I’m hard pressed to think of someone else in higher ed who is more influential in starting conversations about teaching and learning than James Lang (Cheating Lessons and Small Teaching), and writing recently at the Chronicle, he started a conversation about group projects, using his daughter’s frustrating experiences as a college sophomore as examples of the kinds of things that students who hate group projects routinely experience.
If you say the words “group project” in front of a typical college student, be prepared for some kind of moaning sound, like they’re in the midst of an attack of appendicitis.
In fact, I’m confident if you offered some students a choice between minor surgery and a 10-week long group project, they’d opt for the minor surgery.
And yet, group projects are ubiquitous in higher ed.
Lang says, “If you are assigning and grading group projects and: (a) not giving your students any explicit guidance or resources for how to work together effectively, and (b) not checking in and intervening when groups show signs of dysfunction, then you are engaging in pedagogical malpractice.”
I agree. Assigning a group project without also supporting students in navigating the group part of the work is not just to risk, but to guarantee some kind of disaster.
As both a student and instructor, I was once a dedicated loather of group projects myself. As a student, if at all possible, I would drop any class that promised a group project. As an instructor, I would not assign them, no matter how tempting a large class size might have made them seem as a mechanism to reduce the amount of grading.
And then I found myself teaching a course called Communication Skills at Virginia Tech, where group projects were a mandatory part of the course. I don’t know that I groaned out loud like someone was prodding an inflamed organ when I found this out, but I was certainly feeling it on the inside.
Fortunately, I was working under the guidance of Professor Marlene Preston, who had designed the Comm Skills curriculum, and who helped me see that if you want students to succeed in a group project, you must treat the group work as an important part of the curriculum itself.
Later, when I moved on to Clemson and was teaching a 12-week long group project in a technical writing course, I drew upon all I’d learned, and – I’m being serious here – teaching that course became one of the real pleasures of my entire career preciscely because of the group project.
Many students even agreed with this after completing the group project in that technical writing course, expressing gratitude to have had the opportunity to learn how to work effectively in groups, often citing how they anticipated that learning being useful to them in their future endeavors.
Indeed, if you think about it, the average adult’s working life will likely resemble one long group project. Even faculty who do much of their work as a solo enterprise will find themselves having to collaborate as part of a larger department and college.
There is never a guarantee that a group project will turn out successfully, but there are a number of things I learned over the years that I pass on here for others to make use of as they see fit.
Embrace process as more important than product
I think this is good advice in general, and often results in improved end results, but it’s extra important in group projects. Recognizing that the journey itself is where the learning is happening, as opposed to being housed in that end product reorients how both instructors and students see the group project.
This may also require an adjustment in how projects are assessed. If you say that the process is important, but only grade the product, students get the message and all the negative behaviors Lang describes (unequal contributions, social loafing, etc…) come into play.
Assessment should always reflect what the course claims to value.
Be transparent with students
At the start of the project, I encourage students to own their feelings when it comes to group projects, even declaring a Festivus Holiday airing of the grievances about group projects at the very start allowing them to vent amongst each other about past negative experiences.
Acknowledging that group projects are hard and it takes effort and care to keep them going off the rails orients students to what they’re going to be facing and in my experience increases initial buy-in.
I also remind them that if they played sports or did band or theater or had a job that went well, they’ve likely had success in a group project, it’s merely that they didn’t realize they were in a group project at the time. Showing them that they have collaborated successfully in the past shows them it can be done in the future as well.
Make sure the group project is something that is properly done in groups
I sometimes see folks take assignments that are better done as individuals (like a standard class paper) and try to port them to a group project. This is a mistake. The best results on group projects come from designing an experience that requires a group effort and division of labor to complete, while also benefitting from collaborative deliberation and problems solving of the “wisdom of crowds” variety.
This literally means conceiving something that cannot be done unless it is done by a collective, coordinated effort.
Instruct students on what they need to know about working effectively in groups.
This is a list of just some of the topics I would cover in a course with a group project: Styles of leadership, group and organizational communication, collaborative problem solving, ethics, team building, calendaring/scheduling, collaborative writing processes, taking minutes, etc….
Some of this was lecture, some was reading, some was discussion, but everything was touched on because these are the skills that are employed when it comes to working successfully in groups.
Give students some autonomy over forming groups
In a previous post, I shared a method borrowed from a former colleague for gathering student input to help form groups combining instructor judgment and student input.
Essentially they bring a personal statement along with their weekly schedule into class, we spend the class period with students reading each other’s statements, and then at the end, students tell me which students they’d most like to work with, and which student they’d rather not work with.
I then use that information in order to form the groups, mixing their input with my discretion.
I won’t repeat everything in that post, but my experience using the technique showed me that students can be trusted to understand which of their colleagues are most compatible in terms of working well in a group.
Let students express their preferred group culture
The method above not only reveals things like scheduling conflicts. It can also bring students with similar academic goals together, increasing the chance for group harmony and therefore maximizing performance. At Clemson, many students put off the technical writing course requirement until their final semester, and therefore treated it as a box to be checked for graduation and not much more.
One semester I had a group of young gentlemen on the cusp of graduation who were interested in doing as little work as possible while still passing the course find each other through the preferencing process from that previous post.
They named their group: “D Stands for Done” and declared from the outset that they did not care about their grade as long as they passed, and I worked with them accordingly, letting them know the threshold for their own goals. The group’s operations went incredibly smoothly because of the shared ethos around the project.
