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Occasionally I have some material to cover that is best presented in the form of take-home group projects.

Some student groups manage to find a way to coordinate their work well and to complete the projects successfully, with every team member benefiting from the collaboration. Other groups do not do so well:

  • Some groups evenly divide the work, but still work in isolation, losing the benefits of working with peers.
  • Some groups push the work to one or two students, while the remaining students merely contribute their name.

I wonder if there are strategies or tools instructors use that can encourage more groups to operate successfully while they are working outside of class?

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I've run across a site called TEAMMATES that allows instructors to assign peer evaluations to students who are working on group projects. You may find it helpful: teammatesv4.appspot.com/index.html –  Adrienne Aug 14 at 2:45

6 Answers 6

I think first it may be worthwhile to accept that in any group work situation there is the possibility that people will worked siloed (or isolated from one another) or one or two people will push the work forward while others are relegated or chose to remain in a passive state.

There are some good reasons for this. I recall being a student with a pretty solid GPA, group projects were a horror for me. If the project grade is based on the overall project and does not take into account individual contributions this meant that students who were less focused on their GPA would be willing to turn in something that was not up to my standards. This led both to situations where other students refused to do work on the project (knowing that the stronger students would carry them in order to avoid dings to their GPA) and to situations where stronger students would freeze out other students (ie the stronger students would choose to take all the work and not let other be involved) in order to maintain control over the project.

Group projects are often used as an analogy for working in the 'real world' where working in groups is the norm. The fundamental difference is that in most cases if a peer is completely slacking or sending in subpar work there is a concrete structure to monitor and handle that issue (which doesn't always work of course but there's almost always more accountability than in academic group projects). You can mimic this behavior in an academic setting by splitting up the grades for the project. Don't give one 'group grade' to everyone, instead have students report on who did what (this is particularly effective if you can have them set this early in the project instead of during turn-in) and correlate the students grade to both their work and their work in the context of the project. Having this set up early can be a great way of preventing aggressive or strong students from freezing out what are perceived as the 'weak links'.

Additionally consider regular checkpoints on the project. This will let you get a feel for the interactions in the group and the content being produced while also minimizing the opportunity for a student to jeopardize the group by waiting until the last minute to work on their part (this will still happen to some extent).

In short - add more structure to the group project. This increases the workload on your end but it mitigates the most common issues you'll see in groups during group projects.

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+1 for splitting the grade. –  Cape Code Aug 13 at 17:20
    
And +1 for mentioning how group projects differ from the real world. –  Kathy Aug 13 at 20:24
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A similar strategy which I've seen work well is to scale each student's final grade based on peer assessment factors. The actual function you use is up to you, but the basic idea is that if someone is identified by the rest of the team as not contributing, they fail. –  sapi Aug 13 at 22:30
    
+1 - first paragraph is me (too much compulsion about the final product wherin other students' contributions are never really up to par. I also agree with splitting the grade and scaling. Personally as a student I'm fine with doing most of the work if others don't want to contribute - I like knowing when things will get done and how well they get done; but in the end, I want to be recognized for my extra effort in the event that others did not contribute to the overall project. Individual evaluations from each student about others' contributions and grade-scaling are a good combo imo. –  Chris Cirefice Aug 14 at 3:06
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One caveat is that you want to avoid having a group of strong students filled out to size with an average student. You risk that one student finding himself out of his league and receiving bad peer grades for average work. I've seen this go horribly wrong when a fellow student failed a class just because he wasn't putting in as many hours as the rest of his team who were putting in triple the hours of the other groups. –  Lilienthal Aug 14 at 13:31

Drop the flat hierarchy in group projects. Use and quality based hierarchy, assign the hard-working students as group leads. Not all of them have the same level of leading qualities, but ask from them not to take the whole responsibility.

Divide the project into tasks, and tasks into subtasks (if they don't know how to do it internally, but first give them time to try to do it, or ask for that explicitly). Otherwise, clearly assign subtasks to each group member and require each group member to spend certain amount of time per week on those tasks. Lets say each student has to spend 10 hours per week on the project related tasks. Ask students to keep track of the time they spend on a spreadsheet document by marking down the start-end times and describing the solution, or if there is no solution why it didn't work. Require them to provide also references. This document preparation should not last longer than 15 - 30 min per week. Allow the document to be informal.

Make sure to protect your hard-working students. As @Nahkki has mentioned, group project are nightmare for good students, as they take all the workload and do everything just to ensure that the overall grade remains within their standards. However, such behaviour has long-term effects on the hard-working students, resulting in burnout. Protect them as they may show up being useful in the later stages of the project, or sometimes in the future.

