The dreaded Group Project

It would appear that no one likes group projects – not the student – not the instructor. Oftentimes with group projects, one or more students will have an excuse why they cannot pitch in and help out,  while others want to control the entire project (they need an A and nothing less) and still others become frustrated or overwhelmed just trying to get the thing done on time.

Group Effort CC-BY-NC-SA by Lester Pyblic Library on Flickr

Group Effort CC-BY-NC-SA by Lester Pyblic Library on Flickr

In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.

– A New Culture of Learning,
Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

In Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning, they describe the age-old problem of working in groups. They suggest that part of the problem lies in the fact that groups fail to engage the student in the personal.

In group projects we ask students to contribute to solving a problem, answering a question, creating content or media, etc. We then attempt to evaluate their group work based on their individual contribution. The book describes this as the community approach. Whereas in the collective approach, contributors attempt to find their own meaning, recognizing that this may be better accomplished collectively rather than individually.

Consider the student talent show… or any student activity for that matter, that brings together students with various individual and group talents to put on an event. Students with leadership and organizational skills, individual and group musical, dance, comedic talents, etc. all manage to get on stage at a specified date and time and everything works. However, should we try to control the whole thing, we find that students may be  less than willing to participate and some people are hurt and angry – personality conflicts, etc. threaten to stop the show.

The collective approach is intrinsically motivated, resulting oftentimes in less order – more chaos – yet potentially more personal investment, more energy, and more creativity. That being said, there are some things we can do to help students become engaged and stay focused.

Be specific in your expectations for the assignment and provide examples of past student work – or if this is the first time, spend some class time talking about what you are looking for and provide a rubric with detailed indicators – or when possible, have the student review others work and come up with their own indicators for a rubric.

Students may need help making connections with their team-mates. We can encourage open discussion about their own experience with the topic / assignment and where they think they can personally make a contribution. One person may have writing skills, another design skills, someone may have technical skills or access to equipment or technology that can benefit the final product. On the other hand, encouraging people to follow their interests has the potential to be more engaging than assigning a role based only on past experience or existing skills.

Smaller teams are often better as people have less opportunity to get lost or hide in the background. Everyone is accountable. By using social networks or discussion boards no one is left out, or at least everyone has an opportunity to chime in. This can also allow for the entire class to see what other teams are doing and encourage people to share ideas and resources.

As with introducing any technology to the class – spend a few minutes learning how it works.  Don’t assume your students are more tech savvy than yourself. Oftentimes students are reluctant to say they don’t know how to use a technology, thinking maybe they’re the only one. Spending a little time investing in a tech orientation yields better returns later on.

By providing opportunities for students to engage in a project on their own terms – bringing their personal interests and talents to the table, we may find they are more engaged and therefore better positioned to gain something from the experience.


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