The group project is a much-dreaded component of undergraduate courses, doubly so if students are expected to create their own project from scratch. However, instructors consistently return to the independent group project as an exercise that, if done properly, stimulates student inquiry and cooperation. In this post, I reflect on my experiences facilitating student-led group projects in a biology course and relate these experiences to the commonalities of independent group work across disciplines. I outline four common issues related to independent group projects, then provide the rationale for managing each issue to maximize learning outcomes.
Issue #1: Students Don’t See the Value of Independent Projects
With several classes, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and a social life to manage, we can imagine why undergraduates may prefer working on a prescribed project rather than one they design themselves. Independent projects require a lot of brainpower and effort, and we are all likely inclined to gravitate toward projects in which we can work on each step in a straightforward manner. Much of the work that students will encounter outside the classroom, however, requires flexibility and creativity. Using inquiry is essential to translate knowledge into new situations, and independent projects are a great opportunity to practice inquiry.
- Emphasize the real-world skills that students gain. This can be particularly valuable for students who aren’t necessarily interested in the subject matter but can see the benefits they gain in other areas, such as problem solving and managing a team.
- Explain how each component of the independent project emulates a real practice in the discipline. This communicates to your students that you are putting them through this experience to help them develop their competencies, not to waste their time.
- Treat every pitfall as a lesson, not as an opportunity to point out deficiencies. If something goes wrong, help the students figure out a way to move forward. Then, ask the students what they learned from the experience (e.g., how to better communicate, the value of a contingency plan, time management) and how they might strategize differently if confronted with a similar situation.
Issue #2: Designing and Conducting Independent Projects is Overwhelming
Often, the end product of an independent project seems like an unattainable goal. The concept of an independent project can provide freedom, but the lack of structure can leave students feeling lost and unsure of their path. They key for instructors is to provide structure (e.g., schedules, formatting guidelines) without stifling opportunities for students to be creative and take charge of their own learning.
- Break down the project into manageable goals. Create a guide for students that details out the specific steps that lead to the end product, which includes due dates for smaller components of the project. This will help students feel competent as they achieve each small task and to better manage their time.
- Provide iterative feedback. If the only evaluation students receive on their work is their final project grade, they don’t have the opportunity to improve and learn along the way. Checking in with students as they reach each small goal allows both students and instructor to keep track of progress and to make adjustments if a group has gotten off-course.
- Take time in class to praise students for their progress. Students may have trouble perceiving their accomplishments, so bringing them up will help to increase student confidence moving forward with the project.
- Help groups work through challenges in a structured manner. Ask groups to bring up challenges they have encountered lately, and run a brainstorming session with the entire class to overcome these challenges. Often, other groups will have encountered similar challenges, so working through them together helps students feel more competent and build a sense of community among classmates.
Issue #3: Group Members do not Contribute Equally
A common issue in group projects is that some students don’t have the time or interest to fully participate. This puts an undue burden on the other group members, who must take on a larger role in the project than intended. Instructors can minimize the incentive to “slack off” and create strategies for teams to manage uncooperative group members.
- Have students create a team contract. Provide students with a general template for a group contract with space to detail procedures for written communication among teammates, goals for the project, and consequences for group members who don’t pull their weight. All students should contribute to the creation of the contract and sign it. If an issue arises at any point during the project, the group has a clear path forward to correct the issue.
- Build in opportunities for every member to contribute. The threat of being held individually accountable is often enough motivation for students to pull their weight. Take time in class to consult with each group individually or run brainstorming sessions with the entire class, asking individual students to share their experience or discuss project results.
Issue #4: Group Members Have Disparate Goals
Group projects can be frustrating if students clash with teammates due to differing interests or goals. While it’s impossible to remove all disagreement among group members, creating a positive collaborative atmosphere can help students discuss and pursue their goals in a supportive manner.
- Form groups based on mutual interests. Ask students to sit in different sections of the classroom based on potential project topics, then organize the students into groups based on their “interest zone.” An added bonus to this approach is that student groups will automatically have something in common, which can help them form social bonds and increase the enjoyment of working together.
- Make time at the start of the project for students to discuss goals. Talking about how the project might relate to their goals for the course, their undergraduate education, and/or their career helps students understand the motivations of their teammates. When group members understand each other’s motivations, they can adjust their expectations and support the achievement of a variety of goals.
While your students may not enjoy the long hours, issues with teammates, and frustrations that accompany the independent group project, they may come to appreciate the lessons learned from their experiences. An example of working through a road block on their project could become a scenario they describe in a job interview. Dealing with an uncooperative group member could inform their approach to team management in their career. Engaging in inquiry could become the foundation for a student’s decision to pursue graduate school. Keep these outcomes in mind, and make every effort to put a positive spin on student progress.
Guide: “What are Best Practices for Designing Group Projects?” from Carnegie Mellon University. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/design.html
Guide: “Group Work: Using Cooperative Learning Groups Effectively” from Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/
Guide: “Successful Group Projects” from University of Leicester. https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/study/group-projects
Article: Creating Positive Group Project Experiences by Chapman and van Auken. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0273475301232005
Dr. Kateri Salk is an alumna of the Integrative Biology department and the Future Academic Scholars in Teaching program at Michigan State University. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at University of Waterloo, where she studies the interactions between harmful algal blooms, oxygen deficiency, and nutrient cycling in lakes. She is interested in activities that more closely integrate research and teaching, bringing the principles of effective instruction into research mentoring relationships and emulating the practices of science in the classroom.