Group Projects: It’s Better Together – But Only if You Plan

Steve Volk, April 10, 2017

Gold and Silver Fish of China, 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Gold and Silver Fish of China, Chinese painting, c.1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Assigning group projects is a fairly common practice across the disciplines. You can read Penny J. Gilmer’s book on Transforming University Teaching Using Collaborative Learning (Springer 2010), view the collaborative project between Denison University and the American University of Bulgaria described here last week, or explore these software engineering group projects from the Australian National University. And much more in between.

Quite often faculty will wait until the end of the semester before designing a collaborative project as a final assignment. What could go wrong? Um, a lot? And while there’s no single way to fashion group projects that are guaranteed to succeed, the surest way to nudge it off the rails is to assign a group project as a time saver for you: Let’s see. I’ve got 50 students in the class. If I put them in groups of 5, I’ll only have 10 projects to read at the end of the year. Yay! (And I speak from – sad – experience on this score.)

But there are also steps to take to help group projects succeed. Here are a few elements to consider as you plan for collaborative work in your classes. Since the central point is to make sure that group work aligns well with the overall learning goals in your course, it is likely already too late in the semester to integrate it in a meaningful way. But it’s never too soon to start planning for next semester. So, here are five areas to think about:

  1. Why assign group work: What are the pedagogic considerations? How will you discuss the collaborative assignments with your students?
  1. How to form groups: student choice or your own? Will you randomly assign students to a group or will the groups be formed based on specific characteristics you are looking for? Will they remain the same all semester or change with every project or discussion?
  1. Group maintenance: What steps can you take to help groups succeed? How will you help groups deal with contentious internal dynamics and stay on track?
  1. What can you do to increase the likelihood that everyone in the group is working up to an expected standard and that there are internal accountability mechanisms?
  1. How will you assess the final product in a way that’s fair to both the group (in terms of its collective effort) and to the individuals within it?

Why Group Work?

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Perhaps the most obvious reason to consider adding collaborative work to your syllabus is because research has shown that cooperative learning produces greater academic achievement than either more traditional competitive learning or individualistic learning. David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith, the go-to researchers when examining the pedagogy of cooperative learning, undertook a meta-analysis of 168 studies comparing learning types about ten years ago. Their findings, published as Active Learning: Cooperation in the University Classroom (Edina, MN: Interaction, 2006), disclosed that cooperative learning increased student academic performance by approximately one-half of a standard deviation when compared to non-cooperative learning models. For the statistically unaware among us, myself included, that’s a moderate, but important, impact. Further, their study showed other positive outcomes of collaborative work, including increases in student self-esteem and a growth of positive attitudes about learning. George Kuh, an important assessments researcher, similarly concluded in a 2007 study that cooperative group learning promotes student engagement and academic performance. [G.D. Kuh, J. Kinzle, J. Buckley, B. Bridges, and J.C. Hayek, Piecing Together the Student Success Puzzle: Research Propositions and Recommendations, ASHE Higher Education Report, No. 32 (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2007)].

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, including a study by Jennifer L. Faust & Donald R. Paulson, “Active Learning in the College Classroom,” which argued, “A recent review of research on cooperative learning found that it boosts development of critical-thinking skills and fosters social interdependence and support among students (Slavin, 1996). Further, when compared with more traditional competitive or individualistic learning methods, cooperative learning improves students’ attitudes toward their subject area, improves relationships between students, and improves student retention.”

I would also suggest a second, fairly obvious, reason for including group work activities in your classes. There are very few jobs for our graduates where collaboration skills and the ability to work in teams will not be essential. From scientific research to artistic creation, the ability to collaborate successfully is often central to success. According to a 2016 survey carried out by NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers), nearly 80% of employers said they are looking for leaders who are able to work in a team.  And I would add, to broaden the perspective beyond employment, the ability to work closely and positively with others should be prized by all of us who understand the benefit to society as a whole of cultivating adults who can actually work together rather than those who – like someone I won’t name – never learned to play well with others! Cooperative group work is the forum through which team-work skills can be learned. Particularly for faculty who include “collaboration” as a desired learning outcome for their courses, group work provides a mechanism for building capacity in that area, one that can be assessed along with the content of group work projects.

Whether you include group work in your course design for these reasons or others, it’s important to discuss the rationale of collaborative work with your students so they can gain a clearer sense of why you structure your classes as you do and the importance you place on this particular skill. I’ve also found it instructive to ask my students what preconceptions they have of group work (whether we’re talking about quickly formed discussion groups or formal groups that are tasked with producing joint projects), what aspects they enjoy or dislike about such work, and how they think collaborative work projects should be designed. It’s particularly important to address any negative preconceptions that students have about group work so they can be addressed specifically (particularly those preconceptions are inaccurate) and so that student considerations can be brought into the planning process. In this regard, the most common complaint that students have about group work – undoubtedly a product of past experience – is that they will be placed in a group with “free riders,” that responsible students in the group are the ones who will end up doing all the work while the social loafers share in the benefits. There’s no question that this can happen, but you can discuss with the class the measures you’ll set up to lessen the possibility of social loafing and to guarantee that all in the group will be graded fairly and based on both collaborative and individual effort.

