Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Creating structures for effective groupwork

One instructional strategy that I use a lot in my online and on-campus courses is group projects, involving learners in collaboration, teamwork, peer review, and so forth. I like this strategy because:

  • Group work can help counter the isolation some students may feel in an online course,
  • Exposing students to multiple perspectives can open their eyes to diverse ideas,
  • Students can achieve higher expectations with collegial support, and
  • The quality of individual student work can be enhanced through collaboration.

However, when I don't provide some structure around group projects, specifically addressing how group work will be assessed, these projects can lead to a lot of problems.

One thing I have done to help teams function more effectively is to have them establish a formal agreement describing how the team will function. A “Rules of Engagement” contact is especially important for students who have had negative past experiences in which they had to cover for team members who did not contribute. In the contract, each team can determine what to do if a team member cannot fulfill his or her obligations. This contract should include information on:

  • Who will post: Which team member will be responsible for posting the group’s deliverables?
  • Leader or not: Some groups chose a leader to keep things moving, some groups change that leader each week (or every other week or whatever), and some groups decide not to do this.
  • Communication and deadlines: How will they communicate with each other? How often? Will they set interim deadlines? Some groups like to set certain deadlines, such as initial work done by Wednesday, rewrites by Friday, and final posted Sunday.
  • Equal contributions: How will work be distributed?
  • Preferred work style: Some people like to get things done during the week and take the weekend off and others prefer the opposite. What is your style? How will you handle style differences?
  • Not getting work done: What will the group do if one member cannot fulfill his or her obligations? Will that member be docked points, or can the member make up the work?
  • Known problems: Issues you know will come up, how to handle dates you know you will be out of town?

See below for a simple team agreement.

Team E Agreement

1. Will you have a leader who keeps the team on track during team assignments?

After a preliminary review of the projects, Team E has decided that it is best to have a different team leader for each of the weeks that have a team assignment. The team leader will be assigned a week in advance based on personal schedules at that time.

2. How do you prefer to work?

After reviewing individual work schedules, we have decided to assign a team leader a week in advance so that he/she can organize and assign tasks to be completed by the weekend before the due date. This will provide an adequate amount of time for completion and review by our teammates. The team leader will assign a preliminary due date prior to the actual due date for all to adhere. This offers flexibility to each team member to work on his/her task, yet hold him/her accountable to successful completion of his or her task by the due date.

3. Do you agree to provide timely, substantive feedback?

We all agree that it is important to provide feedback that is positive. This benefits the team and provides open communication. It is important to critique constructively…the team wants to create a superior product.

4. How will you handle a team member who does not do what he/she has agreed to do?

The team is comprised of professionals and we expect if an individual has a problem (technical or personal) hindering him or her from performing the assigned task, the team will be notified ASAP so the team can assist in the completion of that task. The team may advise, inform, break the task into smaller and more manageable parts, or assign to another team member. The team leader will be the focal point for managing these activities. At that point the team will also negotiate how the team member’s assignment score should be affected.


I then have the students use the team agreements to assess each group members’ contribution (including their own contribution) to the submitted paper or product. Below is an example of a tool students adopted, based on the team contract, to assess each other’s contributions to group projects. These assessments can have ramifications, such as if a group member receives less than 50 points on the Group Review Form from more than one group member then that student's points for the deliverable will be reduced by 20%. I have found that this empowers students to have a say in the point distribution on group projects. This review process also functions as an incentive for all group members to fulfill their obligations. And, this approach has some additional benefits:

  • Because students complete Group Review Forms describing each group members’ contribution, it summarizes the project work and minimizes the amount of time an instructor needs to spend examining the posts in each group’s private workspace forum for clues to level and quality of each student's contribution to the project.
  • It alerts me to specific group and group member issues, and provides data to use when addressing those issues. This allows me to address the issues quickly and efficiently.
  • Often, when given the means and opportunity, students are very thoughtful and detailed about the feedback they provide to group members, and are very honest about their own contributions. Therefore, the students' reviews of group members and themselves provides me with useful comments that can be included in feedback to individual students.

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