Group Norms

Peer interactions and group work are at the heart of the learning experiences in the higher-education setting. One of the practices that help groups to function well is the establishment of group norms. Group norms are the informal, socially shared standards against which the appropriateness of behaviors in groups is evaluated (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). When students come together as a group, oftentimes everyone brings a unique perspective or skill to the group. As the instructor, it is critical to foster a safe climate within each group for the expression of different points of view. Group norms establish clear, agreed-upon behaviors and expectations, such as the ground rules for civil discussion within the group. Benefits of encouraging students to discuss and set up group norms include:

  • Empower everyone to participate in the group decision-making process
  • Potentially enable everyone to break up the preconceived assumptions or biases of one another (based on socially ascribed characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, cultural orientation, rank)
  • Build trust 
  • Facilitate an equitable learning environment within the group

Further, based on the team-based learning literature (e.g., Johnson et al., 1998; Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008; Vogler et al., 2021), ideally a cooperative group learning experience would include the following elements:

  1. Positive interdependence: Everyone’s efforts benefit all. 
    1. Group goals should be developed with input by each member.
    2. If the group provides feedback to other members, they should rotate through so each member receives feedback.
  1. Individual accountability: Everyone should be accountable for contributing a fair share of the group work. For example, recurring group tasks such as taking meeting notes, sending out reminders, or setting meeting dates could be assigned to specific individuals or rotated through the group.
  1. Face-to-face or interpersonal interaction: Cognitive learning is enhanced through peer interactions. 
    1. Forms of these interactions include discussions, cooperative note taking, shared worksheets, etc. 
    2. Interactions should involve social and emotional skill-building, such as ice breakers or non-work related group activities (Cheruvelil et al., 2014).
  1. Group skills: Everyone is given opportunities to practice the skills for effective group work, such as conflict management, trust building, leadership, and decision-making. 
  1. Reflection: Everyone is given opportunities to reflect on and discuss how the group is working together, how the group goals are being met, how to better align individual strengths to group goals, and how to align group tasks with individual needs and pursuits, etc. In practice, a regular meeting or check-in should be planned to allow input from group members on what is going well and what is needed.

There is no one “right way” to support these five elements in how you construct and manage group dynamics, but fostering group norms can help to create an environment where all five of the elements for cooperative group learning can take root and lead to constructive group outcomes.


Cheruvelil, K. S., Soranno, P. A., Weathers, K. C., Hanson, P. C., Goring, S. J., Filstrup, C. T., & Read, E. K. (2014). Creating and maintaining high‐performing collaborative research teams: The importance of diversity and interpersonal skills. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(1), 31-38.

Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 151-192). McGraw-Hill.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Interaction Book Company.

Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of team-based learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 116, 7-27.

Vogler, J. S., Fu, J., & Finney, E. A. (2021). Practicing what we preach: Incorporating team-based learning into the pre-service curriculum for improved outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 48(2), 155-164.

Jun Fu

Dr. Jun Fu joined the EDLI Team from Oklahoma State University, where she earned a PhD in Educational Psychology and served as an adjunct faculty member at the School of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Aviation. Dr. Fu specializes in program evaluation, research and assessment for the EDLI team.