Strategies for designing more effective class group projects

by Liudmila Khalitova
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Liudmila Khalitova

Liudmila Khalitova

Group projects have many advantages for students as well as for instructors.

Students have an opportunity to learn more working people, decrease their individual work load sharing it with other students, and develop collaboration and communication skills which are essential for their future work.

Instructors can assign more complex tasks and reduce the number of final projects to grade.

However, sometimes group work can be very challenging. In this post I will address those challenges and give some tips on how to minimize the costs of group projects.

Challenges of group projects for students

Motivation can be a challenge for students and exist for one of several reasons:

  • Free riding occurs when one or more group members leave most or all of the work to a few, more diligent, members. Free riding – if not addressed proactively – tends to erode the long-term motivation of hard-working students.
  • Social loafing describes the tendency of group members to exert less effort than they can or should because of the reduced sense of accountability. Social loafing lowers group productivity.
  • Conflict within groups can erode morale and cause members to withdraw. It can be subtle or pronounced, and can (but isn’t always) the cause and result of free riding.

What can teachers do to address these motivation challenges?

1.     Explain why working in groups is worth the frustration.

2.     Establish clear expectations for group members, by setting ground rules and/or using team contracts.

3.     Increase individual accountability by combining group assessments with individual assessments.

4.     Teach conflict-resolution skills and reinforce them by role-playing responses to hypothetical team conflict scenarios.

5.     Assess group processes via periodic process reports, self-evaluations, and peer evaluations.

Intellectual costs also can challenge group performance. Intellectual costs are characteristics of group behavior that can reduce creativity and productivity. These include:

  • Groupthink: the tendency of groups to conform to a perceived majority view.
  • Escalation of commitment: the tendency of groups to become more committed to their plans and strategies – even ineffective ones – over time.
  • Transparency illusion: the tendency of group members to believe their thoughts, attitudes and reasons are more obvious to others than is actually the case.
  • Common information effect: the tendency of groups to focus on information all members share and ignore unique information, however relevant.

What can teachers do to reduce intellectual costs and increase the creativity and productivity of groups:

1.     Precede group brainstorming with a period of individual brainstorming. This forestalls groupthink and helps the group generate and consider more different ideas.

2.     Encourage group members to reflect on and highlight their contributions in periodic self-evaluations.

3.     Create structured opportunities at the halfway point of projects to allow students to reevaluate and revise their strategies and approaches.

4.     Assign roles to group members that reduce conformity and push the group intellectually (i.e., devil’s advocate, doubter, the Fool).

How you assign groups plays a major role in the group’s effectiveness.

  1. Assign students to groups rather than letting them chose their own groups.
  • Being separated from their social group helps students to stay on task;
  • You are more likely form a diverse group.

2.     Keep groups small, typically with no more than five to seven students, depending   on the scope of the project.

3.     Assign roles based on the needs of a particular project.

Some projects may benefit from national diversity, some from different skills. As an example, Dr. Dodd shared with me a magazine prototype produced in a Magazine Management class that was the result of a group project. In the groups of five, one student was the designer, two were writers and photographers, one an editor, and one the business manager. But in one of the groups, the student who was the designer dropped the course, so the group had hard time with their project because no one else knew InDesign. This illustrates how one student can impact the entire group.

The time the group spends working together (in addition to individually) impacts the overall results.

It is difficult for a group of different level students get together to work on a project in a regular basis, so:

1.     You as a teacher can let them work on the project during class time.

2.     You can suggest them to use advantages of the Internet such as Skype, Google Drive and other Cloud-based programs for on-line meetings or document collaboration. Also students may record their meetings and share with those members who were absent, to keep them posted.

3.     Also, to help students to stay on the right track, you may set deadlines for parts of a project and meet with each group for discussion of project progress.

Assessing individual performance,  as well as the group’s results, will improve individual and group performance.

Group grades can hide significant differences in learning. Figuring our which member did and did not contribute to the group or learn the lessons of the assignment can be difficult.

1. Peer evaluation

Ask group members to describe the work contributed by other members without assessing its value. Students are non-judgmental. More accurate picture of what each individual contributed.

2.  Individual tasks related to project material/Individual submission.

Some instructors combine a group project with an individual quiz on relevant material. Others base part of the total project grade on a group product (e.g., report, presentation, design, paper) and part on an individual submission.

3. Develop rubrics to evaluate individual performance.

Involve students in developing group rating forms that list the key group contributions that each member is expected to make. Each group member evaluates the other members according to those criteria. At the beginning of a group-oriented project, you can have a class discussion about what constitutes good group work. The peer assessment and your assessment are then based on those criteria.

References:

“How Can I Assess Group Work? – Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University.” Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/assess.html

McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. 14 edition. Australia ; United States: Wadsworth Publishing, 2013.

“What Are Best Practices for Designing Group Projects? – Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University.” Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/design.html

“What Are the Benefits of Group Work? – Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University.” Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/benefits.html

“What Are the Challenges of Group Work and How Can I Address Them? – Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University.” Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/challenges.html

Liudmila Khalitova is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC6930). This blog post is based on a teaching presentation she made in class.

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