Group work is common in course work because it allows for the development of important skills including interpersonal, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, time management, and organization. Ensuring accessibility in group work, however, can be tricky.

As an instructor, you will likely encounter situations where group members have varying and diverse needs that need to be met to ensure successful learning experiences. You may also encounter a situation where not all members of the group have a disability or have academic accommodations.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one way to maximize outcomes and experiences for learners and may reduce the need for additional accommodations. By implementing strategies to ensure effective group work, you can minimize potential problems in group work dynamics and ensure accessible collaboration for students.

Universal Design for Learning

UDL employs the idea of designing courses around flexibility with the goal of having everyone achieve the best possible outcome of their learning. This approach is consistently considerate of accessibility for learners. UDL uses multiple ways of sharing information, engaging students, and allowing students to present their knowledge and understanding of material (La, Dyjur & Bair, 2018). 

Applying UDL to Group Work

Applying Universal Design for Learning during group work can help increase accessibility for students and reduce the need for additional accommodations.

Maintaining communication, having understanding and flexibility around assessment, due dates, and delivery increases success for everyone and helps increase inclusion for all students when in groups. 

For additional information about Universal Design for Learning review the University of Calgary’s UDL for Higher Education PDF.

  • Design group work in multiple forms: pairs, small groups, large groups, online synchronously, online asynchronously, etc.
  • Value all roles in group work. Some students are better at contributing after they have had time to think about the information and material, others might be great at thinking in the moment. Some students will allocate to others in large groups but successfully contribute in pairs. All roles should be valued and included (La, Dyjur & Bair, 2018).
  • Provide sufficient time to complete the group work/assignment. Be considerate that members of the group are all balancing different schedules and finding times to work together may be a barrier (Davidson, Major & Michealsen, 2014).
  • Group work skills do not come naturally to everyone. It is helpful if you outline the expectations of working in groups and be mindful of emerging skill sets (Burdet, 2003).

Additional Best Practices for Group Work

Additional considerations that support best practice for group work, and contribute to class wide accessible learning include: 

  • Randomly assign students to groups. This helps students be involved in a group and eliminate any discomfort someone might have trying to join a group. You can also let students select a partner to pair up with and then create groups from those pairs. This may allow students to have someone they feel comfortable working with in a group.
  • Clearly articulate your expectations for group work and why it is relevant for the task at hand. Share your decision for having distinct learning objectives be met in a group dynamic. Group work should be assigned to meet specific skills and outcomes (Burdet, 2003).
  • Allow time for students to ask questions regarding the group work. Depending on the workload and time commitment of the group work, you may consider setting aside time at the beginning of each class until the due date (Davidson, Major & Michealson, 2014).
  • Explain the task clearly. If there are roles within the group, be sure they are defined.
  • Listen to students if they tell you they are being met with complexities and difficulties within their group. Group work can create different concerns that make completing the work challenging for some students. Not all problems will be rectified by the students themselves. 
  • As much as possible, you should try to remove any sense of competition for grades within the group work. It is possible for everyone to receive 100% (Burdet, 2003).

Academic Accommodations in Group Work

Even when implementing the above strategies there will still be times when individual students need to use academic accommodations.

Common Accommodations

Common group work accommodations that a student may required and suggestions for how you can meet those needs are listed below.

Assistance with joining groups
  • Randomly assign students to groups (mentioned above)
  • Help the student approach a group
Assistance with understanding their purpose within a group
  • Clear descriptions of expectations and roles
Unable to perform in group presentations
  • Assign a different way for the student to show their knowledge
  • Allow entire group to present only to professor 
  • Allow student to present their portion only to professor
  • Allow recorded presentations so students can do their part individually in a more comfortable environment
  • Communicate directly with the student about their comfort and what works so they are still meeting the course outcomes and being accommodated
Extension on assignment deadlines
  • If one student in the group has accommodations and requests for an extension, you should consider applying an extension to the entire class. This universal approach allows the accommodated student to still be fully immersed in the group task and benefit from the skills and learning that is gained from completing group work. It also makes sure that an individual student is not centered out or put in a position where they need to inform their group members about their accommodation. Being flexible with deadlines for the entire class is closely tied to UDL approaches.  
  • You may consider granting the extension to the entire group. This will help alleviate the pressure on the individual student, and still allow them to gain the full experience of group work, problem solving, and developing soft skills.  
  • You may also allow an individual student to complete their portion of the group work at a later deadline, while still expecting the rest of the group to hand in their work. Before you take this approach, ask yourself — does it impact the information in the project? Does it center out the student who needs to be accommodated? If it does, reconsider one of the other suggestions.

Summary/Key Takeaways

  • Using universal design principles and well planned and executed explanations for group work help minimize the need for additional accommodations. It supports a wide variety of learners in gaining the most out the experience. It is accessible and inclusive. 
  • Being clear, concise, and informative helps students function in their group roles.
  • Maintaining great communication (like questions and answer periods) and flexibility will also improve the overall classroom experience.
  • Accommodations can be given to individual students even within a group. Be creative and understanding. If you are unsure, reach out to someone in your Accessibility Services office to brainstorm solutions.


  • Photo by jacoblund via Getty Images. Used with permission.


Burdett, J. (2003). Making Group Works: University Students Perceptions. International Education Journal, Vol 4, N0 3.

Davidson, N., Major, C.H., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2014). Small-Group Learning in Higher Education- Cooperative, Collaborative, problem-based and Team Based Learning: An Introduction by the Guest Editors. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25 (3&4), 1-6.

La, H., Dyjur, P., & Bair, H. (2018). Universal design for learning in higher education. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Calgary: University of Calgary.

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