by Daniel Pimentel
Ph.D student, University of Florida
The Parable of Stones: Communicating the Benefits of Group Projects
Often considered the holy grail of technology companies, Apple Inc. represents a diverse and interdisciplinary team of professionals. From packaging design specialists to software engineers, the team at Apple is what many would call the ultimate group project based on its roots in a California garage in 1976.
Nearly two decades after his small project revolutionized the way humanity communicated, Apple’s founder and icon, Steve Jobs, spoke on a childhood experience and the importance of teamwork. He described how as a child an elderly man on his block invited him to view his collection of rocks. The man was rugged and aged, and Jobs wondered what value these rocks provided for the man. Placing them in a motorized container filled with liquid and grit powder, the man turned on the machine causing a chorus of clanks and swashes. He invited Jobs back the following morning.
Jobs returned to find the rocks emerge from beautifully polished. This experience remained with Jobs well into his adulthood serving as a metaphor for the power of teamwork. In his words, projects are, “polished by the agitation of powerful ideas and passionate people.”
A romanticized portrayal of group dynamics? Perhaps. Especially when the rocks are students, and the container is the classroom. However, collaboration in an academic context – manifested as group projects — can foster inventive experiences that rival the hundreds of tech start-up teams huddled around their Macbooks in incubators across the country.
“Group project” is a blanket term that may refer to one of three aspects of what scholar Kenneth A. Bruffee refers to as Collaborative Pedagogies. It encompasses in-class activities, short term projects, and semester-long projects, among others. Depending on a variety of course-specific factors (e.g. class size, course length, topic,) particular variations may be more conducive to your course’s specified learning outcomes.
Regardless of your course topic, success begins and ends in the team selection phase.
Group Projects Phase 1: Selecting Group Members
Assembling a team has its roots in my childhood on the school yard. Two students in a wide stance, one gripping a kickball, squinting as they scanned a wall of students for prospective teammates – those who gave them the greatest chance to win. I was often among the last picked, but a few visionary captains often graced the playground, understanding that victory was not about selecting the best kickers, but about forming a team with complimentary strengths (e.g. pitchers, outfield catchers).
It’s not much different for an instructor faced with a class full of students, except the goal isn’t to win, but instead to create a balanced, interdisciplinary team that affords each student the opportunity to leverage each of their peers’ skill sets.
The most convenient method of selecting groups is randomized selection. While this is the quickest way to form groups, it often leads to issues related talent distribution. In the context of advertising campaigns, where groups function as advertising agencies, randomization could render groups with multiple creative directors and other groups absent of individuals with that particular skill-set.
On the other extreme of the continuum is student-formed selection. Students report higher levels of satisfaction with this method. However, considering certain students may prefer to work with friends, student-formed groups often fail to provide the experience of working with strangers, and ultimately building interpersonal communication skills.
The middle-ground is teacher-formed selection. This mirrors what happens in professional situations, where managers select teams based on individual skill-sets. Ways to do this include having self-reported assignments where students identify their skill-sets or desired position within the group. In the context of an advertising campaign course, students can list their ideal position(s) in an advertising agency. The ranked list allows the instructor to create groups that pair students’ skills with group needs in a balanced and fair way.
Group Projects Phase 2: Setting Milestones
What are the goals of the project? Developing a shared understanding of the assignment’s expected learning outcomes ensures that every student knows what their role is within the group, and to produce drafts of important sections of a project by certain dates.
In the case of my advertising capstone course, I understood that students with the assigned role of creative director would not necessarily be able to create ads until the research could justify creative direction. Students in this position can be encouraged to contribute in other ways, such as writing the introduction section or contributing to secondary research analysis.
Phase 3: Planning and Preparation
My previous institution was predominantly a commuter school, making meetings less practical than a college town like Gainesville, where the University of Florida is located. Many students at my commuter school complained early on in the semester of meeting times and scheduling conflicts. Technological solutions, such as meeting online through Google Hangout, became an incredible asset that helped groups accommodate team members’ situations.
While students must plan ahead, it is also important to develop mechanisms for you as the instructor to meet periodically with groups to discuss and identify any potential stumbling blocks or miscommunication in what is being asked of them for the project.
Group Projects Phase 4: Implementation
Consider incorporating a weekly meeting journal that groups must turn in at the end of the semester. This allows you as an instructor the ability to cross-reference peer reviews with logged contributions and each group’s meeting minutes.
Also, acknowledge performance gaps. You may have one group that is lagging behind in a particular area. Work with them to figure out a solution. This may come in the form of a refresher lecture on using university databases or general survey formation strategies
Group Projects Phase 5: Finishing Up
Emphasize careful reviewing of material. If the project you assign requires a presentation, give groups enough time to prepare and practice ahead of time [preferably together]. Presentation skills are often overlooked, and a refresher on the keys to a successful presentation may be valuable to the groups.
Group projects are indeed a dynamic learning experience, and as instructors we may often fail to recognize the amount of work that is demanded and executed outside of the classroom. Though the first and final phases of a project take place in the classroom, recognizing the phases between them allows instructors to effectively facilitate inclusive learning experiences and maintain high levels of engagement throughout the semester.
Your groups may not result in a Fortune 500 Company, but collaborative projects represent the essence of team work, where students work together to create something bigger than themselves. As instructors, understanding the process allows for the experience to be both enjoyable and manageable for all parties involved.
A good example of understanding the nature of collaboration can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0_yKBitO8M
For students, a great resource for dealing with group projects can be found here: http://elearninginfographics.com/wp-content/uploads/11-Tips-for-Working-Successfully-in-Virtual-Groups-Infographic-1000×2880.jpg
Bruffee, K. A. (1984). Collaborative Learning and the “Conversation of Mankind”. College English, 46(7), 635-652.
Colbeck, C. L., Campbell, S., & Bjorklund, S. A. (2000). Grouping in the Dark: What College Students Learn from Group Projects. The Journal of Higher Education, 71, 60-83.
Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers. Institute for Writing Rhetoric, Dartmouth College.
Dudziak, S. & Profitt, N. J. (2012). Group Work and Social Justice: Designing Pedagogy for Social Change. Social Work with Groups: A Journal of Community and Clinical Practice, 35(3), 235-252.
Elliott, C. J. & Reynolds, M. (2014). Participative pedagogies, group work and the international classroom: an account of students’ and tutors’ experiences. Studies in Higher Education, 39(2), 307-320.
Golde, C. M. (1994). Tips for Successful Writing Groups. University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Howard, R. M. (2001). Collaborative Pedagogy. Composition Pedagogies: A Bibliographic Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 54-71.
Linda, H. & Hunter, K. (2015). The Communication Conundrum Exercise: Pedagogy for Project-Based Learning. Organization Management Journal, 12(4), 209-220.
Daniel Pimentel is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC6930). This post is based on a teaching presentation he made in class.