6 Communication Rules for Success in Online Student Groups

group project“In this course you will have a group project…”

I think it is fair to say we’ve all been let down by a working group or by individual team members. No matter the setting, there seems to be an aura of dread when group projects are announced.  Add in the fact that online graduate students work within virtual spaces, and it is easy to understand why nervousness sets in. With a few simple communication rules, the group experience can become one of the highlights of your online education.

The foundations of great group projects…

Here at the University of New England, we value appropriate and productive group experiences because we are preparing students for the modern workplace – and teamwork is almost always part of the job.

Our group projects are designed by instructional designers and subject-matter experts using the best-practices of online education design, instructional pedagogy, and assessments. It is critical to design group projects for learning success, and to make sure each project serves a purpose.

While instructors assess the whole group’s end product, they also assess individual contributions to group products. In many courses students have an opportunity to reflect on and assess their own performance as well as that of their group members.

Six easy communication rules for virtual student group success!

No matter how well a project is designed, the virtual student group experience ultimately depends on the efforts of group members. We all know group work can be tricky in face-to-face settings, so taking group work into an online, virtual space can be scary for a first-timer.

Online, virtual student groups can be extremely successful when team members know how to communicate in such a setting. Computer-mediated communication expert Joseph Walther suggests these six rules to ensure virtual group success:

Rule #1: Get started right away.

The research on virtual groups shows that the immediacy of first contact is critical to establish working relationships and positive impressions among group members.

What this means to the online graduate student: Initiate communication with your group members immediately when the virtual group space opens.

Rule #2: Communicate frequently.

Communication in virtual spaces must happen more frequently than in face-to-face settings in order to build the same level of relationship and trust, according to Walther’s Social Information Processing Theory.

What this means to the online graduate student: Communicate more than you think is required. Your team members should hear from you frequently, and they should never wonder if you are participating in the group.

Rule #3: Multitask getting organized and doing substantive work simultaneously.

This is probably the trickiest rule. Following the traditional linear path of organizing and then executing tasks doesn’t quite work in the virtual setting because of the asynchronous nature of communication in a virtual group. Simply put, there isn’t enough time for significant exchange as a result of the fast-pace of computer-mediated communication.

What this means to the online graduate student: When in a virtual group, get started immediately and negotiate along the way. According to Walther, “For the most efficient use of time in virtual groups it may be better to begin substantive efforts on group tasks immediately rather than to wait until every aspect has been negotiated.”

Rule #4: Overtly acknowledge that you have read one another’s messages.

In the virtual group setting, non-verbal acknowledgments are absent. In online settings, a non-response can be taken as either ignoring the sender, or as a complete absence from the group’s work.

What this means for the online graduate student: Those non-verbal communications that we recognize and require for affirmation must be done non-verbally. Therefore, group members should make an effort to acknowledge all communication, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

Rule #5: Be explicit about what you are thinking and doing.

In addition to acknowledging the other members (rule 4), it is critical to keep group members updated on what you are thinking and doing in relation to the group’s goals.

What this means for the online graduate student: When a group is working face-to-face, it is easy to observe each team member’s work. In the virtual group setting it is important to be proactive and tell group members what you are thinking about the project and what you are doing. Keep them informed!

Rule #6: Set deadlines and stick to them.

To prevent uncertainty and anxiety, don’t miss the deadlines for even the smallest of tasks. Walther states “Vulnerability and validation lead to trust over repetitions.” In short, what he is saying that as we wait for a team member to finish their part, we are in a position of vulnerability. When the deadline is met, trust is created and work becomes productive.

What this means for the online graduate student: Meeting deadlines builds trust and creates synergy, thus making the group productive.

personal apple laptopWrapping up virtual group work

Now you know the secrets to virtual group success! Follow these rules, and your group will be successful. If at any time you need help with a group – reach out to your instructors and student support specialists!

One of the best parts of commencement is watching virtual groups meet each other face-to-face. More often than not, we’ve observed that our virtual groups lead to life-long friendships! That is the power of effective communication!


Walther, J. B. and Bunz, U. (2005), The Rules of Virtual Groups: Trust, Liking, and Performance in Computer-Mediated Communication. Journal of Communication, 55: 828–846. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb03025.x

Elizabeth Benz, Assistant Director of Student Support, ensures success for the online student population by managing the support specialist team and collaborating with University departments to provide support and resources for online students.

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