Another way to work collaboratively is through group projects. With a group project, students collaborate on a graded assignment that unfolds over weeks of a course. These projects may take place entirely in-class, such as extended in-class simulations; students may work on them entirely outside-of-class; or you may ask students to work both in-class and outside-of-class. The challenges you face with group projects include: forming heterogeneous groups that are attuned to practical challenges of group projects, promoting productive group interactions, and encouraging equal work through your assessment strategy.
As with any assignment, we encourage you to develop a well-defined project with clear connections to the learning objectives of your class. Provide clear, written instructions to the groups. Communicate milestones so groups can monitor and reflect on their progress and performance. Additionally, you can ask for deliverables at each milestone.
Students appreciate group assignments related to real-world issues and the complexity they entail. That complexity can build group interdependence, as students draw on each other’s strengths, perspectives, and knowledge bases to complete the assignment. Authentic projects may resemble what a professional in the field does, which enhances the relevance to students. For example, you can ask students to advise on a policy, create a product or resource, develop an exhibit, or recommend a solution.
Successful group projects require collaboration–they cannot simply be divided up among the members. Nevertheless, they also include some independent tasks for individual accountability. For example, decisions may need to be made in collaboration, while the information needed to make a decision could be gathered independently.
We recommend that the instructor create groups. We suggest a few basic principles related to the size and composition of these groups.
We suggest a few basic principles of group formation. Form teams of three to six members. Use smaller teams if you want to prioritize individual accountability and allow for more flexible scheduling when out-of-class activities are required. On the other hand, use larger teams if it's important for teams to bring more resources, ideas, and points of view to the problem.
When it comes to long-term, standing teams, we recommend that the instructor create them because the instructor can make them heterogeneous. Heterogeneity is an important characteristic for effective groups and teams. Teams that have a broad range of abilities and problem-solving perspectives among members tend to be more successful than those that are homogeneous in this regard (Brewer & Mendelson, 2003; Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992). Hong and Page (2004) suggest that such functional diversity, or “differences in how people represent problems and how they go about solving them” can be an important attribute of high-performing teams (p. 16385). Other researchers have also demonstrated that working with peers of different abilities offers benefits to students at all levels—the more capable students become more aware of their thinking processes, while the less capable student learns from an advanced peer (Oakley et al., 2004; Wankat & Oreovicz, 1993).
Teams should be heterogeneous with respect to students' social identities as well (gender, race/ethnicity, etc.) (Tonso, 2006). Some research suggests that when individuals from underrepresented backgrounds are isolated, their team participation can be negatively affected because their opinions may not be considered valid by their teammates, or they may be assigned unimportant tasks (Ingram & Parker, 2002; Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008). Therefore, it is critical that whenever possible, teams be formed in ways that avoid isolating students from underrepresented or minoritized identities. This is especially important in introductory courses when students are new to the field and have not yet established support mechanisms like study groups or academic networks.
You may want student input as you form groups. We recommend using a tool like the Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME) Team-Maker. With CATME, instructors identify criteria that might be important to group-formation, such as students’ schedules, skill sets, or disciplines. CATME Team-Maker builds a survey for students to answer about these criteria, so that instructors have the information to form teams. Learn more about CATME licensing at the University of Michigan here.
Consider practical issues when creating teams
The length of the team project and expectations for meetings outside class should be considered when forming teams because even the best heterogeneous team is likely to fail if the team cannot find a common meeting time. Thus, when students need to work together outside class, instructors should consider out-of-class availability when forming the teams. One way to do this is to query the students about their schedules and use this information in conjunction with other criteria in forming teams (Oakley et al., 2004). There are online automated systems that simplify this process, such as CATME Team-Maker©.
Additionally, we recommend allocating some class time to team meetings because it may be difficult for teams to meet outside of class. It also allows you an opportunity to observe how groups are functioning and to answer questions as they arise. Be sure to offer this in-class time at the beginning of the project so that teams can do some initial planning and set up times for out-of-class work.
The ability of team members to work effectively together can evolve over time as students acquire important skills. It is important for students to know that their teams are likely to experience conflict as they work together and for instructors to provide students with ways to deal with those conflicts. The suggestions offered in this section highlight good practices for teaching teamwork skills.
Have teams develop contracts
Another way to foster teamwork skills is to have each team develop a contract, which involves discussing the team’s purpose or mission, defining appropriate roles for each team member, and setting norms for conduct. Having – and using – a contract gives students ways to mediate team conflict and negotiate agreements on their own, enhancing team productivity (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2007). You can require student teams to develop a team charter (i.e., a shared set of team rules) as one of their first course assignments. The charter is intended to help the team plan for managing cases in which a team member does not do his or her fair share of the work, doesn’t attend team meetings or shows up late, exhibits disrespectful or unprofessional behavior, is excessively demanding, or is overly reserved. The team drafts a charter that everyone signs (indicating agreement with the principles) and gives a signed copy to the instructor. Then, when conflicts arise, the instructor can remind students about the contract, asking them to work together to define the source of the conflict, communicate feelings and positions, take the other person’s perspective, and reach an agreement that is satisfactory to all team members (Smith & Imbrie, 2007). If the team needs it, the instructor can intervene to address unresolved conflicts.
