Using Notion for Courses with Group Work

I teach a course with students in a small group through the whole term, building public facing websites. I give lots of feedback along the way, essentially coaching more than teaching. In 2020 I tried using Notion for the whole process: all of the scaffolded group work, my coaching, and then the public-facing website. It was a huge success. This is the story.

I wrote this story. You can read it here, or on Notion itself here.

Notion for Group Projects in Education

NotionΒ is a great tool for organization and productivity. Business teams use it for project management, team wikis, and so on. Notion is free for teachers and students. But it's free for them to use separately. I needed a tool for student teams to collaborate on group projects; that is, for student-to-student interaction and student-to-teacher-to-student consultation and coaching.

Here's my story on why I needed Notion and how my class ran with it. (Notice I didn't say "how I ran my class".)

πŸ”₯ TL;DR: Notion is far and away the best tool for group projects.

It allows students to collaborate efficiently and the professor to jump in to coach them.

Table of Contents


I'm Fred Cutler. I teach in the Political Science department at the University of British Columbia.

One of my courses is POLI308, "Issues in Canadian Politics". But more important than the subject matter are the learning objectives and the course design to achieve those objectives.

I want students to:

  • develop modern teamwork skills (accountability, planning, communication),
  • to learn substance by working with it actively,
  • to teach and learn from each other, socially,
  • and produce artefacts of their learning that are public-facing.

So students work on a semester-long project in a group of five to seven students, building a website that provides the public with information about public issues.

Knowledge is not an explicit objective. I know that they will accumulate knowledge as they work; I just don't need to pre-define it in this course. I want them to curate knowledge on a given issue and they can't learn to curate if I curate for them.

Instead of teaching, I define my role as coach and manager β€” much more like what they'll encounter in the 'real world'.

🌐 Spoiler: Here's what the class produced... - Helps you understand policy issues in Canada


When there's a big political event like an election or referendum, the class can be focused on that. But in Winter 2021 there wasn't one, so students built 'Issue Guides' for some of the big issues in Canadian politics.

There were 43 students in the class, in 7 groups. Students indicated topics they were interested in and they were assigned to the groups. Few students already knew other members of their groups.

What I wanted from a collaboration platform

Here's a long list of what I was looking for in a collaboration platform or set of tools.

  1. Visibility. Something I could monitor easily. I wanted to be able to 'see down into' their ongoing work, partly to keep them on track and partly to coach and give feedback. So it needed to be easy to set up so that groups could have a collaboration space but I could be 'above' the groups with access to all of the group work spaces. Ideally, it would be fully and instantly searchable for students within groups and for me across all groups at once.
  2. Feedback. The teaching assistant and I need to give feedback on ongoing student work. This work would not necessarily be 'handed in' for deadlines; instead, we wanted to be able to give iterative feedback. The handing in is easy enough in a Learning Management System (Canvas, Moodle), but then it would be clunky for the student to revise based on the comments. And I also needed peer-to-peer feedback and editing on documents with @ mentions and notifications, like in Google Docs. Basically, I needed a synthesis of Google Docs and group submissions to the LMS.
  3. Minimize Email! There would be no way we could cope if students and groups communicated with us by email. The communication had to be associated with the objects that were being worked on. Ideally, there would be notifications or a place to go to see updates and click right into what was being worked on (Spoiler: This was a big success. I had less than 20 student emails about the work over the whole semester!)
  4. Task / Project Management. I wanted students to develop skills in collaborative project and task management. This is how the world works now, even if that isn't obvious to academics. So I wanted a tool that gave them a gentle introduction to project planning, with timelines and tasks in a hierarchical, chronological structure. At the very least, I wanted them to define and assign tasks and move them along a board (kanban) where the tasks progress from Backlog to To-Do to In Progress to Edit to Done.
  5. Flexible Privacy Settings. I wanted the teams to have their private group space, and individuals to have their own private space, but the things they were working on had to be shareable outside the group eventually. At the start of the course I needed to be able to move students between groups. And students needed to be able to share a private document/page with me and the TA. All this needed to be easy and visible to me.
  6. Documents, with comments. The core of the system had to be a workspace for documents, with simple formatting, and embedding of media. Within these documents, I wanted really fast cross-linking to other documents in the groups' sites. And they had to be very easily organized into a hierarchy and moved when necessary, without breaking links. (Our Canvas LMS doesn't provide a user-friendly area for the students to work in groups. Google docs is too much of a blank slate that would get too messy as different groups did different things.)
  7. Easy to make-and-use Databases, built-in.** I wanted students to be able to define attributes (properties) for the objects they were working on and then display them in a variety of ways. Part of the objective was to have them collect and access information efficiently as a group, but the other thing was just to expose them to the idea of a database and how it can be manipulated and viewed. The most important use of this was for the group to build a list of sources where each one would include a summary, keywords, a rating of value for the project, its type, and so on.
  8. Public-facing. Ultimately, the work would have to be shareable, presentable to the public. Basically, I wanted them producing the website without having to master a website-creation tool like Wordpress, Wix, or Squarespace. I knew from experience that that would distract and detract from the other objectives of the course. The ideal situation would be to work on everything in documents, design and organize them, and flip a switch so it turned into an attractive, accessible website.
  9. Chat / Communication. Well, you would think this would be good to have. But in fact, students don't want to use yet another communication tool and it can be distracting if the workspace is also a communication area. Having comments on the documents was enough. Students self-organized their group messaging (Messenger, iMessage, What'sApp, etc.), so it was a place they could 'be' without the professor involved. This would happen anyway, even if a chat channel were provided (like I did another year), and it's important for building the social connection within the group.

