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CSUN Teaching Strategies

Before You Assign Another Group Project . . . . Six Keys to Creating Effective Group Assignments and Team Projects (2011)

Wendy Yost, Lecturer
Department of Recreation & Tourism Management
California State University, Northridge

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When I first started teaching Recreation & Tourism Management 302 - Dynamics of Leadership in Recreation & Human Services, I knew that in order to meet the Learning Outcomes for the course it would be important to include a group project among the class assignments.

Yet I also knew, that as a student, I hated group projects. I typically did more than my share of the work to achieve a desirable grade, it was difficult to find time outside of class to meet with my classmates and professors weren't always clear about their expectations for group assignments.

It turns out, two decades later, these concerns persist as a recent study conducted on campus confirmed.

Recently 136 students at California State University, Northridge completed a survey having to do with Navigating Conflict in Student Teams. The students identified five contributing factors to experiencing conflict in student teams: Schedule/Distance differences, Quality/Personal Standards differences, Style/Personality differences, Group Size/Roles and Accountability. More specifically, of the students who responded indicated the following:

[Scott, W., Taylor, A., Lemus, D., and Oh, J. (2008, April). Navigating Conflict in Student Teams. Symposium conducted at Faculty Development Series, California State University Northridge, California.]

So as I thought through how to build a more effective, engaging and enjoyable group project, I realized I needed to approach the assignment differently than I had seen it approached in the past.

Below you will find detailed information about a group project that I have administered for the last six semesters along with the various tools that I designed to support the students with the assignment.

To provide further context, I use this assignment in a 300 level required student leadership course that typically includes 35 - 40 (but has included as many as 50) students, all pursuing their degrees in Recreation & Tourism Management.

Each semester, this assignment has been well received by students as a critical learning experience as well as an unexpectedly fun opportunity to get to know themselves and their classmates as leaders.

I routinely receive feedback from students about this group project being the first group project that they ever enjoyed participating in. I don't think their feedback has much to do with the assignment itself, but rather the context created for the assignment and the tools and support offered throughout it.

There are six keys that come to mind when I think of this assignment and what has contributes to its success:

Create a Conducive Environment that Encourages Positive Participation

Group projects always make me nervous. My social skills are not all there, I guess. Although, since starting this semester, getting into groups and participating in activities has been fun and great for networking. I don’t feel as uncomfortable as I have felt in the past with previous classes. –Thomas

This starts with the very first day of class when I review a section in the course syllabus entitled: Appropriate Classroom Etiquette. In it I explain...

Every person in the class deserves your respect. We are all here to learn. Including me. As we move through the semester, you may not always agree with what is being shared. In such cases, please make a point of disagreeing with what is being said without attacking the person who said it. Learning how to give and receive constructive feedback is a cornerstone of leadership. It is also a skill that takes practice. So as necessary, I will ask you to rephrase your opinion or observation in a more constructive way.

There are also several things that I have been told by students that I do that help them want to participate in class: I learn each student's name by the third week of class (including in the class of 50*), I welcome and encourage differing points of view as long as they are communicated respectfully, and I encourage students to share things about themselves with the class in low risk ways. For example, when I am returning papers, I ask that the students to share their favorite ice cream flavor, favorite movie, favorite place to eat and so on. I ask the class to pay attention to what is being shared as they might find someone in class that they have a lot in common with.

*A small side bar on learning names quickly: I tell the students that it is important that they be known by me and known by each other in this class. I ask about correct pronunciation of any names I have difficulty with again and again. I have the students state their name before talking for the first few weeks. I take notes on my role sheet to help remember key traits. I allow myself to make a lot of mistakes the first few weeks, and restate my commitment to learning their names. The students seem to cut me some slack when I mess up given they see that I am trying. I often use appropriate humor to smooth over my mistakes, especially when they occur half way through the semester.

There are several systems for remembering names that you can find online. If this is something you would like to work on, I recommend conducting a brief online search and then selecting a process that will work best for you.

