Group projects are an active learning strategy that help students move beyond passive receipt of information. Group projects tend to fall into two categories: (1) Cooperative projects typically use a “divide and conquer” technique: each student completes a portion of the work on his or her own, and then the group comes together to assemble the final project; (2) Collaborative group work requires interaction throughout the duration of the project.
The terms team-based learning, project-based learning, and cooperative/collaborative learning are often used interchangeably. The idea behind all of these terms is to provide students with the opportunity to apply their knowledge to “real-world” situations and to complex issues, and to deepen the learning experience by having students participate in their own knowledge construction.
Choose a team-based approach when a project is too complex to complete independently, and when the final product needs to be more than the sum of its individual contributions.
- Design the project to enable everyone to contribute equally. Group projects that are too small can result in one or two people completing all the work.
- Assign groups of 4-7 students.
- Assign group roles, or allow group members to determine roles (recorder or scribe, project manager, truth teller or emotional pulse – the person who “reads” the group, notices when not everyone is participating, concerns are not being addressed, etc.).
- Balance the group by pairing weak and strong skills together.
- Ensure that teams start their first meeting by making a contract or charter to refer to when conflict arises.
- Check in regularly to ensure groups are making progress.
- Add peer assessment to alleviate fears of unfair grading practices.
- Allow enough time to complete the group project, and consider having fewer course objectives (depth over breadth).
Setting up the groups is critically important: balance each group by putting weak and strong skills together. If you do not know your students very well, complete a survey or pre-assessment to make sure that strengths and weaknesses are evenly distributed. Concentrating especially strong or weak students, or students with a particular skill set, into one group will decrease the quality of final projects.
Group projects require a moderate level of maintenance during the life of the project. Check in regularly with your groups to ensure they are making progress and won’t have a major crisis at the end of the project.
If you’ve ever been part of “The Group from Hell,” you know that cohesiveness doesn’t just happen. It may wilt entirely when students worry about their grades being tied to someone else’s performance. It’s important that instructors set up group projects carefully and have a plan to facilitate and assess each project; instructors may need to sacrifice goals like covering all the desired content.
Fink, L. Dee. Chapter One in: Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups edited by Larry Michaelsen, Arletta Knight, and Dee Fink. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2004.
Michaelsen, Larry K. Getting Started with Team Learning.