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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Arranging Groups for Group Projects

"Group project" are the words students dread most. Here's a technique to make them work better.

March 30, 2017

In my early years at Clemson University, every semester I would say the two scariest words students will ever hear, “group project.”

It was even worse because this was a technical writing class and I was introducing not just a group project but an 11-week long group project with multiple deliverables due along the way, culminating in a final document that would be reflective of the entirety of that process.[1]

The course structure was not mine (handed down from above), but I ultimately became glad for it because it helped me learn a lot about how to make group projects not only tolerable, but beneficial.

Writing collaboratively is an essential skill for technical writing, so doing group work is necessary, but as I imagine most of us have experienced, the pitfalls are numerous.

One of the things I learned very quickly was that for a group project to be successful we needed to spend some up-front time discussing how groups work (or don’t work). I needed students to be as cognizant of the process with which they were engaging as they were focused on a particular outcome at the end of that process.

Prior to arranging in groups we opened the unit with a “Festivus Holiday” on group projects, an airing of the grievances, where students would share their worst horror stories about previous experiences. We realized how common these negative experiences were, and via discussion, tried to identify some of the underlying causes of these events.

For example, a common complaint was “having to do all the work by myself.” Together, we would peel back some of the reasons this might happen. In some cases, it was because the individual really was stuck with some slackass partners.

In other cases, however, some students would admit to having seized total control of the project from the outset because they didn’t “trust” anyone else, never giving those colleagues a chance to participate, even if they wanted to or had something to add to the project.

We would do other work to help understand group dynamics, group communication, the benefits and detriments to working in groups, essentially lots of reading and discussion to set the context for what we were about to spend 2/3rds of the semester doing.

It helps, a lot. I buttressed this with material on collaborative decision making and even exercises allowing them to practice working in groups.

But ultimately, groups must be chosen, and this is where all those best laid plans have a good chance of going awry.

I experimented with different methods, random group assignments, students arranging themselves into groups, me using total discretion. None of them seemed to work any better than the other. Some groups thrived, others tanked, others muddled along. Our preparation for the group project helped, but when group chemistry failed, no amount of inoculation was going to prevent the progression of the disease of group dysfunction.

When I exercised total discretion in arranging groups, it seemed as though I had the additional burden of arbitrating group conflicts. After all, I was the one who made the groups.

Seeking a change, I went back to my “first principles” of teaching, which rest on the importance of student agency and freedom. I believe students work better when they are most free and are required to exercise their own agency. I wanted them to choose their groups because I want students making choices, but I needed a way to change that choice from the informal ways students arrange themselves in these situations, to a more deliberative, active process.

I remembered a technique a former colleague from Virginia Tech, Corey Hickerson[2], once shared with me. To arrange groups he would hand out 3x5 note cards to his students. On the cards they would list two (or three or however many, depending on the ultimate size of the group) of their classmates they wanted to work with, and one classmate they would rather not work with. Prof. Hickerson would then arrange groups working from these preferences, with the students having no idea what anyone else wrote on their cards.

I adapted this to the technical writing class by adding an assignment: Students would write a “group project resume”[3] targeted to each other.

The first time I tried it, I asked students to tell me what information should be in the “resume.” The number one item? Their school/work/activity schedules.[4] They also thought we should cover individual competencies, like design experience or being a good proofreader. Even though it’s a “resume,” they thought it was important to confess any holes or weaknesses, such as “I’m good with ideas, but bad with follow through.”

Over time we added things like preferred group structure, whether they wanted a group with a leader or had a liked decentralized decision making. When my group assignments were random, I often unknowingly created groups with internal power struggle dynamics as two or more leaders sought to drive the process. With the resume, those who strongly preferred being in charge said so, and often attracted interest from others who preferred to be assigned the task work.[5]

The final piece was to ask students to identify their goals and values regarding the project and the class. Did they want an “A” at all costs, or were they more aligned with a “D means done,” attitude.[6] Some would say their primary goal was not a grade, but a positive group experience, which would attract the like minded.[7]

For part of a class period, students would circle the room, reading each other’s resumes. At the end of the process, they would fill out a 3x5 card with three people they wanted to work with and one person they’d rather not work with.[8]

Using the cards I would then arrange the groups. I would prioritize their requests on who they’d rather not work with and then do my best to group them with at least one other person they expressed a preference for.[9]

I wish I could declare that this process magically eliminated all group strife, but people are people. Some conflict is inevitable. But it was significantly better than any previous method.[10] Some students who had particularly well-functioning groups that created deliverables in which they took great pride even declared it their “best class ever.”[11]

The key, I think, was activating that student agency. They had a role in choosing their groups and therefore had an increased commitment to making it work. The anonymity of the choosing, and my role in the process also allowed for students to avoid a choice between preserving a social bond and sacrificing their class performance, since they did not need to feel guilty about not actually wanting to work with their friend who they liked to hang out with, but didn’t trust when it came to academic endeavors.

Curious, the second time I used this process, at the end of the semester, I asked students to try to recreate their initial selections. The vast majority believed they’d listed some or even all of their group mates at the beginning, even though this was rarely the case.

I didn’t tell them this. They wouldn’t have believed me anyway.


[1] The project involved indentifying a “client,” determining their technical writing needs, proposing a deliverable piece of writing, and then executing that deliverable.

[2] Now an Associate Professor at James Madison.

[3] More of a combination between a letter and a resume than a formal resume.

[4] I’ve become convinced that conflicting schedules is at the root of a majority of group project dysfunction. If they can’t meet to work together, bad stuff ensues.

[5] I would jokingly refer to this in class as an autocrat in search of minions. I saw many groups thrive under this structure.

[6] I had one “D means done” group of graduating seniors, all male, who I initially worried about their ability to complete the work because they were so checked-out mentally when it came to school. They ended up getting intrigued by their own project and overshot the mark to a B-.

[7] I remember one student who wrote, “I would like a group of people who want to watch Alias together.” The group started meeting on the night Alias aired, taking a break to watch the show together, then going back to work.

[8] This could now easily be done online if you don’t want to take class time.

[9] With 20 students it’s impossible to give everyone what they want. I could almost always avoid putting someone in a group they actively didn’t want to work with, but sometimes it was impossible to arrange in a way where everyone got even a single preferred partner.

[10] This was reflected not just in my observations of the group dynamics, but also in the quality of the work and in the end-of-semester evaluations as well, where I asked students to rate the effectiveness of their group at “working together.”

[11] I have some student evaluations to prove it. And this is for a course where I was very hands off for a good portion of the back half of the semester.

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