A playful facet of creating a conducive environment emerged organically one semester and has stuck ever since. It is my invoking my Best Audience Ever clause. I explain to the students that they are all going to be speaking in front of the class over the course of the semester and therefore they will want to provide a comfortable atmosphere for public speaking.

I then write on the board that a positive atmosphere includes students who are Attentive, Supportive and Smiling. I write the words on the board in such a way that the first letter stands out and then suggest that doing anything other than being Attentive, Supportive and Smiling would leave them being what the initials spell out. It usually gets a laugh and they usually get the point.

Acknowledge the Realities of Our Students

We know that most of the students in our classes work part time, full time or more not to mention other responsibilities they have on their plates. If you have any doubts about this, ask the students in your class. I was surprised to learn how many students were juggling multiple jobs in addition to school to be able to help their family with expenses. I also found that many students have significant responsibilities when it comes to helping to raise younger brothers or sisters or helping with aging parents or grandparents. All of which take time and energy.

By building in class time for the groups to meet, it reduces one of the biggest concerns students have about group assignments and it allows you to observe the groups in action to assess what additional support and/or direction might be needed.

There are a couple of things I would like to point out about the Sample Group Project Worksheet. I wait until after the last day to add/drop to assign groups. I found that this minimizes frustration of groups gaining or loosing members. Students can still add/drop after this date, but more signatures are required to do so and it is therefore less common. If a group looses a student after they have started their planning process, I meet with them to discuss how to best adjust their project plan. I also adjust my expectations for how long their presentation needs to be and consider the impact of having lost a member mid-project when calculating their grades.

On the days that they gather in their work groups, I take role and then ask them to get into their groups. I bring various resources that can assist them in the their planning process and I serve as a willing resource until the last group leaves the room. Students are able to use this time to work in our classroom, go to the library, go to a computer lab or go elsewhere on campus that might support their planning process.

Sample Group Project Worksheet (DOC, 35 KB) / Sample Group Project Worksheet (PDF, 18 KB)

Clearly Communicate Expectations

At the start of the semester, I let the students know that there will be a group project, and that I am committed to having it be unlike any group project they have experienced before. We talk about what they dislike about group projects and then I provide information about how this group project will be different and ask that they please set aside past experiences and be open to a more positive experience this semester.

More specifically, the students know upon reading the syllabus for class at the start of the semester that I am committed to their experience working on a group project being a positive one, that they will have time in class to meet, that they will have access to me if any questions or concerns arise during their planning process, and that they will have a supportive audience when they do their group presentations.

Group Project Assignment Excerpts from Course Syllabus (DOC, 45 KB) / Group Project Assignment Excerpts from Course Syllabus (PDF, 17 KB)

Consider Grading Individually for Group Projects

I reserve the right to grade individually. This lessens some of the concerns students have about mismatched standards of quality or having to do more than their fair share of the work. It does mean that mechanisms need to be created to assess individual grades (i.e. Peer Reviews, Journal Entries, or the like). Yet it provides freedom in being able to assign grades that are appropriate for the level of work contributed. This method also allows students to gain important skills related to giving and receiving feedback.

A few words on the samples provided in this section. Each student in class completes a Peer Review Form. I draw names for which students will conduct the peer reviews for which groups the day of each presentation. This process keeps the students engaged in the classes being taught by their peers.

If a student feels that there were group members who did not effectively contribute to the planning or execution of their group's project, then they are encouraged to speak up about it in their Student Report (a journal entry) and to submit a Collaborative Learning Form.

If I elect to provide different grades for members of a group, that decision is based on corroborating data from the following: Students expressing concern to me, what multiple group members communicated in their Student Reports, any Collaborative Learning Forms received and what was readily apparent to me and to the peer reviewers while watching the group's presentation.

In some cases, I think the sheer possibility of individual grades has encouraged students who might otherwise slack off, to instead step up, knowing that they will not be carried by their group mates.