As it turned out, because of their great group cohesion and managing to get interested in their own project, they got a B. When they turned the final project in, they joked that they knew they’d overshot the mark.
Have students practice succeeding as a group
I had a number of brief, in-class activities both related to the project and unrelated to the project that were designed to reinforce what successful collaboration looks and feels like, and how collaboration results in better end products.
For example, the first class period after forming the groups, I used a silly little team-building exercise in which I gave each group a random object purchased from a dollar store, told them they had to invent a new (theoretical) use for it, and then write and perform an “infomercial” for the product to the rest of class, all in a single class period.
Students immediately experienced the benefits of collaborative problem solving, being forced to build quickly on each other’s ideas to complete the task. The results were often inventive, funny, and haphazard, requiring students to look a little silly in front of each other in a safe and supported environment. This kind of bonding from the outset paid dividends throughout the semester.
Once or twice during the semester I would give them specific problem solving tasks to do in class, so I could monitor group dynamics and debrief in real-time in order to have them self-assess how they were relating to each other.
Give students tools to manage the logistics
In the early part of the project after the group is together and has begun its work, I would come into a class period and ask how many groups had made a shared calendar of deadlines. Over the years, I would estimate no more than 15% answered in the affirmative, and those that did, it was always initiated by a single, super-organized individual.
At that moment, I would share a sample calendar, built with the project progress deadlines mandated by me to start, and then require them to complete the calendar to reflect their plan for completion. (This is one of the problem solving tasks referred to above.) This small thing has saved much angst for both students and myself.
Students themselves will have lots of ways that they manage communication with each other (group texts, et al.), and when I see a group come up with a novel method, I ask them to share it with the rest of the class and explain why and how their approach works to see if other groups want to borrow it.
Make students practice autonomy
While the group project has lots of structure, with a final deadline and lots of check-ins along the way, I try to give groups latitude that requires them to develop the skills of group coordination and individual agency.
One trick of many is to ask them early on to develop a short set of guidelines for how they’d like their groups to run in order to establish shared expectations. For example, when someone emails or texts, how soon is a response expected? How do people feel about starting meetings strictly on-time versus having a more laissez faire attitude? Will groups meet even if not every member can be present? If someone isn’t present, who is responsible for filling them in? What are the responsibilities for the group member who was absent?
Asking students to establish and then manage these expectations makes for a far superior group experience, as it provides groups a mechanism for managing the inevitable hiccups along the way by discussing those issues before they’re a problem.
Check in and assess progress
This is both a formal and informal task for the instructor. Every class period I would sit down amongst each group for a couple minutes and ask what had been accomplished since the last time I saw them, keeping a running ledger in my notes. If not much had been done, I’d probe on what the problems seemed to be, whether they were transient and circumstantial or more substantive. Often, simply making students articulate that they hadn’t done much would snap them from the inertia of inaction.
Informally, when they were working as a group in class, I was observing their interactions and dynamics. In Lang’s original article he asks his daughter what her instructors were doing while groups were working, and was told that they sat at the front of the room, doing something on their computers.
At times, I would sit at the front of the room and pretend that I was working on my computer, but I’d do this only so students didn’t sense that I was watching them.
The cliché of “an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure” has never been as true as when it comes to student group projects. If something seemed awry that looked likely to derail the process, I would intervene proactively.
Over time, I developed a better sense of what to let students figure out for the sake of their learning, and what merited intervention, but in my view, it’s better to err on the side of caution and insert yourself if you fear something is amiss.
Remember that it’s all about what was learned along the way
As with all learning, there’s a lot of devil in the details. The above precepts served me well, but it didn’t mean that every group arrived at the end of the semester with a high quality product, feeling bonded as a team.
Sometimes things just don’t work out, even when everyone is trying their best.
At the end of each course, I required individual reflection/analysis papers on the group process part of the group project, asking students what worked, and what they would do differently if they had to do it over again. This is a great opportunity for a little metacognitive learning, and using my ungrading/alternative grading approach, for the groups that hadn’t had great success it was also a chance to show that they had learned from the experience and to still earn a high grade.
Even 2600 words in, I actually find myself with much more I’d like to say on this topic, but let this be the start of a longer conversation to be continued.
 In some cases, I was not interested in joining my fate with others. In other cases, I knew that I did not care enough about what was being asked of me to deliver on my responsibilities to the group. I’d rather do my B- work solo, thank you very much.
 The worst story I recall is a student from an engineering class where they required to build a bridge out of balsa wood. The group splintered into factions, working independently. When it came time to test the bridge in class, the professor would only allow one entry. The students in the same group with different completed designs got in a fistfight in class over whose bridge would be used.
 This also short-circuits one of the most common occurrences where a single student, fearing their classmates will screw things up, volunteers to do all the work as a kind of self-sacrifice/martyrdom move. The task must be large enough that there is no temptation for anyone to take this route.
 A couple of times I ran a fun little experiment, asking students at the end to tell me which students they initially expressed a preference to work with. They were much more likely to name their actual group members than people who they actually named that weren’t in their group. It seemed like successful groups convinced themselves ex post facto that they’d selected each other, even when they hadn’t.
 The anonymous nature of the preferencing allowed students who were friends to say that they didn’t want to work with each other, knowing that they’d rather not interact with their friends that way. I always found this interesting.