If You Assign It, Teach It: Strategies for Effective Group Projects
Posted May 31, 2018
By Mary Dixson
I teach a course on small group communication. My class consists of mostly upper class communication majors. Many dread the course and its promise (or threat) of a semester-long group project. I can’t really blame my students. In my course, we spend our first class day listing all of the terrible things that each student has experienced with group work: emotional drama, excessive time commitments, scheduling conflicts, absentee members, excessive tardiness, slackers, obsessive Type-A members, abusive leaders, and a total lack of consensus on everything related to the project. Additionally, they complain that their "group projects" are often simple reports or presentations that could be done by a single person. In the end, one person does the work; everyone else sits out. Everyone hates group work.
Who teaches group work?
The problem stems from one of two mistaken beliefs. The first is that, when it comes to groups, we learn through experience. If students participate in group projects, they will begin to develop the necessary skills to succeed. The second belief is that someone else is teaching the necessary skills for group success. My experience leads me to believe that both assumptions are incorrect.
My data comes from an unscientific poll I take each semester in which I establish the existing levels of knowledge about running group projects. In four years of teaching the course, only two students have acknowledged any explicit training in teamwork, meetings, or group communication. Those were student leaders who participated in an off-campus leadership institute. Even for those two, the amount of training was small. The bottom line is that faculty assign and assess group work without teaching it.
But I don’t teach communication
If you feel overwhelmed by the need to teach both the crucial content in your course and the extra skills related to group communication, you are not alone. I conduct workshops on this topic across the country to faculty in every discipline, and most feel the same way. In these sessions, I provide information to help faculty create meaningful group experiences that teach fundamental teamwork skills. I encourage faculty to take a few minutes at the beginning of class to include teamwork lessons or, if time is short, to create an online module that students can go through as part of their course work. Here are a few of the topics and resources I typically encourage faculty to include:
What do we need to teach?
1. Students do not inherently understand how to construct a productive agenda and keep useful minutes. Agendas and minutes are crucial pieces for successful group projects. Agendas allow members to prepare, provide an opportunity to assign topics for discussion, and to keep the meeting moving forward. Minutes offer accountability points, acknowledgement for points of agreement, and record keeping of who attended and what was said or done. Anyone who has suffered through an academic meeting without these two crucial documents understands what happens when agendas and minutes are not provided. Teach students to create agendas and meetings for each meeting, and then grade them as part of the group project. Help students use their minutes as documentation that holds members accountable for the parts they play in the group. I’ve created a handy slide deck called “Keeping Groups Organized: Agendas and Minutes” for faculty to include either in their class or to place in their online teamwork module.
2. Students do not know how to manage time and tasks to move projects forward. Whether managing an hour-long meeting or a semester-long project, students always seem to struggle with their use of time. Extremely cohesive teams spend time enjoying each other’s company rather than working. Struggling teams stall and fail to move the project forward. Teams argue over tardiness and deadlines. It all stems from a basic lack of understanding about how different people view time and how time can be managed over the course of a project. Faculty can help by asking students to set up ground rules about tardiness and deadlines. In my classes, we call this a team charter. The document helps students discuss and agree upon a set of behavioral and procedural norms for their group. I created a 5-minute presentation called “Norms and Charters” that you can use in class or inside your teamwork module.
3. Students do not have training in basic conflict management skills. Conflict avoidance and escalation are two of the most common problems found in my nascent student groups. In most cases, my students are able to recall negative or hostile group climates that in some cases have led them to avoid the group entirely and to stop attending meetings. These experiences perpetuate the myth that the best conflict is an avoided one. In reality, we come into conflict with co-workers every day. When students describe years of doing projects on their own, I ask why they didn’t confront those they thought were slacking. Most admit that it was easier to do the work than confront another person. By using some fundamental conflict management strategies, we can manage our disagreements, and even use them to move a project forward. One important lesson I share is called “Improving Group Climate.” And this brief presentation on Conflict Management helps students understand conflict and provides strategies for managing it.
4. Students have not learned to divide work and hold others accountable. Lazy group members is the number one complaint I hear from students. Everyone else slacks off and one person does the work. The assumption is that other people are just slackers. We know from research on social loafing that human beings’ natural tendency is to reduce their own effort when they know others are working on a collective task (Karau and Williams, 1993). The question is, how do we reduce this tendency and even out the workload? The answer is a combination of the previous three points. First help students learn to keep track of tasks, and how to set reasonable deadlines. You might encourage them to create a weekly calendar or offer a list of common tasks that your groups are expected to complete. Second, teach students to use agendas and minutes to track tasks and due dates. Finally, provide language for productively confronting others when work isn’t done on time. I share this post from Harvard Business Review to show how this issue comes up in a business environment, and offer strategies for dealing with it.
Unlike writing, the teaching of these skills is not currently woven into many classes, and most students will never take a group communication course. Ideally, faculty should offer short group work lessons or resources as part of their existing course. Our team at The University of Texas at San Antonio Teaching and Learning Services has created a set of resources , some of which I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, which can be presented in class or adapted for use in a Learning Management System module like Canvas or Blackboard. You’ll also find resources on how to give group presentations, another skill we typically assess, but don’t always teach.
All workgroups, even the most enjoyable ones, offer a multitude of challenges. That is precisely the reason we need group work in a wide variety of courses. It is unfair, however, to continue to set students up for failure or create unnecessary struggles, because we are not providing the necessary tools and fundamental knowledge that leads to success.
Mary Dixson currently serves as Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Services for The University of Texas at San Antonio. She leads faculty development efforts to promote teaching excellence across the university. She has twenty years of experience teaching communication courses at various colleges and universities. She holds a PhD in Communication Studies and certification in nonprofit management from the University of Texas at Austin. She conducts workshops and consults with organizations and individuals on communication skills and team building. She is also a lucky wife, a devoted, if sometimes frazzled mother, an avid gardener, and a slow runner.
Karau, Steven J.; Williams, Kipling D. (1993). "Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 65 (4): 681–706. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061. ISSN 0022-3514.