mattThis is a guest post from Matt Acevedo, instructional designer and adjunct instructor at Florida International University in Miami, FL., and a Blackboard MVP.



Students hate group work. They’re vocal about it, too; check out a search for “group work” on Twitter, and you’ll see many, many complaints. And I can sympathize — I also hated group work when I was in school.

We all know the why: group members don’t contribute equitably. There’s invariably that one driven person who does most of the work, a few folks who contribute just enough to get by, and the one slacker who no one hears from until the day before the big project is due.

Even with group members who pull their weight, group work is also much harder to execute than flying solo, given everybody’s schedules, personalities, commitments, abilities, and priorities.

Despite the challenges (and complaints), group projects should remain part of our toolbox of instructional strategies, and should come out of that toolbox more often.

As educators, our job isn’t merely to transfer subject matter information and skills to our students, as though they were piggy banks and we were depositors of coins of knowledge (to borrow the famous analogy by critical educator Paulo Freire). It is crucial that we also design and facilitate experiences that mimic the real-world context in which our students will one day operate. Part of that context includes working in teams — even with others who have different (you guessed it) schedules, personalities, commitments, abilities, and priorities.

Very, very few of us work in a bubble. Most people’s daily grind involves working with others. Group projects in courses provide an avenue to promote and foster interpersonal skills within a subject-specific context or a condition that models real-world scenarios. In other words, students should complete our courses not only with subject-specific knowledge, but also with an enhanced skill set that will help them perform in the workplace, including working in teams.

There are a few tips worth considering when implementing group projects, in order to make the experience more effective, more dynamic, and more memorable for students.

Provide a platform for accountability and peer evaluation.

Remember the one slacker who no one hears from until the day before the big project is due? In a real-world context, that team member would most likely face repercussions. It’s important that group members be held accountable for the quality of their contributions, their levels of responsibility, and their professionalism in the group setting.

Typically, a faculty member only has the ability to assess what is provided by the group, such as the project deliverables, with no first-hand knowledge of what happens within the group. Peer evaluations provide the faculty member with a way to factor those behind-closed-doors variables into each student’s grade.

Peer evaluations should also happen several times over the course of a term in order to provide an opportunity for adjustment and improvement. Perhaps that one “slacker” had a different idea of the group’s expectations, or maybe there were genuine extenuating circumstances. Multiple evaluations allow group members to self-reflect and adjust their performance in the group.

At my institution, we’ve implemented iPeer, a web-based, open source peer evaluation system developed by the University of British Columbia. iPeer allows students to evaluate their group members based on a rubric, and a Blackboard Building Block (also open source) populates a Grade Center column with the results.

Some instructors have students complete evaluations in the form of a Word document, which is then manually averaged into a student’s grade.

However you decide to implement it, it’s crucial that group members have the ability to hold each other accountable.

Create opportunities for inter-group interaction.

All too often, the way groups are implemented in courses lead to students working in microcosms, that is, we disperse the class down to smaller classes of four or five students and isolate them from the other students. In professional working environments, we often work in teams, and those teams interact with other teams. Sometimes those teams perform similar tasks, and other times they work on complementary tasks.

There are a few good ways to implement inter-group interaction. For example, the whole class could work on a single large project, with each group producing one piece of the whole. At the end of the course, all of the students can see and experience the final product they all contributed to. Alternatively, each group can work on its own version of a smaller project, and then provide feedback and critiques to the other groups while seeing other groups’ approaches and perspectives. Wikis are a great tool for implementing both methods. Give some thought to the specific content area that you’re teaching, and consider some projects that might lend themselves to inter-group interaction.

Provide groups a degree of autonomy, within the structure of the project(s).

Some instructors who assign group projects also mandate that group members take on certain pre-defined roles (the coordinator, the liaison, the manager, the mediator, etc.). Imposing specific roles might lead to personality mismatches, which could feel forced and artificial. Instead, allow groups to determine their own internal structure, organization, and protocol. Students will have more buy-in with a project if they are allowed to determine the internal rules and structure in their groups. Let students organically decide how to distribute tasks, how to report to each other, and how to organize deliverables for the instructor.

Similarly, requiring the use of certain methods of communication (“All your group communication must take place on the discussion board so that I can monitor it…”) can also limit meaningful interaction among group members. Allow students the flexibility to choose how and when to meet.

Ensure that group project(s) reflect real-world problems.

The first of Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction tells us that people learn better when they are engaged in solving real-world problems. Any benefit we give our students by engaging them in group projects can easily be offset by requiring busywork or tasks that don’t match the cognitive complexity of what they’d be doing in a real-world context. When designing projects and activities, start by asking yourself, “What do workplace teams do in this field?” Very few of us write essays for a living. Students’ assignments should mirror or simulate meaningful, real-world tasks.

Also, group projects shouldn’t necessarily be an isolated, one-time event during the term. Consider having groups work together throughout the semester, working on subprojects that continue to build on previous work.

For example, one course that I worked on as a designer, an Exemplary Course Award winner, deals with corporate crisis management. In this course, teams of students develop crisis management plans, implement their plans in response to an instructor-assigned crisis, and formulate a public relations campaign. These are all real-world projects carried about by groups throughout the term, running parallel to individual journal assignments and more traditional assessments.

Despite the bad rap that group work often receives, we owe it to our students to engage them in-group activities. Arguably, if we only foster environments in which our students do everything individually, in a bubble, we aren’t adequately preparing them for their post-graduation realities.



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