Notion looked like it would tick most of these boxes. And it was free for teachers and students. But not the "Team Plan" collaboration features, which I was going to need. So I asked if I could have the Team plan for free and they said yes. I hope there's some way to get discounted educational pricing on the team plan in the future.

Notion has provided no other consideration to the author.

ℹ️ All you need to know about Notion is that everything is a Page, but Pages can also have multiple properties, which means they can be organized as a database, with different views (table, timeline, gallery, etc.).


Building the class

I knew that if I was going to to ask students to immerse themselves in this platform, we should minimize the use of other modes of class material and communication. So instead of using the LMS (Canvas), I did it all in Notion. I was glad I did.

I just started creating a POLI308 Homepage and then subpages. Here's what the hierarchy looked like.

What a pleasure it was to just write and format so easily and not even have to click Save. So much better than using Canvas, or even separate Google Docs.

All of this was going to be visible to the students, and they could comment, but not edit (obviously!).

Most of the information was just like you'd find on any course site. I made a specific Notion Guide page to introduce the tool. I wish I had also prepared a Notion exercise that they all had to complete β€” perhaps to make a mini-database of all their assignments and deadlines in all their courses. I tried to do this with the Team Directory, but it wasn't enough.

The Q&A and Best Practices Wiki pages were meant to be a repository of knowledge. They didn't catch on very well.

I made announcements in the Class Meeting Notes pages, but the important ones could also be copied and pasted into the Announcements page as a log of announcements. Students signed up for notifications when there were updates on the Announcements page.


The Stages and Schedule page was a database. It wasn't just assignment deadlines, but also a timeline of what should be worked on when. It mapped the stages of the course over time. Because it's a database and the entries have properties including date ranges, it can be shown as a calendar or timeline. Have a look at the different views by opening the toggles to the right.

The Assignments page was also a database of the things that were going to be graded. Its properties includeda summary, whether it had to be submitted on Canvas, whether it was group or individual, and the grade value.

The Team Workspace Template

πŸ—οΈ The Team _ [Issue] Template was the Secret Sauce to make the course work.

Providing Structure

The course involves what students seem to call semi-structured learning. In previous offerings of the course there hadn't been enough structure, despite my efforts to provide it orally in class. Because we were online, I knew I needed the technology to help provide it.

The other reasons to structure the digital environment were: 1) so that I could find things in their workspaces, and 2) so I could refer to things generically and they would understand what I was talking about.

How it works

I created shell pages and database frameworks for what I thought would be important parts of their workspace. Then I just duplicated this template for each team.

The elements of the template are all visible in this picture.


