Photo of students working in a group

CC Image courtesy of Matheson Learning Commons on Flickr

Ever wonder why so many students hate group work? If you were like most students in college, the thought of group work was something you did not look forward to either.  Why?  Well, there are a number of reasons.

Being in a group meant:

  1. making concessions and giving up control of a portion of a project or assignment
  2. having the performance of other students in the group affect your grade
  3. being possibly stuck with one or more losers who never do any work and still end up with the same grade as everyone else in the group
  4. having to rearrange your schedule to accommodate the availability of others in the group

Group Work Dilemma

Students today still have the same anxieties and complaints about working in a group, which means that you as their faculty will end up receiving countless complaints that you’ll need to deal with. Frankly speaking, it’s a headache, which is why some faculty never assign group work.  If that is the only reason you are not assigning group work, you are robbing your students of a valuable learning experience and an opportunity to engage in peer-to-peer learning. Group work helps develop students’ ability to function in a team environment and prepares them for real-life scenarios.

In some disciplines, faculty are required to assign group work due to the nature of the subject matter.  Whether you assign group work by choice or necessity, there are several things that you can do to help make it a positive and fair experience for yourself and your students.

If you develop the group activity in a way that it will address some or most of the concerns that you and students have related to group work, you’ll end up turning this into a fun experience and one that will eliminate most of the complaints you typically get from groups.

Now there are several groups activities ranging from in-class group work that can be completed in one class session to major group projects that will require students to work in and out of class for several days, weeks, or months.  The suggestions listed in this article are best suited for major group assignments and projects.

Here are 4 things that you should do before assigning group work:

1. Student Observation

I’m certain that you would like all of your student groups to do a great job; however, in order for that to happen, you need to put a great team together.  So, how do you do that? Well, you need to get to know your students for a few weeks before you are able to form the groups.  If you want the groups to do well, you’ll need to assess the strengths and capabilities of each student in your class.  One way to do this is by reviewing your roster on a weekly basis and making comments next to each student’s name.  The comments should give you an idea of the strengths which each of them possess or could bring to a group.  Some of the things that I look for in students are the following:

  • natural leadership skills
  • good communication skills
  • creativity
  • organizational and time management skills
  • desire to work (worker bee)
  • technical experience or expertise
Sample Student Notes

Sample Student Notes

 

I typically make these types of comments on a weekly basis.  At the end of each week or upon reviewing the quality of individual student assignments, I’m able to form some opinion about each student.  Some of the comments will be negative and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Negative comments are still valuable data that will help you when you are ready to form the groups.

 

2. Cherry Pick

One of the mistakes that faculty make when assigning groups is giving little to no thought to the cohesiveness of the group.

Some faculty believe that groups need to be formed randomly or should be formed by the students in order to be fair.  I disagree!  That’s a cop-out that will create imbalanced groups, and it fails to resolve any of the concerns about group work that students or you have. When you create imbalanced groups, the work that is produced by these groups will be a reflection of that imbalance. You’re also going to have to deal with the complaints that emanate from imbalanced groups. Wouldn’t you rather spend just a little more time upfront forming strong cohesive groups that produce great work rather than spending valuable time mediating between imbalanced groups that are unable to function together and complain about everything? I know I would. And I do!

After you’ve spent some time observing your students, you’ll need to develop a system to help you form the groups. Make sure that each group has a variety of strengths in it.  Here’s how I form my student groups.  Each group needs to have at least one of the following types of students in them:

  1. Leader: This student should be someone who is able to command respect and attention of other students and is able to keep them focused and on track.  This student must have an overall grade of at least a “B”.  Naturally, this person should also have good organizational and time management skills.
  2. Communicator: This student must have the ability to articulate his/her thoughts in a public setting since the project will include an oral presentation.
  3. Creative: My projects require design elements, so this student needs to have a demonstrated ability to develop creative designs and complementary themes.  I’m able to determine this during the observation period. I typically assign at least two graded homework assignments what will help me determine this.
  4.  Worker bees: While it would be great to have a class full of creative leaders with great communication skills, I think you’ll find more students who are natural followers. They’re willing to work hard and to do anything that needs to be done as long as they are directed to do it.
  5.  Other strengths: Once the above are distributed between the different groups, I’ll begin assigning anyone with technical expertise to each group. Since I teach in a Career & Technical Education program, I often have returning students with industry experience that could be valuable to the group they join.
You may find that some students possess two or more of the strengths listed above, if that happens, use the sequence listed above. Always begin with leadership and then the other strengths.  Once you’ve gone through the above exercise, rinse-and-repeat.  Yes, you may end up with a group that has two leaders and three creative people, and that’s fine.
The last students that I assign to a group are the:

6.  At-Risk students: These are typically the low-performing students. These students are already at-risk of failing the class or ruining the project for the rest of the group because they are unreliable, disengaged, or have another behavioral or academic performance issue that needs to be addressed.  These are the last students that are assigned to a group.

