Effective Group Projects

Planning and implementing effective group projects has many components. These include deciding how many students form a group, ensuring that everyone has the necessary skills to function as a team member, clarifying expectations for the end result, and determining how to grade the assignment.

1. Clearly define your goal(s) for a group project.

Group projects are most effective when linked to the course’s Student Learning Outcomes. Use group projects to assess Student Learning Outcomes related to team work, communication, and diverse perspectives. As you align the group project to your Learning Outcomes, clearly state your expectations for the final product and how you expect students to share that product with you or each other.

2. Consider the amount of time you expect students to devote to the project.

There are at least three intersecting layers relating to time expectations:

  • Amount of time you want students to devote to the project:
    • Is it a short-term project lasting only a class session or two? One that lasts a couple of weeks? One that spans the entire semester?
  • Will there be time to work in-class?
    • Using class time can ease some of what students often feel is a burden of group work, namely finding time when everyone is available. Additionally, allotting time during a few class sessions for students to work together enables you to observe group dynamics and serve as a resource to students.
  • Amount of time outside of class:
    • Most group projects require students to work together outside of class at least part of the time. Provide students with an estimate of about how much time they might need outside of class for the project. In constructing this estimate, consider how the group project is integrated into your course. If there are other assignments, such as essays or tests, will students have enough time to complete those assignments and this project?

3. Decide how you will group students to form teams.

Here are several methods for forming teams, along with their pros and cons. In deciding which model works best for your course, consider your Student Learning Outcomes and align them with the specific components of the team project.

Random Selection

  • Randomly selecting the group members works well when the group project
    • is a short-term project for which all students have the needed skills
    • mirrors the ‘real world’ where students will learn to work in teams not of their choosing
    • helps students get to know many of their peers
  • Randomly selecting the group members can be less effective when
    • the project is complex and requires a diversity of skills and expertise

Student Selection

  • Allowing students to form project teams has several benefits, including
    • increasing student comfort level by working with those they know
    • potentially increasing accountability within the group
  • There are downsides to allowing students to form their own teams, such as
    • students who do not have friends in the class can be left out
    • students may struggle with the transition from ‘friend’ to ‘team mate’
    • it is harder for students to provide critical feedback within their friendship group
    • the process does not reflect the world of work, where students need to function in diverse groups that are not of their choosing
    • there may be less diversity of thinking and perspective within a pre-formed social group

Faculty Selection

  • Faculty selected groups work well when:
    • Instructors have relevant prior information about their students.
    • You are looking to create diverse groups representing varied skills and perspectives. (If this is the case, let your students know about this goal.) You are aware of the strengths (and weaknesses) individual students bring to the group.
  • The potential downside is students’ preference for selecting their own teams.

For more ideas on forming groups, see Maryellen Weimer’s article “Better Group Work Experiences Begin with How Groups are Formed.”

4. Determine the number of students per team.

Here are a few considerations when determining the number of students in a group:

  • If the group is large, it may be harder for students to coordinate meeting times or to assign team roles.
  • The larger the group is, the more likely ‘social loafing’ (that is, some individuals not contributing fully) will occur. The longer a project takes and the larger its goals, the more likely some ‘social loafing’ will take place.
  • The group needs enough students so that all roles and tasks are covered and there is enough diversity of thinking to help students expand their perspectives.

For more suggestions, see Eve Hammar Chiriac and Kjell Granström’s article “Teachers’ Leadership and Students’ Experience of Group Work” (2012, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 18).

5. Ensure that students have the guidelines and skills needed to function as effective team members.

Students often come to group projects having had bad experiences in such settings. Alternatively, they may have little to no experience with teamwork. Be sure to establish early on the guidelines for conducting themselves professionally in the context of their group. Explain the importance of such team skills as

  • Respect
  • Good communication skills
  • Reliability
  • Knowing one’s role
  • Self-reflection
  • Flexibility
  • Conflict management

Depending on students’ prior experience with team projects and the complexity of the assignment, you may need to devote class time early on to teaching and reinforcing these skills. To learn more about guidelines for group work, see Maryellen Weimer’s “Group Work: A Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for All Members.