  • The **Team Directory ** is a database where students can fill in some biographical information. This exercise is an ice-breaker, both socially and for the use of Notion.
  • The **Team Charter ** is the place where students can build their own group charter or 'constitution'. Many team-learning experts advocate something like this so students set expectations and indicate that they will hold each other accountable.
  • **Meeting Notes ** is for each working session's meeting notes. Learning to do this effectively is an objective of the course. We did a little lesson on taking meeting notes and recording action items. Using Notion's templating, I provided a template for teams to use; it popped up automatically when they created a new meeting note. Here's an example (double click to enlarge). β†’
  • Sources and Resources is a database page for cataloguing sources. This was the first substantive element of the course, so students could pool the sources they found and summarize the significance of each for the group's project. Sources could be tagged and rated for ease of use later. Here's an example (double click to enlarge). β†’
  • The Team Sources Plan and Team Project Plan were group-created documents that were submitted for feedback and grading. We could give feedback on a draft and then grade the final version all in one place.
  • I decided I would advise them to think of the two main layers of their website as 'Elements' and 'Pages'. Pages would contain most of the information on the sites and they would be grouped thematically into Elements. This way, Site Pages was a database of pages in which the content would be curated and produced, but these Pages also had properties, such as Within Site Element, Owner, Short Summary, Ready for Editing, Editor, Edited, Ready for Design. An example of the Pages table is over to the right (double click to enlarge). β†’
  • Once the Elements and Pages were done, they could be duplicated and moved under the _______ in Canadian Politics [to be published] page. That meant they could be designed and made available for students outside the group to give feedback in the Feedback Notes page. This was a great virtue of Notion: this part of the group's workspace could be switched to be visible and comment-able by all members of the class. Easy peer-to-peer feedback.

This template was simply duplicated seven times and re-labelled for each group. Using Notion's Groups functionality, I gave edit permission to each group in their own group space.

The TA and I could then jump into the groups' spaces just like they were sub-directories in a file system.Β  The Health Care group's space is expanded in this screenshot.

The groups' separate workspaces. I could see into them all.

What we did in the course

One of the major problems with group projects in universities is that students don't have enough time to do the work because the professor uses the class time for normal teaching. I ran this class with very little of that kind of teaching at the students; instead, the twice-a-week two-hour sessions were working sessions. This was especially important in the fully remote/online world.

The first 10-15 minutes of each class was used to prompt the students to discuss certain things, to do planning activities, or to focus on a particular element of the process like editing. These were presented by me using a page for each class session with the key points for that class. Students watched me go through it as I shared my screen and could then go back to it as they started work in their groups.

The rest of the class sessions were drop-ins by me and the TA to check up on these themes for each class session, ask generally how they were doing, what roadblocks they were facing, how they were using Notion, and so on.

The most important pedagogical strategy in this course is ongoing feedback, that is, feedback detatched from the handing in of an assignment for a grade. Notion made this easy because at any time we could jump in and give feedback as general comments on a page or as a marginal comment tied to text. Students could check their All Updates area at the top left of the Notion screen to see where we had given feedback. Feedback wasn't just on text: we could comment on the gathering of sources in a database, looking at which team members were doing more and less, and quickly see the types of sources they were gathering. The lesson there is that if you're asking students to gather data or sources, it's much easier to give feedback and assess it if you can see it in a table view and sort or filter it.

I required the groups to commit to producing content for five "Feedback Fridays" in the second half of the course. There was no grade attached to it. This weekly cycle gave students a structure for when content had to be drafted and when it would be revised, producing accountability but allowing them the freedom to create without worrying about perfection on that first draft. It opened them up to the idea that content can be reorganized, edited, cut, and so on, without losing 'credit' for the work.

Another great Notion feature for staying on top of students' work is that on every page you can see who's been working or looking at it most recently, and how long ago. There's no roll-up of this by student, but it's still valuable to see whether students have been active on the pages they have committed to working on.

Students asked if they could share their work and see other groups' work. I hadn't built this in to my original design, but it proved valuable (and easy) to open up parts of the groups' sites for under-construction viewing by those outside the group. Near the end of the course there was an assignment to comment on another group's site which formed part of the final grade.


Assessing group projects is challenging. My goal was to make assessment mostly about process rather than product. Individual work logs were the largest part of the final grade. Here's the grading breakdown for the course. The log is worth 30%, while the student's contribution to the quality of the final project output is only worth 10%.


Notion did what I wanted it to do for me and my students.

Students were not shy about saying they were skeptical and afraid of a new tool. But they came around as they got comfortable with it, learned about the very basic database capabilities, and saw how they could keep each other accountable and get coaching and feedback from the professor and TA.

I will absolutely use Notion again for this kind of course. I would recommend it to any teacher who isn't afraid of a bit of a learning curve. While it takes time to get comfortable with it, you will save time thanks to the ease of finding and commenting on student work, as compared to a bulky learning management system.

If you're doing public-facing student output, a tool like Notion makes the final product better. The limited design choices keeps them focused. The collaborative drafting and editing results in more polish.

Fred Cutler can be reached at

Share this learning activity with others

Learning Significance

  1. It's worth using new tools and telling students that they are part of the journey and should be co-adopters who can provide important feedback on using a new tool.