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'assign the hard-working students as group leads' really? You are suggesting to put all the responsibility on someone you subjectively assess as hard-working? 'Protect them as they may show up being useful in the later stages' useful for what? –  Cape Code Aug 13 at 17:16
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1) why you assume the assessment is subjective? If you know the student from previous classes you can do the assignment during the initial meetings. Otherwise delay such an assignment to a later point in time. If the project is part of an ongoing course you already should have some idea about who is what. If the project starts "today" require transcript/previous experience ;) 2) Yeah, if the project is part of a bigger project associated to the research group, you would ideally want to employ one of the guys as student worker in the same project later on. That was my exact experience –  Kristof Tak Aug 13 at 17:59
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'you already should have some idea about who is what' I generally refrain myself from speculating on future student achievements, some just have a high variability and people change or have sudden imperatives, etc. Making a student your golden boy/girl is not going to be helpful to anyone, IMHO. –  Cape Code Aug 13 at 19:05
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whatever you say might be correct for your own context, and not necessarily for mine. so yeah maybe, experiences differ. no point in dragging the discussion ;) –  Kristof Tak Aug 13 at 19:26
    
How does the instructor use the hours work log data? Or what do they do with that data? I think the students who do not contribute to the projects will likewise have no problem assembling a fake log. –  Village Aug 13 at 22:07

Splitting the grade is a very good way to encourage the participation of every one. However, it means you know how to split the grade. You can ask for each work to have an author contribution section, stating both who did work on which part and the overall participation of each student. You can also ask the group to tell you how to split the grade. It will encourage them to discuss the contribution of each one together. Most of time if they work fair together they will just split equally, but it will encourage to give less if one did slack which is just fair. Also for longer project (like semester long) I would have Q&A session with a teacher or teaching assistant. Clearly state the fair/unfair work repartition is one of the subject that can be discussed in this occasion. I would definitely not recommend to do the spilt yourself if not equally. There will always be this guy who can talk more than speak that will trick you. If this guy tries to trick the other group member, then they need to learn how to deal with it. it's part of their training. Also some time they will decide to split and work separately, it is sometime the best way to get the thing done and they need to recognise those situation too. Example: they work with people they don't like and interact very badly.

I think letting the student assign their own group roles themselves is critically important for their training. You want them to be able to take decision as a group, as they might need to do when they will be working in a company. They will be natural leaders that will take the reins, but that is ok, not everyone is good in this position. They might enter confrontation, but this is something they will also face later in their career and they need to be prepared for that.

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That is a great idea. While the dishonest students will still continue as always, it will likely lead to better results among the honest ones. –  Village Aug 14 at 1:29
    
Face-to-face marking is a good way to assess relative understanding as well as contribution. I used to do this for lab work, and in the vast majority of cases the difference was at most a few % restrict to things like their ability to keep decent lab books. Occasionally we had a slacker and a relatively hard worker. When one of the pair got double the mark of the other it normally got the message across. Get them to present the work, perhaps to the whole class. No need for powerpoint, just have them stand in front of a whiteboard. Bonus skills training as well. –  Chris H Aug 14 at 10:00

Ken Heller, who promotes a group-based approach for physics, uses a neat strategy to discourage slacking.

Exams are divided into an individual part and subsequently a group part, but if a member ever failed (even once) to attend the group sessions the rest of his or her group votes to allow or not allow that person to participate in the group portion of the exam.

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I took a class that involved group work. The professor allowed groups to vote to fire a member, provided they gave sufficient reason to the professor. This meant that everyone was held responsible.

My group nearly fired someone who kept missing meetings and then lied about it. However, he was sufficiently scared into working hard, so we let it slide.

I'm not saying this allowing teams to "fire" people is the best way. However, I think that finding a way to make team members accountable to each other is essential.

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I have some groups with 3 students pressuring 1 or 2 students to do the work for them. Would firing still help in that situation? –  Village Aug 16 at 2:37
    
@Village: An important aspect to stress with my professor's system: you must give a sufficient reason to the professor as to why you are firing the individual. In your situation some sort of peer review at the end would be the best solution. The professor had that as well, and grades were adjusted accordingly. –  Thomas Aug 18 at 16:43

I had an engineering teacher in high school who by far was the best (in my high school) at assigning group projects.

Students have a tendency to want to work alone because that is the environment they are accustomed to. High school teaches kids how to work in a 20th century factory: stay in line, follow the rules, do your work and let other people do their work.

My engineering teacher wanted us to work as adults would: he assigned us brief guidelines, and our group was responsible for collaborating and producing something for him. For example, as the first project in the intro to engineering class, he started by showing us a lamp he made. Then he asked us how one could make 10,000 of them for as low cost and as easily as possible. We had to deliver an assembly process (to make the lamp), a parts lists, and a floor plan of the building we would theoretically have.

I think what mostly made it so good was the lack of formatting. Many kids didn't like it, you had to actually listen when he talked because he didn't hand out sheets reiterating what he just said. You had to use your best judgement with regards to making the product look as nice as possible, as apposed to following some guidelines. The class made you think, you couldn't just go from one step to the next and get the correct answer, you had to think for yourself and make up your own steps.

Grading was a struggle for him, especially because this was one of his first times teaching this class. You got a grade for the project (everyone in the group got the same grade), and you got a grades for small check ins to make sure you were actually doing stuff in your group.

Engineering is mostly about problem solving, so when asked questions he would often respond "That's your problem". He did so if people complained they were doing too much of the work, or if their group wasn't listening to them, etc. You can't learn how to work in a group if some higher power solves your communication problems for you.

Hope that helps, sorry for rambling.

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It was a great anecdote but I downvoted because it does not address the issue of how to help students divide the work, which is the main concern. –  Heisenberg Aug 14 at 15:38
    
I'm sorry I thought I addressed that: leaving them to manage themselves can be a good solution. Some things, like group communication, are best learned by experience. Telling them to sort out their own problems forces them to learn how to do so. –  Nate Schultz Aug 14 at 17:02

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