Brief Description

Typically, group learning means formal, graded assignments that require small groups of students to work together toward a common goal, do at least some of the work outside of class time, and produce a product. Assignments might last from a few days to an entire semester, but students must collaborate in order to succeed. 

Such assignments can have many benefits for learning and applying course content, developing problem-solving skills or the ability to transfer learning in one domain to another, as well as less obvious outcomes such as increased tolerance for difference.  To gain such benefits, out-of-class group learning assignments must be purposefully designed, well organized, carefully managed, and aligned with course learning outcomes and the development of knowledge and skills. The first step to improving out-of-class group learning assignments is ensuring that the task and the product are sufficiently complex to justify collaboration.

Examples 

  1. Design an assignment that is worthy of a group. Ensure that the assignment is sufficiently complex or big and time-sensitive enough that it cannot be adequately completed by an individual. Assignments that fall short on this issue are likely to provoke both resentment and resistance from students.
  2. Address student resistance. Many students, often good students, resent group learning assignments because they assume that other members of the group will fail to do their part. Address this issue directly.
  3. Pay attention to the diversity of students. At least two issues matter:  schedules (some students have personal obligations in the evenings;  other students are at their creative best for a 9 PM meeting), and group dynamics (diversity within the membership of a group can be an asset or a liability, depending on how the instructor and the students manage interactions).
  4. Assign students to groups. The complexity of the assignment may suggest a means of organizing groups. Instructor-assigned groups also avoids problems that self-selected and often friendship-driven groups can produce (rapid group-think, internal divisions, avoidance of or silencing of differences in perspective). Finally, instructor-assigned groups prevents the likely, obvious, and uncomfortable social exclusion of students who are "different" -- when the one student of color or the one student who uses a wheelchair are the last to be invited to join a group.
  5. Write clear instructions.  See the two worksheets described under Resources at the bottom of this page.  
  6. Design group assignments developmentally. Consider carefully how to prepare students with the background knowledge and the skills they will need in order to complete the project successfully. 
  7. Consider how you will grade the assignment.  Some instructors grade only the final product; others grade both the product and each individual's contribution to it.  If you include the individual's contribution (and there are good reasons to do so), ensure some mechanisms that permit you to gauge that without relying on the opinions of other students.  
  8. Consider "Authentic Assignments" -- projects that replicate a task students might do outside the academic setting.  

Tips to Implement Group Projects Effectively

  • Design an assignment that is worthy of a group.  Most collaborative assignments require students to divide the labor.  One means to gauge the "group-worthiness" of the assignment, then, is to consider the optimal division of labor for the assignment, as opposed to the quantitative default many students use ("you find 5 things on this, I'll find 5 things on that;" "your write the introduction and first paragraph, I'll write the second and third paragraphs"). Problem-solving tasks may require students to specialize and share expertise, or they many need other diverse perspectives.
  • Address student resistance.   Strategies might include:
    • setting group ground rules and providing low-stakes opportunities for groups to practice using them.
    • teaching students to self-evaluate the group's processes as well as the contributions of individuals.
    • offering separation sanctions (rules that allow a group to remove a member). This practice has both benefits and drawbacks:  the group may be happier without a particular individual, but they miss developing some collaborative skills;  the sanctioned individual misses all the collaborative skills development;  and the instructor may need to develop individual-level assignment that can substitute for a required course component.
    • intentionally designing a variety of mechanisms through which the instructor can monitor work, meetings, or discussions that happen outside of class (e.g., requiring that all online collaboration include the instructor; requiring periodic written reports on out-of-class group meetings).
    • demonstrating why collaboration is essential to the success of the project (e.g., through the grading standards.
    • structuring the assignment so that the collaborative work is done in class when the instructor is able to monitor the group's dynamics. See In-formal Group Learning for more.
    • providing mechanisms through which groups can self-evaluate and adjust their own practices.
    • assisting students to develop a rational division of labor that fits the assignment, rather than one that seems easiest.
    • designing projects to permit asynchronous collaboration (e.g., through a D2L discussion area that is private to each group).  Some instructors use this mechanism to facilitate their own role in collaborative learning, e.g., by poses framing questions or responses to a group's online conversation.. Some instructors restrict collaborative interactions to D2L so they can ability to keep students on track and/or to permit them to evaluate the quality of collaboration. 
    • developing a grading strategy that evaluates individuals. Some instructors assign two grades for collaborative assignments, one that evaluates the quality of the product and assigns the same grade to all members of the group, another that evaluates each individual's contribution.  
  • Pay attention to the diversity of students.  
    • Scheduling:  if the project requires group meetings outside of class, who will be affected and how? Strategies for addressing scheduling conflicts might include:  online collaboration (e.g., through D2L, Google Hangouts, GroupMe or similar apps, email, chats, shared libraries in Zotero);  or incorporating these meetings into class time (e.g., if the project is important to student learning, it is worthy of class time, particularly if the project must be collaborative).  If you need to monitor the progress of out-of-class meetings, require students to include you. Instructors' schedules matter here as well -- if the collaborative tool you (or your students) select cannot capture a discussion that you can review later, you could require that each group post notes from their meetings.  Some instructors provide a format for these notes that helps students stay on task.    
    • Group dynamics:  Ground rules for group functioning can be very helpful here;  so can giving students scenarios during class that allow them to "practice" using those ground rules.  Some instructors assign roles to group members that includes one person tasked with monitoring group dynamics and invoking ground rules; it may help to rotate students through those roles. 
  • Assign students to groups.  Strategies and rationales for each abound.  D2L can assign students randomly.  Or, consider what might be most effective for the project you have in mind.  The Team-Based Learning Collaborative offers several possibilities. Consider polling students on their comfort level with the skills and/or knowledge the project requires and grouping students so that each group includes the expertise needed for success;  it can be helpful for students to know that this was your method of organizing groups so they understand that no group has an advantage.  
  • Write clear instructions.  See the worksheet described under Resources at the bottom of this page. 
  • Design assignments developmentally.  See the worksheet described under Resources at the bottom of this page.
  • Grading group projects. No need to reinvent the wheel. The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University walks through much of what you will want to consider here, and provides a number of assessment tools here.  
  • Authentic Assignments googlesite (Kopp and Cerbin):  lots of ideas and templates for all kinds of writing assignments and a very cool "prompt generator."  Not all of these require a group but many could.  

Resources


Hoskins, D. and Bazluki, M.  (2015). Group projects. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.uwlax.edu/catl/teaching-guides/teaching-improvement-guide/how-can-i-improve/group-projects/