6. Create appropriate grading rubrics for the project.

A clear rubric that provides a transparent look at how success will be measured is extremely important. What aspects of the final product will be assessed? Will there be smaller “check-in” points throughout the project that will be assessed? Even if you don’t work with rubrics, students will need a clear set of criteria for what constitutes a quality finished product, how you define effective teamwork, and how you characterize an effective team member.

7. Decide if students will be graded individually or as a team.

Many students cringe at the thought of their grade on an assignment being directly related to the performance of other members of their group. It is important to establish clear measures of accountability for groups and individuals.

Consider using both a team grade and an individual grade, allowing the student’s total grade to be a combination of both scores. You might also decide that a portion of the grade will be determined by a self-evaluation or anonymous peer evaluation.

8. Consider how and when you will check in with teams to assess their progress.

Check-ins can be done in person, through email, or through Blackboard. As part of the project description, you can set up a format for these updates. For example, students can post progress notes at certain points during the semester. Such check-ins enable you to keep abreast of a group’s progress, to find out where they may be having trouble, and to intervene, as needed, to help students work out interpersonal issues the group might be experiencing.

Scaffolding for group projects means breaking down the assignment into steps and providing feedback along the way. As students gradually become more skilled at being team members and working on a group project, the amount of scaffolding decreases. For team projects, this may mean

  • Requiring students to turn in a piece of the project early on for your feedback
  • Helping students who are having difficulty assigning group roles
  • Breaking down a research project or paper into discrete sections that are due at set intervals, e.g., topic statement, literature review, original research, first draft, final draft). Each step builds on the skills of the previous one, while potentially introducing new techniques or skills along the way toward the completion of the major tasks.

Scaffolding is a useful technique both for undergraduate and graduate students, as it teaches them about the process of completing a particular kind of project as well as the competencies needed to complete a task. For group projects, the check-in process allows you not only to measure a group’s progress but also to avoid surprises at the end.

9. Identify strategies for helping teams that are not functioning well.

It is vital that students know early on what to do in case their team is not functioning well: When is it appropriate for them to come to you for advice?  What strategies do you want them to try when problems arise?  Consider, for example, what you want students to do if a student is not responding to emails about setting up group meetings. What if a student in the group is not doing his or her part? If a group member voices a concern to you, guide him or her in appropriate ways to communicate these concerns to the group.

Be prepared with an alternative assignment for students who simply cannot work in the group because of issues that may be outside of their control. For suggestions on strategies for handling students not fulfilling their obligations to the group, you might look at work by Dr. Juan Castro of LeTourneau University.

10. Explore possible formats students might use to share their work with the class.

While “standard” group presentations tend to involve a small group of students standing in front of the class, with each member making a short presentation, there are alternative group presentation models. Here are several to consider:

  • Panel: In this interactive format, a moderator poses questions and the group discusses. The instructor might serve as moderator, with students demonstrating the content knowledge they have acquired (or results they have produced) in the course of the project.
  • Mock debates work well if students want to present two diverging perspectives.
  • Role play allows students to assume the position of ‘known expert,’ who then engages in conversation with others.
  • Colloquy: In this ‘talk show’ model, a panel presents, and then a moderator asks members of the audience for questions or input during the discussion.
  • Jigsaw Model where students share project results in small groups. See for example, #3 in Active Learning Take-Away.

(For more ideas, you might look at Formats for Group Presentations, University of Mary Washington.)

You might also consider formats other than a research paper or presentation for delivering the findings of a project. Ideas include:

  • A short film or video
  • A board game
  • An art installation
  • A website or blog
  • An advertising campaign
  • A mural
  • An interactive map or timeline
  • Analysis of a case study
  • An issue of a news/literary magazine
  • A short performance
  • A poster presentation
  • An edited collection of essays
  • A radio broadcast (think NPR)
  • A podcast with several “episodes”