Explore potential strategies.
Students lack the necessary teamwork skills.
Group projects require that students not only have the same skills and knowledge they would need for individual projects, but also an entirely different set of process-related skills: the ability to work with others to assess the nature of the task, break it down into steps or stages, plan a strategy, share responsibilities, manage time, set and meet deadlines, communicate effectively, and resolve disagreements or conflicts if they arise. When students lack teamwork skills, group projects can quickly break down, resulting in dissatisfaction as well as poor performance.
The extent to which students possess teamwork skills will depend on a number of issues, including cultural background. (For example, group problem-solving is emphasized far more in some cultures than in the U.S., where the focus is commonly on individual achievement. On the other hand, second language issues and differences in conversational styles can cause problems within groups.) Teamwork skills will also depend on individual students’ previous experiences with group work, both in and out of the educational context.
The focus in most classes is on the mastery of domain-specific knowledge and skills and the products students produce (e.g., papers, designs, mechanical models) to demonstrate that mastery. The focus is rarely on the process by which these products are created. On the basis of these experiences, students are very focused on product, much less so on process. Consequently, it is critical when assigning group work to clearly emphasize the importance of domain-general “process” skills, such as clear communication and conflict management. To motivate students to think about and work on these skills, explain their practical benefit in the workplace, for example, how teams of engineers function in industrial or research contexts and the planning, communication, and time management skills they need in order to work effectively in groups. Real-world anecdotes about what can go wrong when teamwork skills are weak can further reinforce the message that these skills are as central to professional success as domain-specific skills. Barkely, Cross, and Major (2005) suggest setting the stage for group projects by asking students to generate a list of skills they believe a future employer would look for. Because this exercise tends to generate answers such as “problem-solving ability”, “clear communication skills”, and “the ability to work with others” it can be the basis of a good discussion about the process goals for the course.
Don’t assume students already know how to work successfully in groups. In all likelihood, they will require help. The following constitute some of the things students working in groups will need to do. If your students are already experienced with group work, you may simply need to remind them about these issues; if they are inexperienced, you should provide more structure (for example, by requiring students to submit a project proposal defining the task, a plan of action, and/or a tentative schedule of meetings and due-dates) and feedback, or by doing some of these tasks (for example, assigning roles or setting interim deadlines) yourself.
- Define the task: Students must be able to clearly identify and articulate the problem(s) to be solved or the question(s) to be answered, particularly if the assignment involves unstructured problems or a broad set of possible topics.
- Determine the steps necessary to accomplish the goal: Students must be able to identify the component parts of the project and their logical sequence. For example, one project might require students to search for appropriate library sources, then meet to discuss the resources collected, then each write an individual assessment of one of the sources…and so on.
- Assign roles (link to Barkely, Cross & Major, p.52): Students must determine who should be responsible for particular tasks. For example, individual group members might be responsible for: initiating and sustaining communication with the rest of the group, coordinating schedules and organizing meetings; recording ideas generated and decisions made at meetings; keeping the group on task and cracking the whip when deadlines are approaching, etc.
- Co-ordinate communication: Students must exchange contact information and decide how the group will communicate (via e-mail? discussion board? on-line collaboration tool? face-to-face?) and how often.
- Set interim deadlines: Students must determine roughly how long it will take to do various parts of the project and set reasonable deadlines for completing them.
If students are lacking skills you consider critical for successful collaborative work, set aside class time to introduce, reinforce, and/or practice those skills. For example, you might want to designate some class time to role-playing group dynamics in order to discuss potential problems and brainstorm effective solutions.
Define ground rules or -- better yet -- have students develop their own ground rules for group behavior. You might, for example, ask student groups to generate answers to the question: What behavior by group members do you think will/won’t help the group function effectively? Then have students create a list of ground rules based on their answers: e.g., return e-mails from group members within 24 hours; come to meetings on time and prepared; meet deadlines; listen to what your teammates have to say; respond to one another’s comments politely but honestly; be constructive; criticize ideas, not people. Finally, ask students to agree to the ground rules, perhaps by signing a group learning contract (Barkley, Cross & Major, 2005).
Let students know that disagreements among group member are not only par for the course, they also provide valuable opportunities to debate a wider range of ideas and to develop important skills, such as listening, mediation, and compromise. If handled successfully, conflicts within groups can lead to better teamwork skills and better end products.
To help students develop conflict-resolution skills before group projects begin, consider giving students the opportunity to role-play how they might respond to problems within the group, for example, domineering personalities, slackers, cultural differences, etc. Role-playing presents students with a realistic situation (in this case, a conflict) and then asks them to work toward a resolution, improvising dialogue and actions. This strategy can help students identify and “name” problems, learn how to approach or frame a problem, gain strategies for getting others to listen, etc.
Provide students with a “beware of” list to alert them to common pitfalls, either of group work in general or issues specific to your assignment. For example, students involved in group projects invariably underestimate the amount of time required for planning and coordinating among themselves. They also frequently let key logistical issues go until the last minute and then run into problems. If possible, give students a sense of how long various steps of the project will take them so they allocate their time wisely. Also, warn them about things they will need to do earlier than they might expect, for example, coordinating lab, computer cluster, or studio access with other groups, scheduling group meetings well in advance to avoid time conflicts, or requesting research materials from Interlibrary loan.
Encourage students to assess their own strengths and weaknesses (e.g., the tendency to procrastinate, openness to criticism, strong oral communication skills) and consider how these traits could potentially affect group dynamics. One way to do this is by having students complete a questionnaire or take a personality test, compare results, then engage in a group discussion centered on the question: What mechanisms could you put in place to capitalize on the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of your group? Answers might include setting clear, irrevocable interim deadlines (if a number of group members are procrastinators), developing a system of turn-taking to make sure that everyone has the chance to speak (if there are shy group members), using flow charts to represent the task (for group members with a visual orientation or weak language skills), etc.
Over the course of the project, keep tabs on how each group is working. It is a good idea to require regular (weekly or bi-weekly) progress reports. This can be done during class time to provide the opportunity for students to hear and solicit advice from other groups, as well as to share resources. If your students are communicating via a discussion board on your course management system (e.g., Blackboard) you might also check their exchanges occasionally -- with their knowledge, of course -- to see how they are working. When student groups are meeting during class time, circulate and listen. While it is important to give student groups independence (letting them solve their own inter-personal conflicts and recognize for themselves when they are getting side-tracked, for example), it is also important to know what is going on so you can redirect, give advice, or intervene if necessary.
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