Using group roles in synchronous online lessons

Using Group Roles in Synchronous Online Lessons

Active learning in an online, synchronous lesson can feel a bit daunting, but is essential to student learning. Group work is an effective active learning method; however, not all learners come to class understanding how to work in a group. It’s important to set learners up for success by linking group work to outcomes that require collaboration, communicating clear instructions, and defining roles for learners to fulfill during the group work.

Difficulty: 4/5




3 – 5 learners per group

Core Competency Connection

Sketch of a dragonfly on a green gradient background
Sketch of two bees on a yellow gradient background
Sketch of a raven on a blue gradient background


PowerPoint slides or digital handout


See below.

The Process


  1. Define the outcome you are trying to achieve. It should be something that requires collaboration, discussion, debate, or teamwork.  
    • E.g., Discuss the effects of deforestation on wild animals 
  2. Choose the group work roles that are most appropriate for the outcome you are trying to achieve. Common roles include: 
    • Leader: starts and ends the activity (i.e., watches the time) and make sure everyone has a chance to join in the discussion 
    • Communicator: shares the team’s questions with the instructor and shares/summarizes the final decision/product/discussion with the rest of the class 
    • Recorder: documents, in writing, the important details from the group work 
    • Devil’s Advocate: encourages others to think of other perspectives through questioning and pointing out the other sides of the argument 
    • Researcher: completes web or textbook searches to confirm the perspectives and ideas being discussed have factual evidence. It’s sometimes nice to have two researchers. 
  3. Decide on a visual medium for communicating group work instructions (e.g., Word doc, PDF, PowerPoint). This should be something learners can refer to during their group participation. Don’t expect learners to remember instructions from your verbal description. This can be shared ahead of time to reduce learners’ anxiety around what will be expected of them. 
  4. Choose a web conference platform that allows breakout rooms. 

1. Beginning

Begin the activity by sharing the outcome you want learners to achieve. Helping learners understand how the activity will help their learning can increase motivation and engagement. 

2. Share the Activity

Share the document containing the activity instructions and roles in a way that will allow learners to download it/access it once they are broken into groups.

3. Review Instructions

Review thactivity instructions with the entire class. Include how long it will take, the steps to complete it, and the outcome you expect at the end of the time limit. If you expect communicators to share with the larger group at the end, make sure you explain how sharing will take place (e.g., verbally, sharing a file, etc.).  

4. Explain

Explain how learners can ask you questions during the group work (e.g., via chat). 

5. Don’t Rush

Take time to describe each role and how the chosen roles will help learners complete the activity. 

6. Roles

Explain how learners should choose roles—discuss with one another and decide and/or randomly assign (e.g., by age, month of birth).

7. Get Into Groups

Use the web conferencing tool to break learners into groups. You can preassign groups, let learners choose them, or let the tool assign them randomly. 

8. Get Ready & Go

Give learners five minutes to set themselves up, then take time to join each group to listen to the conversation, prompt dialogue, and answer questions. 

9. Review

At the end of the group work time, bring the whole class back together to summarize. At this time, review the outcome they were supposed to achieve. Begin by summarizing the strong insights and ideas you heard and clear up any misunderstandings.

10. Discussion

You might also include time for class discussion after your summary. This might include time for each group communicator to share verbally (alternatively, have them post to the chat or learning management system for download). It might also be a whole class discussion on key questions provided by the instructor, or an open discussion based on what they learn. 


Washington University in St. Louis Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Using roles in group work  

Christie Robertson

Christie Robertson She/Her

Learning Experience Design


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