Explore potential strategies.
Students do not understand your expectations.
Students come into your course with a set of expectations that are the product of previous classroom experiences, both in high school and college, cultural background and disciplinary training. Their previous experiences will shape students’ expectations regarding such things as the role of teacher and student, discussion etiquette, writing conventions, etc. For example, students from one discipline may come with ideas about what constitutes a strong argument or legitimate evidence, while students from other disciplines might bring a different set of preconceptions. Neither might be appropriate for your discipline or particular course.
If students’ expectations are misaligned with your own, it can create confusion, resentment, and poor performance. Consequently, it is important to articulate your own expectations as explicitly as possible, so that students can bring their own expectations in line with yours. This is particularly true when you have international students whose educational experiences might lead them to a very different set of expectations about proper conduct in and outside of group work contexts.
Clearly explain -- even more than you think is necessary -- all the parameters of the assignment. For example, on a group writing assignment or presentation, specify what kind of audience the group should address their writing or presentation to, so that the information is pitched at the proper level (e.g., should the group’s final product be tailored for an audience of experts, novices, or something in between? In other words, is there background knowledge they can assume their audience possesses, or should they provide all the background themselves?) Also, clarify the ultimate purpose of the project: to suggest and justify a set of recommendations? to develop a working prototype? to apply a particular theory to a data set? to design and implement a research project? If the project requires research, specify what kinds of sources are and are not legitimate for the purposes of the assignment. For example, if you want students to use only academic journals and books and no Internet sources, make it clear from the beginning. If the task you have assigned is deliberately ill-defined, as it often is in upper-level courses, explain to students that the lack of structure is intentional, and tell them what skills they gain from having to structure an unstructured problem, identify their own research question, etc.
Being clear and explicit does not constitute spoon-feeding or hand-holding. Because disciplinary conventions and individual instructor’s goals differ so radically across courses, students need to know what you are looking for on a given assignment -- just as faculty need to know about a granting agency’s scope and priorities to write a successful grant proposal. The clearer students’ understanding of the task itself, the higher the quality of the work you can expect to receive. Make sure the difficulty of the assignment is in completing it, not in understanding it!
Explain explicitly how you do (and do not) want students to work. For example, is it acceptable for groups to divide the task and each complete a piece (i.e., the divide-and-conquer strategy), or is a higher degree of collaboration required? Are all forms of collaboration acceptable, or would you consider some a violation of academic integrity? Can groups communicate exclusively on-line, or do you want them to meet face to face? Think about these sorts of questions before students embark on the project and articulate your expectations clearly.
Performance rubrics distributed in advance can be a useful guide for students working on a group project. A good rubric defines the key aspects of the assignment, and distinguishes the characteristics of excellent work from good, mediocre, or poor work. If creativity and risk-taking are essential elements of excellent work in your course, be sure to build these attributes into the rubric. For example, it can be helpful for student groups to know in advance that doing everything “right” will earn them a B, whereas an A will require producing something particularly original, insightful, or bold.
If developing teamwork skills is an explicit objective of your course, be sure to include process as well as product in your rubric, using students’ assessments of one another and themselves to inform your marks on the “collaboration” or “teamwork” sections of your rubric.
Show your students examples of excellent student work from previous semesters. Just as seeing successful grant proposals can help professionals pitch their own writing appropriately, seeing how others have successfully addressed the assignment can illustrate your expectations, inspire your students, and help them work more efficiently. Bear in mind that it is important not only to provide the model but also to annotate it or explain to your class what makes it good; otherwise students can focus on the wrong features of the work (e.g., the bells and whistles of a presentation rather than the substance.)
Try to provide models representing a range of ways student groups have approached the assignment: this encourages students to think broadly and to consider a range of alternative approaches. If you believe providing models of prior student work will over-determine what your students think to produce, thus limiting their creativity, use student work from similar but not identical assignments.
Require progress reports and set interim deadlines so that you can check student work and provide feedback early. This will allow you to address misaligned expectations and get students on track before it is too late.
This site supplements our 1-on-1 teaching consultations.
CONTACT US to talk with an Eberly colleague in person!