Forming Groups: Random or Structured?

Two Green Fish, Two Brown Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Two Green Fish, Two Brown Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Researchers typically distinguish between small ad hoc groups that work together for a single class (e.g., discussion groups), and those “formal cooperative learning groups,” whose work can span a semester and that often involve joint assignments. You likely organize informal groups all the time and don’t need further advice on that score: either have students turn to people sitting close to them or, to insure a that the same friends don’t always stay together in a discussion group, have the students count off with all the “1’s” together, etc. Often, it’s just a question of the amount of time you have as to which you choose: a quick “think-pair-share” exercise works best with those sitting close by, a more extended discussion can allow for more social mixing.

Forming groups for long-term work (“formal cooperative learning groups”) requires more planning. Having read a fair amount on how different faculty set up their groups, it seems that there’s no single way to guarantee success. (You’ve probably noticed by now that success is never guaranteed!).  Among the various methods are allowing students to select their own group members, faculty selected groups based on random characteristics (e.g. all the tall people; all the sophomores, by alphabetic order using first names, etc.), faculty selected groups based on specific characteristics, particularly heterogeneity (e.g. matching students with strong background in the subject with those who have a weaker background; matching science majors with humanities majors; pairing students who did well on the first two exams with those who did poorly, etc.). Some faculty strongly believe that students do best when they exercise their own agency and therefore they should determine their own groups. Others who believe in the importance of student agency might also want the selection process to be more deliberative, more thoughtful. One of the problems that can occur if the faculty select the group is that they likely to be blamed in case things head south, or be expected to “fix” soured relationships in the group. One of the problems that can occur if you let the students decide on group membership for themselves is that problems in individual relationships might carry over into the group (or persist after the class ends); friendships can often get in the way of group performance.

With these points in mind, here are two suggestions, recently put forward by John Warner writing in Inside Higher Education.

Warner highlighted a colleague who would hand out 3×5 note cards to students on which they listed a few people (the number depending on the ultimate size of the group) they wanted to work with, and one peer they would rather not work with. He would then arrange groups based on the cards. (The students, by the way, did not know what anyone else wrote on their cards.)

Warner himself modified this process by asking his students to write a “group project resume/letter” to be read by the other students. The “resume” would include such things as schedules (when they were busy), individual competencies, skills the student felt she was good, or not so good, at; level of comfort with taking direction from others; etc. And then they discussed their goals and values regarding the project and the course. What was more important for them, the grade? The group experience? Students then circulated around the class, read the resume/letters from their classmates, and finally filled out a 3×5 card as in the exercise above, listing other students they wanted to work with and those they didn’t. Finally, Warner would form the groups, trying to insure that nobody was put in a group with a person they explicitly said they didn’t want to work with and endeavoring to put them in a group with at least one person they said they wanted to work with.

The bottom line in terms of group formation is that you need to understand your own priorities when determining group composition: is it student autonomy? Insuring a specific heterogeneity in the group, or other factors. Then think about using the index card route as a good middle ground. I particularly like Warner’s approach since it encourages students to be quite reflective about the process from the very beginning.

Insuring Good Practice

Great Barrier Reef fish. Bio-diversity Heritage Library.

Great Barrier Reef fish. Bio-diversity Heritage Library.

Even if you can’t  guarantee the ultimate success of group work, there’s a lot you can do to smooth the process and improve the outcomes of collaborative work.

  • Groups that form late in the semester with the intent of completing a final project not only stand a greater chance of unsuccessfully confronting many of the characteristic problems inherent in group work (e.g., free-riders; scheduling disasters; personal conflicts, etc.), but the students also can’t benefit from many aspects of well-planned collaboration. By scaffolding smaller group work projects into the syllabus over the early part of the semester, students will be able to build capacity by getting practice working in teams before the a final, high-stakes group assignment.
  • Size: Researchers suggest that a 3-5 person group generally is the best (“exhibiting the best performance in some problem-solving tasks,” according to Johnson et al, 2006). More than 6 can be unwieldy in terms of scheduling.
  • Role assignment: The data on this is a bit mixed, but faculty often assign roles in group work in order to avoid some of the more common problems associated with collaborative projects such as dominance by a single student or the social loafing problem. But rather than assigning more traditional roles (leader, note taker), think about using the following roles: skeptic, conciliator, manager, synthesizer, analyzer. (See Heller and Hollabaugh, “Teaching Problem Solving” (1992), and then rotate these roles among group members over the course of the project. (You can read more about various group roles from Carnegie Mellon’s Teaching and Learning Center here.)
  • Devise a plan of action: Help the groups plan their approaches, particularly who will be doing what and when. Model how students can plan a lengthy or complex project by discussing how you would go about the work; make sure that planning is actually a significant part of what the students are doing in their project. Help the groups set interim deadlines. Discuss what, from your experience, are the most common problems they will encounter: time management, getting materials from off-campus, drafting and redrafting papers, etc.
  • Meet with the various groups over the course of the project and see that each time you meet with them, a different student reports on the progress of the group and the difficulties it is facing.
  • Either establish ground rules for group practice or encourage group members to set their own. Cover such points as attendance (what if students can’t make a group meeting), communication (e.g. how quickly should they be expected to respond to a text or email); listening to others; constructive critiques, etc. (Here’s a template for a team contract from Carnegie Mellon.)
  • Talk about conflict resolution: Conflicts will happen, and it’s good to prepare for them ahead of time. How can they talk to a team member to express disappointment, frustration, or upset without totally alienating the offender? Role play different “types” of behaviors (e.g. the person who is always late to meetings or dominates discussion). In short, develop ways to raise likely issues in a hypothetical fashion before they present themselves in real time.

