Every term since I’ve started this position an issue comes up in a group project and I get asked for advice on how to handle it. The most basic thing I can say is this: address issues in group projects when you plan your course! The more that can be done up front, the less likely you are to encounter issues.
At the outset, when planning a group project for a course, ensure there is a valid reason. What learning outcomes are addressed by the group project that cannot be addressed as individual work? What is the purpose being fulfilled?
Once you have that answered satisfactorily, move into the issues directly related to a group project?
PLAN THE PROJECT:
The first part of a successful group project is planning. Plan that there is enough work for each member of the group. The work should be of roughly equal size and complexity. You don’t want one student to end up being “the PowerPoint person”, the work should be divided around course topics so students are furthering their learning in a way that relates the course outcomes.
Part of the planning for the projects should also look at how students will share their ideas and knowledge with each member of their group. Students should not just be learning the one isolated part they covered but should have a good understanding of the work the other team members are doing as well.
CREATE THE TEAMS:
Next thing to think about is how you will establish the groups and stick to your plan. If you want the groups to be randomized, the PACE team can assist with this (there is a tool in Nexus for setting this up). When randomizing groups, be prepared for the push back of “I don’t want to work with that person”. If you let students pick their own groups, be prepared for the person that ends up without a team, you will have to make the groups of equal size.
If you let students pick, or you are assigning teams, reach out to the PACE team to have group assignment dropboxes created.
BUILD IN CLASS TIME:
During the course, after the group project has been introduced, build in time for the groups to meet, discuss, and do some work on their group project each class. Students should still have work to do independently, having time during the course allows the time members to meet and check on progress.
CHECK IN WITH GROUPS:
As the instructor use this group work time as your opportunity to check in with the groups. Each class you MUST meet with the teams and get a briefing.
I recommend giving the teams a template for that meeting, be explicit on what you want to know. What work was accomplished so far? What work is outstanding? What areas are having difficulty? What questions are there? Try to make each group member speak up so that no one can hide out and not speak about their progress. It would be worth considering having each member chair the meeting in turn; students get an opportunity to practice being the chair and using their oral communications skills.
PLAN FOR BREAKDOWNS:
A big issue, the one that sees my inbox light up, is what to do when group members do not contribute. This is a regular problem, one of the team members stops contributing. Plan how you will handle this, make it clear to the class when the groups should reach out: the night before the due date is not the time to be asking for help!
In my courses, I have built into the group project instructions wording that the assigned mark may be adjusted up or down based on an individual student’s contributions. That is only good for after the fact. When the project is running, tell groups when they should reach out and when the cut off for asking for help from the instructor is.
Group projects can be valuable, but they do require the instructor to think about them in advance and look at how the project will play out in the course.