You might find this sample group contract worksheet helpful as you develop your group project.
Groups often need support while individuals learn to interact with a diverse set of their peers. Monitoring groups is fundamental to detecting and correcting problematic dynamics in a timely way (Fredrick, 2008). You may find that students need coaching to understand the value of collaboration, to take ownership of and speak confidently about their ideas, to give constructive feedback, and to listen thoughtfully to their classmates.
Instructors should periodically check in with the teams, perhaps by scheduling times to meet with each team during office hours or being present when the team works together. During these meetings, the instructor should determine the extent to which the group is on track and observe the group dynamics. As needed, the instructor can ask refocusing questions such as, “Michael, please summarize what the team has done thus far,” or “Madison, please describe the team’s plan for completing the task,” and reiterate expectations about both individual accountability and interdependent work.
Another way to monitor a group’s progress is to ask them to submit weekly progress reports. Students can outline what the group discussed or accomplished that week, who participated, and the goals they set for the next week.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation supports instructors in the use of Tandem, a web-based tool to help monitor group dynamics and teach productive group work skills. By regularly surveying group members, Tandem alerts instructors to groups or teams that may need additional support. Groups that need additional support can be assigned specific lessons on effective group dynamics.
A common student complaint about group activities is that individuals in the group contribute unequally without penalty, especially if a single assignment is to be submitted by the team. This concern may be heightened when groups and teams work together in an ongoing relationship because the stakes may be higher than a one-time, in-class activity. Here we’ll share some strategies to address this concern, but we also want to point you to the CRLT Occasional Paper No. 35 for more ideas and resources to assess collaborative work.
You can encourage individual accountability through a grading system. First, make sure that the project accounts for enough of their grade to be worth the time and effort necessary to coordinate a group project. In addition, remember that a grading system should include:
- individual performance/products;
- group performance/products;
- each member’s contribution to team success (e.g., peer evaluation).
Here is a resource to help you develop a grading scheme for group projects. Be sure to plan in advance how you will evaluate each of these three aspects and how you will communicate your expectations and/or grading criteria to students. Finally, incorporate opportunities for formative assessment, so groups know how they are doing on the criteria while they still have time to course-correct.
Use peer evaluations
Because students have the most knowledge about individual contributions to the team, peer evaluations are an important ingredient in an instructor’s team assessment (Cestone et al., 2008; Loughry et al., 2007; Williams et al. 2002). When effectively facilitated, the benefits of peer evaluation are many. Soliciting students’ perspectives of their peers can help an instructor identify “free riders” who fail to contribute to the team and rely on others to get the work done (Glenn, 2009; Slavin, 1995). Students are challenged to think more critically about the process of teamwork (Fredrick, 2008), they reflect on the goals and objectives of a course (Cestone et al., 2008), and they are more motivated to produce high-quality work when their peers evaluate them than when their instructor does (Searby & Ewers, 1997). Research also shows that students who participate in peer evaluation have an increased awareness of the quality of their own work and increased confidence in their abilities (Dochy et al. 1999). On the whole, students find peer evaluation to be a fair method of assessment (Gatfield, 1999) and are generally very satisfied with the process (Cestone et al., 2008).
Peer evaluation can also be useful to improve team interactions while the teamwork is in progress. To accomplish the first objective, instructors should distribute peer evaluations at multiple points during the term so students can learn how to score their teammates and get used to sharing their (anonymous) ratings with teammates. And at the end of the term, the instructor can factor the students’ ratings into the overall grade or adjust each student’s team score by a multiplier based on the ratings to reflect their team contributions (Kaufman et al., 2000). Though it is important to make peer ratings count, if the course becomes overly dependent on them, students may start to feel as if they have not received appropriate credit for their individual efforts, and the peer feedback may become counterproductive.
Consider whether you will ask students to self-assess their own participation in the group when they complete peer evaluations. Self-assessment provides students with an opportunity to practice reflection and self-monitoring, encourages academic integrity, and helps students develop as independent learners. Adding self-assessment, however, is not without challenges. For example, lower performing and less experienced students may overestimate their contributions. Students may need guidance and time to become more accurate with their assessment.
Templates and web-based tools exist to support peer evaluation. The Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME) is a web-based version of peer evaluation. CATME produces automatically-generated instructor reports, compiling student ratings and alerting faculty to potential team problems. It was developed through rigorous research and has been shown to be valid and statistically reliable (Ohland, Layton, Loughry, & Yuhasz, 2005). Learn more about CATME licensing at the University of Michigan here.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation supports instructors in the use of Tandem, a web-based tool to help monitor group dynamics and teach productive group work skills. One feature of the tool is a mid-term and end-of-term peer and self-assessment. Visit the Tandem website to learn more.
University centers for teaching and learning have created some helpful resources to support faculty using peer assessment of group working including:
- Using Peer Assessment to Make Teamwork Work: A Resource Document for Instructors by Teaching and Learning Services at McGill University.
- Peer Assessment of Group Work by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.
- Sample Peer Assessment Form #1 by the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Sample Peer Assessment Form #2 by the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.
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