Strategies for designing group projects

by Tianduo Zhang
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Tianduo Zhang

Tianduo Zhang

Group projects can be an extremely helpful tool for instruction. Group projects allow students to work on complex projects, get work done faster, learn communication and collaboration, and become familiar with the real-world working environment that requires teamwork.

However, group projects don’t always work in the ideal way. Almost every student who has completed an undergraduate degree had something to say about group projects. The most common problems are: work schedule, miscommunication, unaccountable team members and unfairness in grading.

So here comes the question: Could we as instructors do something to prevent such problems from happening? The answer is: Absolutely yes!

One tip for leading group projects is thinking yourself as the project manager. You should have a work flow to systemically guide the teams through their group project. The work of leading a group project consists of three stages: creating groups, facilitate groups and assessment.

I made the visualization below to demonstrate what kinds of work are involved in each stage.

Group Flow Chart created by Tianduo Zhang

Group Flow Chart created by Tianduo Zhang

Create Groups

* Task Design

The task should be designed in a way that it facilitates cooperation: members should be able to contribute to the project in different ways.

* Group Building

  • First step is to decide how many people in one group. To strike the balance between the coordinating cost and the reward of cooperation, it is recommended to keep the team size as 3-5 persons.
  • Think about how to group students together: one way is to allow students propose someone they either want to work with or someone they wish to avoid, then the instructor assign the team based on each member’s preference and expertise.
  • Offer some suggestions on how to divide work, which often means an explication of the assignment.
  • Required students to establish a leadership structure. It does not mean they need to have one team leader. Students should be encouraged to take turns to lead different stages of the project.
  • Help build up a communication mechanism. The easiest thing you can do is to provide students with the contact information of the class. Offering suggestions on what online coordinating tool or assign some class time for group meeting can be very helpful.
  • Problems happen, have a leaving mechanism. Students should be allowed to leave a team upon the permission of the instructor without failing the class, which often means they will be add to another group or work independently.

One last suggestion on group building: A group contract can be the best friend both for you and for students! (Find group contract template in the first Useful Link provided)

* Standards:

If team cooperation is part of the student learning objective, set a standard for it and include it in the rubric.

Facilitate group work

After spending time  creating the teams, you will find facilitating a group project much easier than before. But there are still several things you need to be aware of.

Occasionally, students will ask for support and resources. As an instructor, we are always willing to help our students but be aware not to spoon feed. Provide resources drip by drip so that students will learn as much as possible.

You will need to monitor the teamwork progress on: 1) How the project goes. 2) How the team works. There are multiple ways of doing that, the most information rich way is to let students work during class time and the instructor will go and observe how the team works and give some suggestions. The draw-back of this method is that it can be very time consuming. Another way of doing that is to ask teams submit brief periodical reports. It not only provides instructors with the feedbacks we needed, but also allow students to take a deep reflection of their work before it is too late.

During the project, always be prepared to the trouble-shooter for teams.

Assess group projects

One thing that almost all students dislike about the team project because of the evaluation approach that often awards everyone in the group the same grade based on the final project and doesn’t account for individual contributions.

To avoid this we need to develop an evaluation system that values both team product and individual contribution. But that is not enough. Remember when we talked about creating teams I suggested we need to incorporate the standard of cooperation in the rubric? So here I suggest we evaluate students on teamwork, individual contribution and cooperation.

Helpful links for creating effective group projects:

Tools for managing group projects (including team contract template): http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/tools/index.html

Common challenges for students

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/challenges.html

Sarkisian, Ellen. (unknown year)Working in groups: A Note to Faculty and a Quick Guide for Students. Retrieved from:  http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/wigintro.html

Successful group projects

http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/study/group-projects

Ways to monitor group project

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/monitor.html

 Tianduo Zhang is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC6930).

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One thought on “Strategies for designing group projects

  1. Pingback: Creating undergraduate course materials to demonstrate best practices | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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