Side-note: I have a policy in my syllabus that allows me to drop students from class if they are not meeting the academic standards of the course.  If a student is at-risk, I’ll meet with them to discuss their performance. In some cases, the worst performing students are dropped before being assigned to a major group project. If there isn’t a chance that they’ll pass or there’s no indication that they plan on improving their performance, they’re dropped from the class and encouraged to re-enroll when they are ready and able to meet the rigor of my courses. Mind you that I clearly go over my expectations and academic standards on the very first day of class.  Students are well informed that they’ll be held to a high standard and anyone who falls below 70% by mid-semester may be dropped from the course.

3. Peer Evaluation

Expect problems to arise even in a well-balanced group.  You may find that some students drop the ball and simply fail to participate because they believe that their contributions are not needed or are not being accepted.  Some students may commit to doing a lot more than they are capable of doing, and they end up disappointing everyone with incomplete work or something that was done in a hurry.

Students get frustrated, and they will complain if they feel that others in their group are not doing their fair share or are compromising their group grade with poor work.  One of the ways to address this from the beginning is by making peer evaluation a part of the grade for the group activity.

I allocate at least 1/3 of the grade of a group project towards peer-evaluation.  It may sound excessive, but I’ve experimented with other ratios and found that this allocation of at least 1/3 made a significant enough impact on each student’s individual grade and performance in a group.

Here’s the grade distribution formula that I use:

  • 1/3 Group Portfolio
  • 1/3 Group Presentation
  • 1/3 Peer Evaluation

Here’s a sample of one of my peer evaluation forms.  I share this with the students when I assign the project, but it is only completed at the end of the project/presentation:

excel-icon Sample Peer Evalualtion-Template

 4. Accountability Mechanism

 In addition to developing a peer-evaluation method, you need to be prepared for worst case scenarios.  What happens, if your “well-balanced” group still encounters irreconcilable problems? You need to anticipate such scenarios, and you must have a plan to address them. You need to develop a conflict resolution policy within the guidelines of your project.  I know it sounds weird, but if you already know there will be differences in opinion and conflicts within a group, wouldn’t you rather have a strategic way to deal with them in advance rather than trying to figure out what you should do on the spot?

I require my students to treat their group as though they are a professional unit within an organization. As such, they are each assigned a responsibility, and they are all required to hold each other accountable for the work they are tasked with.  If a student fails or refuses to do his or her part, they are treated as any employee would be treated in the corporate world using a progressive disciplinary policy. The process in dealing with these situations is as follows:

 1. Group Warning: Each group should be required to elect a group manager within the first week of the assignment. Hopefully one of the leaders is elected to the position. The selection of the manager is described in the Managing Group Projects article.

The group manager will notify me that there’s a performance or behavioral issue with a group member and is then required to address the problem with student in question immediately in a professional manner. The manager is only to address the performance issues not the character of the group member. If mediation is necessary, I will meet with the entire group and attempt to help them find a way to resolve their differences.

2. Professor’s Warning: If a conversation between the group manager and group member in question does not yield a favorable result, I will have a conversation with the group member to discuss his or her performance.  The student is given an opportunity to either modify their behavior or risk being terminated from the group.

3. Termination: If the first two warnings fail to produce the desired effect, the group can unanimously vote to “fire” the group member but only if the above two steps were followed first.  The vote must be unanimous. Otherwise, the group is stuck with the problem group member. Being fired from a group means that the student will receive an automatic “F” for the group project and consequently fail the class.  In my classes, major group projects like capstone projects are weighted so heavily that failing the project would cause a student to fail the class. So, if a student is kicked out of his or her group, they are not re-assigned to another group, nor are they permitted to complete the project on their own. They fail the class.

 You might be wondering if any students were ever fired.  Well, yes.  On average, one student gets fired every year. It’s the last thing the groups or I ever want to do, but it is invariably the best decision for everyone.  I’ve had a few groups who needed to fire some of their team members but were reluctant, and it came back to haunt them.  Allowing problem group members to stay in a group creates a frustrating, toxic, and resentful atmosphere within the group.

I share the details and expectations of my projects on the very first day of class. This is important  because students need to understand from the very beginning what is expected of them and how they will be held accountable. It also gives, non-committed students an opportunity to drop the class on day one rather than wasting their time and yours.

So, to recap, the 4 things that you should do before assigning groups are:

  1. Observe and document the strengths of each student; do not randomly assign groups to major assignments.
  2. Cherry pick and distribute students between the groups based on their strengths, and try to balance out the talent in each group.
  3. Develop a peer-evaluation form.
  4. Develop an effective accountability mechanism to address worst case scenarios.

Group projects can be a nightmare activity for both students and faculty if the projects are not properly designed and monitored.  So plan your group projects in a way that will set you and your students for success.  This will require some upfront time investment on your part, but it will reward you handsomely in the end.  The students will be able to work in a more productive and efficient way, and you’ll spend less time dealing with complaints about group members not doing their part or not doing their work well.

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Dr. Al-Malood

Dr. Fawaz Al-Malood is Founder | Blogger | Podcaster @ FacultyWorkshop.com. He is also a Professor and program director at a large community college in California.