Being able to work effectively in a team setting is an important skill in many jobs. So to help students develop the ability to work in a team, many college courses incorporate group projects. If you’ve used a group project in a course you’ve taught, you know that successful group work doesn’t just happen. Krystin Anderson offers advice on how to develop effective group projects.
by Krystin Anderson
So you want to use a group project for your students.
If you feel some apprehension about using group projects, you are not alone! Group projects can cause anxiety for teachers and students alike, both of whom are afraid that what is meant to be a positive, collaborative learning opportunity will become a nightmarish conflict of personalities and interests resulting in tears and failure.
(Click College Rant: I hate group projects for one student’s musings.)
However, group projects offer opportunities for students to complete something they could not on their own, not only because of the time constraints within a semester but because a single student may not have the all skills that a group of students could bring together.
Group projects also help students learn how to work in groups and to become interdependent—a skill most media professionals use frequently throughout their careers.
There are, of course, costs for both the teacher and the student in running group projects.
- Students may struggle with the amount of time and effort it takes to coordinate group work; the larger and more diverse the group, the more these costs increase.
- Students may also suffer from a loss of motivation, particularly if the group does not function well together and some members are forced to shoulder more of the work than others.
- For a teacher, there are costs in the time it takes to select group members, help them to work interdependently, and grade them in ways that assess both their individual efforts and their ability to work in a group.
Although difficult, these costs can be overcome by following a few recommended teaching practices. Not all of these will apply to every course or project, but it is important that teachers take these into consideration when designing a group project.
Tip #1 – Before working out any of the details of a group project, consider the student learning objectives (SLOs) for the course you are teaching.
How will the project fulfill those objectives? Are there any objectives you have not considered that may come as a result of the project? Assessing your SLOs helps you to sift out what is important from what may not be necessary. It will also help your students to feel the importance of what they are doing. You may want to include an SLO about the ability to work in groups in order to enhance the students’ sense of the project’s usefulness.
Tip #2 – One of the most important—yet often overlooked—parts of structuring group projects is how to combine students into groups that will work well together.
Svinicki & McKeachie (2011) recommend that teachers rather than students choose the groups for two reasons: 1) students may choose to work with others similar to them and fail to learn about other perspectives and ways of thinking, and 2) because of obligations to their friends, students may not choose groups according to the mix of skills and experience that the project requires.
A good way to decide how to structure the groups is to ask students to fill out a sort of “application” for the group position. You can ask them about their interests, skills and experience pertaining to the group project. You can also ask them to describe what role they prefer to play in a group (leader, scheduler, note-taker, presenter, editor, etc.), which may prevent conflicts that can come from power struggles within a group.
Tip #3 – Establish communication expectations for the groups and you.
Regardless of how well you select the group members, it is important that you provide a constructive framework for the group, making clear what you expect from them and how you expect them to communicate with you and each other. You may even have them compose and sign a contract that delineates their group goals and individual responsibilities.
Tip #4 – Make sure your students know about technology tools available to help them coordinate their projects.
In addition to using a course management system (i.e., Canvas, Sakai), tell students how they can use Dropbox or Google Docs to share documents. You may even want to have the entire class on a single project management system such as Wiggio, which will allow you to monitor their progress online and see which members are completing which tasks.
Even if you choose not to use an online program to coordinate the projects, it is important to monitor your students by either setting aside time to talk to each group in class or by arranging out-of-class meetings. You may also want to speak with individual group members to check on their progress and solvency within their group.
Tip #5 – Design a grading system that evaluates the group and individuals in the group.
When grading group projects, the best method is to offer opportunities for both individual and collective grades. One way to add an individual element is to have students complete a peer evaluation describing the contributions of each member.
You may also want to have portions of the work assigned to different members of the group (and graded accordingly), even if the final product is graded as a whole. Whichever method you choose, be sure that it is clear and understood by the students.
For more information on this topic, visit:
- http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/index.html (for general information about structuring group projects)
- http://archive.tlt.psu.edu/suggestions/teams/manage/conflicts.html (for tips on how to manage conflicts within student groups)
- http://www.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin/docs/newsletter/cooperative.pdf (for tips on constructing collaborative tasks)
- Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
When she wrote this post, Krystin Anderson was a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. This post followed the teaching presentation she made on this topic in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930). This post originally was published on April 15, 2014.