. Qualitative data were collected during focus groups, and quantitative data was collected using the Undergraduate Research Student Self Assessment or URSSA (Ethnography and Evaluation Research Group, 2010; Hunter et al., 2009). In qualitative data collection, two questions were asked related to group work:

What specific benefits did you gain by participating in this group research-based learning experience?

What, if any, particular challenges did you encounter during their involvement in the group research-based experience? And, what recommendations and/or suggestions could be provided to overcome these issues?

Positive group experiences was a top coded theme from the qualitative feedback. Overall, students felt that collaboration was a benefit of the project. Students comments below represent common themes from the qualitative feedback.

"Learning to work together, with different people, from different backgrounds... So it was great to have everyone's input. It made for a stronger team, I felt like."

"I think I got a chance to practice leadership in a lot of aspects of this project. I am confident in my ability to oversee the completion of projects, and I think that will be a useful skill when I enter the workforce."

"We all had something to contribute towards our research. I love how we were provided the freedom to come up with our own question and methods in the project. I truly felt like I was doing research on what I wanted to do in science. I had great collaborative group"

The collaboration piece was also highlighted in the URSSA data. Students in our CURE general education courses ranked collaboration as one of their top three research gains.

Teaching Materials

Example Research Project Grading Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 68kB Jan9 18)
Example Field Quiz Grade Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Jan22 18)


Auchincloss, L.C., Lausen, S.L., Branchaw, J.L., Eagen, K., Graham, M., Hanauer, D. I., Lawrie G., McLinn CM, Pelaez N., Rowland S., Towns M., Trautmann N.M., Varma-Nelson P., Weston T.J., Dolan E.L. (2014). Assessment of Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences: A Meeting Report. CBE--Life Sciences Education, 13, 29-40. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-01-0004.

Ethnography and Evaluation Research Group, University of Colorado. (2010). Preview Master URSSA Review Copy. Retrieved 6 22, 2013, from University of Colorado:

Hunter, A.-B., Weston, T. J., Laursen, S. L., & Thiry, H. (2009). URSSA: Evaluating Student Gains from Undergraduate Research in the Sciences. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 29(3), 15-19.

Kinner, David, and Lord, Mark, 2018, Using Undergraduate Research Fellows to Support and Sustain Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs): SERC. Retrieved 1 May 2018, from

Western Carolina Hydrological Research Station website, (includes station information and more about our CURE approach and courses).