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4 Questions That Take the Pain out of Group Projects

group project definitionColLABORative learning. The pain level for this pedagogical tool does often seem to mimic that of bearing a child (as a woman, I can say this with experience). But, if we do believe that we’re preparing students to transfer classroom experience to the workplace, team learning is absolutely necessary. In the workplace, 78% of work happens in teams. In the online classroom, specifically, team learning is only taking place 17% of the time. You need to do them despite loathing them.

Let’s face it, though. I think we can agree with students here that group projects can really suck. They’re labor intensive, often disorganized, usually led by the alpha of the group, and prone to produce deliverables that can completely miss the mark. I’ve had this happen, and I’m sure you have, too. So, what do we do?

Last year I presented at a professional development conference on this very topic and the response was overwhelmingly positive, and many asked for materials after the fact. So, I thought I’d share some tips on how to set up your projects and students for success rather than failure.

Here are some questions to ask yourself that can help you prepare a positive groupwork experience:

  1. Why are you designing the project? Really. Have you asked yourself this question? Think about this in terms of your SLOs (student learning outcomes). Is it a way to teach a complex task? Are you really trying to get them to learn how to collaborate? The answer hear drives your project design.
  2. What are the benefits/drawbacks? What are the benefits to you and to your students? Think about this. If the drawback list seems to outweigh the benefits, go back to #1.
  3. Are you following the DIRE – Design, Introduction, Running, Evaluating – process throughout the project?
    1. Designing – Think about the design of the project. What are the learning outcomes, deliverables, and backup plans? Yes, you should have a backup plan.
    2. Introducing – Talk to your students about their experiences and your experiences with group projects. Explain to them why they’re doing this project. Help them understand the application to their and your long-term goals in the course and beyond. Talk through your expectations by presenting rubrics, samples, and explaining time requirements.
    3. Running – Run the project like you would at work. Ask your students to take a skills assessment. Run some personality management to find leaders and debaters. Talk about conflict resolution. Use group contracts, agreements, or project management tools. Discuss how they will communicate and collaborate. Be sure to cover accountability. Assign roles. Ultimately, you are an uber project manager overseeing all of these projects—in a minimal role, though. But, you need to manage the projects at some level.
    4. Evaluating – Use student 360 assessment. Assess the project yourself each term. Apply feedback you receive from students.
  4. Are you providing them with all the tools they need? I have many different tools I use to get students working together beyond sitting across from each other in the classroom. Some are good, old-fashioned documents. Some are access and awareness to collaboration tools online. In an online classroom environment, the necessity for a quality set up for students in group learning is multiplied. You need to help them learn how to work effectively in a virtual environment. Too many times they’ve worked on a project without this assistance.

So, if you answer these questions will all of your future group projects go off without a hitch? Of course not. I just had a class that ended with a group project where my students missed the mark at the end. But, that’s where #3 becomes so important. Assessing each term based on the questions above helps you adapt your teaching strategy. If you aren’t adapting, you should be. Each term. As professionals in the field, our skills and abilities grow over time. And, as faculty, they should, too.

So, if you have other questions about conducting group projects effectively, please comment. I’m happy to talk with you over email or Skype, too. Oh, and share those success, too! I’m also happy to attend any department meetings to share the tools and tips on making group projects work. You can take the painful labor out of collaborative learning.

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