As I’ve suggested in other posts, students working in groups is difficult but worthwhile–not only for the students’ projects but also in their professional lives beyond college coursework. I’ve spent many years trying various approaches to using them in my classes. It takes a while and experimentation to get it “right”–and even then, there is no final right way. And I have learned two important lessons:
- Bend or break: be flexible
- every class is different, and so while I by default prefer three members per group
- for most class projects, depending on the project as well as having to account for the expansion and contraction of enrollment during the first two weeks of class, the number of members in each group might shrink to two people or grow to five (and in one quarter, even six people). Also, as the groups discover personality conflicts (ala some individuals not doing their work) or insurmountable scheduling difficulties, those member totals may change as members move into different (and sometimes form new) groups
- Groups will implode
- every quarter, invariably one group erupts and falls apart–and this may happen at any point after those initial two weeks. One quarter, there was a group that had a meltdown in the middle of class right at the end of the quarter
- but all is not lost; however, you will need to be okay with becoming a marriage counselor. Basically, all of the daily stresses over an student’s other classes and school activities, home life, work life, or any other areas of life, all of those stress factors will grow exponentially the more people who come together to work on a particular project
Even knowing these two facts ahead of time, it still can be a frustrating experience. Early on, I first experimented with group written essays in my English 101 classes. At the time, though, I gave up after a couple of semesters and instead, only used group projects for my 200 and 300 level course, believing that students weren’t ready at the 100 level due to some lack of maturity. But as I had more and more success with the upper division courses, I slowly started once again integrating group projects at the 100 level.
What has helped me to help these groups succeed at any course level has been getting students to both reflect more about their groups and their personal responsibilities within them and as a contributing factor of the project’s success, and provide them with more ownership of the group process itself. As you might imagine, students are resistant at first to both.
So, what did I specifically do?
Assigning Group Members
- For fairly full classes, I typically use Canvas’ Random option to create groups (mainly to force students out of their comfort zone). However, this quarter, half of my students were together in my 101 sections the previous quarter and had specifically signed up to work together in this class. So this time, I let them choose their own groups, and where they were hesitant or missed the first few days, I would ask different groups if they would take these people in. This seemed to help with some personality conflicts at first, but some students discovered that just because they are friends with someone, that doesn’t mean they will work well together, especially as they learn much more about one another. But I think that is a good thing.
- How many members? I discussed this in a post for a different class project. I still think 3 members is ideal, but see the above lesson on being flexible.
- Defining “Group”, problem solving
- To help minimize implosions, we spend time that first week talking about what it means to be in a group, how people can work with one another, and what they can do to resolve any issues that may (probably) arise. I assign a few readings and assignments from Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies, an opensource textbook. In class, we discuss their responses. As an example, here’s a snippet of an exercise I used for my own assignment.
Group Planning documentation
Here is the assignment I give to my students but below is the list of the different parts of all their group planning documents:
- A contract that lays out the expectations, policies/procedures, and consequences for not following those expectations of how group members will work together as a team and do their work.
- A Skills Assessment form/chart to help group members discover what resources they have to start with (basically a resume)
- Purpose Statement—another way I try to instill a sense of cohesion as well as a sense of seriousness is to have students think of their group as a business that was contracted to create this project, that they need to think about how they are going to comport themselves to the world. It also helps with direction/focus by including the group’s research question
- Primary Tasks and Secondary Task lists—basically a Big Picture and In the Weeds view. The secondary task obviously will be updated once they start their project in earnest
- Calendar—a schedule of goals for the longer quarter as well as weekly. Again, this will be updated, but it’s good for students to begin with a direction in mind
- Agendas—to help keep meetings focused (a checklist of what they need to be working on). Surprisingly, almost every quarter students struggle with understanding the purpose of an agenda
- Status Updates—weekly progress reports about what they planned to do the previous week and what they actually did, as well as what they were planning on doing during the next week. This is one of the most helpful documents for me. It not only keeps students on task as a group, it helps keep me in the loop throughout their project
I try to get students to understand that most of these documents are organic and will be continually developed/updated throughout the quarter. [REMEMBER TO UPLOAD SAMPLES FROM STUDENTS]
Things to think about for Next Time
I originally started using group planning documents for an upper division Technical Writing course, where document design was part of the outcomes–students designed all of their forms and we workshopped them. And while I’ve tried doing this in lower division courses, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I need to instead provide students with pre-constructed templates for these document. Not only does their creation process take too much time, they usually are not done very well. But more importantly, document design is not part of the English 102 course outcomes.
Status Updates were very helpful, but I’m now thinking that I should let the whole class see what all the groups are doing. I think it would help set expectations of where students should be at in terms of the projects. Also, I appreciate the power of peer mentoring.