Sample Peer Review Form (PDF, 19 KB)

Sample Student Report (PDF, 61 KB)

Sample Collaborative Learning Form (PDF, 17 KB)

Provide Appropriate Tools, Resources, and Support

The ice-breaker was a great way to get acquainted and find out how to best interact with group members – while having fun! –Katie

I found it critically important to hold lectures and discussions on typical issues related to group dynamics before putting students into groups. And provide avenues for the students to express concerns with how their group's progress is unfolding.

The activity that launches the group project is a simple one, and yet it is an activity that come the end of the semester, many students still reference. It is based on Bruce Tuckman's Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing model of group development.

After conducting a lottery to put students into groups, I have them do a small ice breaker (favorite movie or the like) as they add their names, phone numbers and email addresses to the Group Project Worksheets.

I then have them refer to the Tuckman's Forming Storming Norming Performing Overview in their class reader and assign each group one of the stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming or Performing. As a group they get to choose how to best teach their assigned stage of development to the class via three of the following possible methods: Singing a Song, Reenacting a TV Scene, Reenacting a Movie Scene, Reenacting a Historical Reference or via an Interpretive Dance. I remind them of the Best Audience Ever Clause: Attentive, Smiling and Supportive and I give them 15 minutes to prepare.

When it is time to perform, I have each group come to the front of the room one at a time, stand in front of their peers, take a breath and look to their peer audience. I have the group members announce which chapter they will be teaching the class for their group project, and have each group member share their name. I have the class clap for them before they actually present their way of teaching Forming, Storming, Norming or Performing.

After each group has presented their material, we discuss both the group development model and what the experience was like for them. I drive home that all groups storm and that it is a natural part of a group's development and therefore to acknowledge it when it happens. I also share that they have now all been in front of the class, spoke in front of their peers (some even sang or danced!) and they lived through it. So by the end of the semester, their group project should be a piece of cake!

The Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing activity was a blast! It brought our group closer together and allowed us to work together and amalgamate our ideas. Our topic was Performing. We took too much time discussing our ideas so when our time was up we didn’t have much of a plan. I do believe that given the time we have to work on the group project we will work together really well. –Emily

Above is just one example with one ice-breaker, lists of ice-breakers can be easily located via a simple online search. You can also visit the Dick Scott Memorial Leadership Library located in the Matador Involvement Center on campus (1st Floor, University Student Union Sol Center) where you can check out books that list thousands of ice-breakers and team builders and how to facilitate them. Some favorites from the Leadership Library include:

Sample Group Project Worksheet (PDF, 18 KB)

Tuckman's Forming Storming Norming Performing Overview (PDF, 45 KB)

Include Opportunities for Reflection Throughout the Experience

I have found that it is important to provide multiple avenues for students to share their experience functioning as part of a group. Some ideas:

If a student or students come to me before or after class or during office hours with concerns about their group, I take time during the next class session to ask how all of the groups are doing, what has been working and what has presented different challenges. Students can learn from other groups as to how to function more effectively and if most of the groups are struggling you might find aspects of the assignment that you might consider re-tooling in the future.

Create an evaluation or simply have a discussion that allows students to provide you with feedback on what they learned from the assignment, what could have made the assignment more relevant/applicable and what additional support from the professor might have be helpful.

Sample Collaborative Learning Form (PDF, 17 KB)

Sample Student Report (PDF, 61 KB)

In closing, at the end of each semester, we spend an entire class revisiting what we learned during our past 15 weeks together. Time and again students reference the group project. They speak to what they learned as a presenter, as a group member, as a peer reviewer and as a learner receiving chapter content from their peers. While there are a lot of steps involved in the process outlined, they have shown to make a positive difference in how students experience group projects. I think one particularly shy student summed it up well...

I just want to thank you for giving me and my classmates the opportunity and the encouragement to know one another so when that time comes to speak in front of the class, I will feel comfortable and ready to demonstrate leadership. –Deon

Related Recommended Readings (PDF, 36 KB)