Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Group projects aren’t working.

The structure of the assignment does not promote teamwork.

Instructors can be very creative at designing group work assignments that challenge students intellectually, call for innovative methods and solutions, demand synthesis across knowledge and skills bases, etc. However, they often do not give sufficient thought to how well the structure of the assignment lends itself to meaningful teamwork. Lack of attention to the structure of the assignment can result in unintended negative consequences, e.g., group members who do not pull their weight (“free-riders”), one person who ends up doing all the work, a division of labor in which group members’ work parallel to one another rather than together.


Consider your objectives.

Build interdependence into the assignment.

Hold individuals accountable.

Consider your objectives.

Before structuring your assignment, think hard about what skills you want students to develop and what level of collaboration you want them to engage in. Is it sufficient for student groups to employ a divide-and-conquer approach, with each member independently contributing a piece to a final product (i.e., cooperative learning)? Or is it important for students to work closely together, generating, debating, applying and reconsidering ideas and approaches collectively (i.e., collaborative learning)?  Your goals must be reflected in and supported by the structure of the assignment. Read on to learn more about how to do this.

Build interdependence into the assignment.

If a high degree of collaboration is a goal of your course, structure assignments so that group members are dependent on one another to succeed. One way to achieve this is to create assignments that are sufficiently complex that students cannot work effectively alone, but must draw on one another’s knowledge, skills and perspectives. Other ways to build interdependence into assignments include incorporating:

  • Shared goals that can only be met through collaboration with the entire team,
  • Joint rewards, usually in the form of a shared grade that depends on the performance of everyone in the team,
  • Limited resources, requiring students to share information and materials, and/or  
  • Complimentary roles, where each member assumes a role that is indispensable to the success of the project and has a distinct contribution (Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991).

Hold individuals accountable.

To motivate individual students and discourage the free-rider phenomenon, it is important to build a component of individual accountability into your assignment. In other words, in addition to evaluating the work of the group as a whole, require individual students to demonstrate their learning via quizzes, independent write-ups, weekly journal entries, etc. Students are considerably less likely to slack off in groups – and leave all the work to more responsible classmates -- if they know their individual performance will factor into their grade.

You can assess not only what individual students have learned but also what they have contributed to the group (e.g., effort, participation, cooperativeness, accessibility, communication skills) by asking team members to evaluate one another and/or themselves. While this is not a fool-proof strategy (students may feel social pressure to cover for one another and individuals are not always honest in assessing their own performance), combined with other factors promoting individual accountability, it can provide you with important clues about the dynamics within groups and the contributions of individual members.

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