Interim Assessments and Individual Accountability

An important tool for collaborative projects is an assessment plan by which team members (and later you) can hold their colleagues as well as themselves accountable. One way to do this is to have students evaluate their individual and group work during the course of the project (as well as at its end). Nancy Darling (in Oberlin’s Department of Psychology) once shared with me her group work rubric (designed for an end-of-project assessment), although it can as easily be used as a regular check-in for students (see chart below.) Students are asked to rate themselves and their team partners on a variety of criteria including attendance, preparation, participation, leadership, follow through, cooperation, and equity.


Prof. Nancy Darling’s assessment rubric

For assessment to work well, make sure that the expectations you have for their work are clear: students will have a hard time evaluating their own (and others’) performance if they don’t know what is expected of them. You can provide students with examples of projects that have worked well in the past, discussing the specific aspects that added to the success of the project, as well as examples of projects that didn’t work so well (detailing, in this case, what went wrong).

Final Assessment

The naturalist's miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects. London: Printed for Nodder & Co.,1789-1813. Bio-Diversity Heritage Library. Public Domain

The naturalist’s miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects. London: Printed for Nodder & Co.,1789-1813. Bio-Diversity Heritage Library. Public Domain

While assessing a final group project deserves an article by itself, here are a few pointers to get you going until I get around to writing that piece. In the meantime, I’ll direct you toward the very useful suggestions from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center.

As I suggested above, begin by making sure your assessment criteria are clear, particularly in terms of how you will grade both the product and the group process, and whether you will also be grading individuals in the group by separate measures.

This last point is particularly important as one of the keys to helping group work succeed is in concretely addressing the problem of free-riderdom, that some students will do the heavy lifting and others will get the same grade while not having worked as hard.

I was recently listening to an interview with Noah Hawley, the show-runner for the FX remake of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, taped at the 2014 Austin Film Festival. The point Hawley was making seemed quite appropriate for how to think about the relationship between individual and group work. He argued that while you can’t “make a Coen film by committee,” indeed, that it’s “kind of hard to make any movie by committee.” nevertheless film is fundamentally  “a collaborative medium … a team effort.” Collaborative work, in the sense that Hawley was talking about, works best when it melds individual effort with team work.

We probably don’t need to draw any conclusions about the value of individualism vs. cooperation to understand that it can be demoralizing and demotivating for students to feel that they are being taken advantage of. One way to avoid the problem of social loafing is to combine individual assessment along with group assessment. You can do this on an interim basis by scheduling quizzes on relevant material groups are working with or by adding an individual component to the final group project. For example, along with the final product, students individually would be required to reflect on the group process, write an essay on some aspect of the project, or post journal entries during the course of the project discussing what they are learning. Each student’s final grade would then be the sum of the group’s grade along with an individual factor, using any proportional division you — and perhaps the students — feel comfortable with. The instructor in one example I read about required a group project plus short individual papers summarizing what they learned from the assignment and what they contributed to the group.

Make sure that you assess the process as well as the product. As with Nancy Darling’s rubric above, have each member of the team evaluate their own contribution, the contributions of other team members, and the dynamics of the team itself.

Finally, and in conclusions, one of the best ways to prepare for collaborative work is to talk to your colleagues. Either they will have a lot of examples to share with you, or will know who has developed thoughtful group work. Talk to them; it will save you a lot of time and experimentation.

What do you do to prepare students for group work? How do you assess it? Feel free to share your comments.

[Information gathered from, among other sources: Carnegie Mellon’s “Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation,” Krista D. Forrest and Emily E. Balcetis, “Teaching Students to Work Well in Groups,” Association for Psychological Science 21:2 (Feb. 2008); Macie Hall, “Making Group Projects Work,” Johns Hopkins  University Innovative Instructor Blog (May 1, 2013); University of Maryland, CTE-Lilly Teaching Fellows, “Group Work and Collaborative Learning: Best Practices” (August 9, 2012); and Cynthia J. Brame and Rachel Biel, “Group Work: Using Cooperative Learning Groups Effectively,” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.]

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