Creating Collaborative Assignments in Online Courses

By David Dietrich

Over the past year, due the impact of COVID-19, many counselor educators have needed to transition from a traditional face-to-face format to a fully online or hybrid model. Not without its challenges, the online course can still be effective. One concern for these counselor educators may relate to their ability to engage students online in a manner similar to their level of engagement in a face-to-face course. Typically, group assignments will be utilized to increase engagement. Online counseling doctoral students view connection with peers and instructors to be important elements of their satisfaction with online courses (Bender & Werries, 2021). Collaboration has been shown to increase student satisfaction and student achievement (Beqiri & Chase, 2010). Instructor satisfaction also increases when students collaborate (Bolliger & Wasilik, 2009). Snow et al. (2018) noted the importance online counseling faculty place on fostering student engagement, viewing it as one of the “top 3 to 5 best practices that are the most important for the successful online education of counselors” (p. 135).

Effective online career counseling courses can be impacted by creating opportunities for student connection and collaboration. This article will focus on methods of creating online career counseling assignments that can increase the chances for student engagement.

Photo By William Fortunato 2 From Pexels

Collaboration vs. Cooperation

Instructors may make the mistake of assuming that their students know how to work together effectively on an assignment. Consider the difference between the instructions for these two learning tasks.

Cooperative task: each group member takes a piece of the assignment, completes it independently from the group, and adds his or her piece to the final product.

“In your group, come up with a list of 5 important career counseling concepts. Submit your list.”


Collaborative task: each group member arrives at his or her own conclusions and shares these with group members. These ideas are combined to form the product. Now it is the interaction between group members that completes the task.

“In your group share your own career journey and the factors that impacted your career choices. Construct a narrative of your discussion including the most common factors experienced by your group members.”


The directions instructors provide will guide students toward using one of these approaches. In the first or cooperative group task, most groups would stop after hearing the first five concepts, regardless of how many group members contributed. In the second task, everyone contributes.

Describe course assignments that encourage students to adopt either a collaborative or cooperative style. If left to choose on their own, students are likely to choose the cooperative option. Why? Because it is the most efficient way to finish an assignment, requiring the least amount of effort from each individual group member. A good rule of thumb is: if a student can complete the assignment on their own, it doesn’t need to be a group assignment.


Motivating Students to be Good Collaborators

How can you motivate them in your course? Here are a few things I have found to be helpful. Each of these requires activity and effort on your part, but it is energy well spent. Students will learn what you want, why you want it, and how it impacts their learning experience.

1. Emphasize and explain teamwork early in the semester.
Have students complete a simple initial group assignment specifically to devise a group contract. I give them a template which lists important issues for them to consider such as: how assignments will be submitted; how constructive feedback will be given to each other; and the preferred method of communication between group members. Coming up with this contract gives them a chance to get to know each other, encouraging them to discuss important issues that impact how well they will work together. And it requires them to collaborate with each other.

2. Give an example of a good teamwork session.
Along with a rubric, use examples of previous students’ group work to communicate expectations and guide student work. This can be done by taking a screenshot of a group discussion board, with previous student names removed.

3. Become an active part of the process.
The more active you are, the more active your students will be. Show them that collaboration is important to you by reading their group discussions and commenting on them. Students will see that you are keeping up with what they do.

4. Provide a handout listing common group problems and how to resolve them.
I provide a document that includes a table that describes common problems groups have when working together, AND methods group members can use to resolve those problems. In this way I avoid the trap of assuming students know how to work well in groups and problem solve when things go wrong. It also minimizes how often they contact me with group problems.

5. Require students evaluate the other group members.
After each group assignment students complete an evaluation form I developed. They rate their group partner(s) level of involvement in the assignment and quality of work. Points may be deducted from that student’s grade if the evaluations are poor.

Detecting Which Style Students are Using

It is important to consider how to determine whether students are collaborating or cooperating. Become familiar with the tools available from your Learning Management System (LMS) to do this. Canvas, for example, allows the instructor to place students into groups, with each group being given its own mini-Canvas course. This includes a discussion forum, and the ability to meet virtually with each other. Reviewing the mini-Canvas course activity, use this simplistic, if not perfect way to determine which style is being utilized: If students are discussing the requirements and mechanics of completing the assignment, they are cooperating. If they are discussing the concepts studied in the assignment, they are collaborating.


Satisfied Students and Instructors

Examining group work ideas can be helpful when trying to achieve engagement in online courses. Effective courses may utilize collaborative assignments, resulting in satisfied students and instructors. Even instructors can collaborate – if you would like to receive a copy of any of the materials from my course described in this article, please contact me. I’m happy to share.




Bender, S., & Werries, J. (2021). Doctoral-level CES students’ lived experiences pursuing courses in an online learning environment. Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 14(2). https://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/jcps/vol14/iss2/7

Bequiri, M.S. & Chase, N.M. (2010). Online course delivery: An empirical investigation of factors affecting student satisfaction. Journal of Education for Business, 85, 95-100. DOI: 10.1080/08832320903258527

Bolliger, D.U. & Wasilik, O. (2009). Factors influencing faculty satisfaction with online teaching and learning in higher education. Distance Education, 30(1), 103-116.

Snow, W.H., Lamar, M.R., Hinkle, J.S., & Speciale, M. (2018). Current practices in online counselor education. The Professional Counselor, 8(2), 131-145. https://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/current-practices-in-online-counselor-education/


David DietrichDavid Dietrich, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and professor in the Master’s Program in Counseling at the University of Tennessee at Martin.  Prior to teaching at UTM, Dr. Dietrich taught psychology at Lambuth University for 11 years.  He also has experience as a high school counselor, and as the clinical and program director for a residential treatment facility for violent juvenile offenders.  Dr. Dietrich may be contacted through email at: ddietric@utm.edu

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1 Comment

Rebecca Dedmond   on Friday 10/01/2021 at 02:00 PM

Extremely important content, as I am thrust into on-line teaching! Thank you.

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