Group work formation: equal cognitive ability or not?

This is the 18th post in a series titled ‘All Things Group Work’. The home page is here.

In the last post, I discussed whether friendship groups or acquaintance groups made better progress in group projects. It was clear that friendship groups had an advantage over acquaintance groups unless the acquaintance groups were strong communicators and were highly motivated to complete a task. In this post, I will discuss another layer of complexity when forming groups: cognitive ability.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Most educators have heard of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. It is an extremely useful model for understanding the acquisition of knowledge, and is particularly pertinent in discussions about groupwork because the theory exhorts that social constructivism is an integral part of how we learn. Simplistically, the theory suggests that we learn from the world around us by incrementally building on prior knowledge and that we can expand on this knowledge as long as the thinking and learning are within our mental grasp, which Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development.

Cognitive science, and particularly cognitive load theory, has very much stood on the shoulder of this giant. The incremental building of knowledge is analogous to how schema is developed, and the zone of proximal development is essentially analogous to the notion that learning can’t happen if the complexity of the problem at hand is not assisted sufficiently by the schema. The deleterious impact on learning when trying to learn outside of the zone of proximal development is the equivalent of overloading the working memory: cognitive overload.

How it benefits students

The social constructivism aspect of the theory is wonderful for students in groups if they are able to take in the knowledge their peers are presenting, evaluate it, and decide to either assimilate that knowledge or accommodate it if it is adding to the schema.

This sequence is essentially how formal education works: teachers present and guide students with information that incrementally builds on the schema they possess, with careful consideration not to present information that takes students outside of the Zone of Proximal Development. But the important point here is that the social constructivism in this context is a one-way street, and deliberately so as the educator’s role is not expected to be reciprocated as they are not looking to socially construct their own knowledge. This is not the case for students in a group setting.

How it doesn’t benefit students

What is often overlooked in Vygotsky’s theory, as Tudge (1990) explains, is that the Zone of Proximal Development is not a one-way street, and that whilst the student with a gap in knowledge benefits from the superior knowledge of a peer in a group, the peer who has the superior knowledge does not. The peer receives little from the social transaction. It is this peer that will suffer from the expertise reversal effect, where the redundancy of the context they find themselves in demotivates and can, in worst-case scenarios, regress the existing schema.

Tudge (1990) is emphatic, the result of the transaction between two peers of different cognitive abilities will be that both will move to the average of those abilities.

This clearly has large implications for the formation of groups based on cognitive ability. It would be more beneficial for groups to be formed based on similar cognitive abilities so the expertise reversal effect is mitigated. However, if the student with superior knowledge in a group is willing to act as a teacher, then it would be fine that they are not gaining new knowledge in the transaction. They are aware of the boundaries of the transaction and are satisfied with the satisfaction and joy of teaching others as their motivation. But it is important that this is not assumed, because the more cognitively able student may not be interested in spending time bringing others up to speed, or they may be lacking the skill to teach what they know for it to actually benefit the other students anyway.   

Surveying students

It is easy enough to ascertain whether they would be interested in the teaching role. I have advocated before that groups should be formed in tutorials, where the tutor has superior knowledge of the students through frequent interaction with them. It is easy enough to identify the students with strong cognitive abilities, and it may be apparent also who is skilled in communicating what they know to others. But if it is not so obvious, it is worth surveying students who have strong cognitive ability to see if they would be willing to be placed in a group where the teaching of others is likely to occur. If they are not, it would be unwise to allocate them to a group that doesn’t have similarly cognitively able students.

Strategic decisions save time

The other advantage of grouping students of similar cognitive ability is that, as Chang and Brickman (2018) suggest, groups comprised of high cognitive ability students tend to not need much assistance and support from the tutor. This then frees up time to dedicate to the groups comprised of students with less cognitive ability who will require more scaffolding and assistance as each project progresses.

In the next post, I will discuss how an understanding of personality types can help groups be more balanced.


Chang Y, Brickman P. (2018). When Group Work Doesn’t Work: Insights from Students. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2018 Sep;17(3):ar42. doi: 10.1187/cbe.17-09-0199. PMID: 30183565; PMCID: PMC6234829.

Tudge, J. (1990). Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development, and peer collaboration: Implications for classroom practice. In L. C. Moll (Ed), Vygotsky and Education. Instructional implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology (pp155-172). Cambridge University Press

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designner at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger or on LinkedIn

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