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A group of students sits in a study room working together.

Group projects can teach students communication, delegation and collaboration if designed correctly.

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For many students, group projects elicit feelings of frustration due to improperly managed or unequally distributed labor or burdensome time allocated to an assignment. However, group work can give students skills they’ll need for the professional world and contribute to institutional goals around learning, persistence and student success.

To create the most successful group work, professors can employ five strategies to facilitate productive and engaging projects among learners, both in person and online.

  1. Teach the value of group work

Students, in a group project, learn interpersonal skills like communication, conflict resolution and delegation as well as gain self-awareness in their talents and weaknesses. Group work also provides experiential learning that can be referenced later in interviews or other career settings.

Some students may not be equipped with teamwork skills, so in introducing group work, professors can also take an opportunity to highlight characteristics of a good group participant.

  1. Assign groups intentionally

Creating the groups is the first step in establishing a successful project team. The method of selection can impact the group dynamics and set the tone for work, so it’s in the professor’s best interest to be involved in the process, rather than letting students select their own group or randomizing the selection.

The best groups have four or five members and have intentional assignment based on skill or background to add diversity, according to Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation. Professors should also consider how group assignments can create relationships among students who might not otherwise interact with one another.

  1. Create interdependence

Group works function best when students are actually collaborating with one another. When designing group projects, faculty members should consider how the project establishes interdependence between learners.

Making projects complex or with limited resources can push students to lean on each other to accomplish tasks, according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center. Professors can also assign roles within the group to ensure that one person is not dominating or avoiding shared responsibilities.

  1. Set expectations for the project

Professors should provide clear expectations about what the final project should look like and the steps students should reach in the interim. Establishing structure such as interim deadlines or project milestones in the syllabus can keep students on track and ensure the group is working together throughout the term, not just before the project deadline.

A frequent student complaint in group work also relates to timing—group projects can be intensive and require additional allocation of energy, so creating expectations early in the term can prep students for the work they’ll be doing.

Northern Illinois University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning suggests offering feedback at check-in deadlines to ensure groups are working toward the learning outcomes and refocus efforts that may stray.

  1. Establish individual responsibilities

Against all supports, some students may try to shirk their responsibilities or overstep their role in the group. To identify how each learner contributed to a project, professors can add accountability for personal contributions by establishing an individually graded portion of the project.

Assignment examples could include individual presentation of their project contribution, completing a self and peer evaluation at the end of the work, or creating a learning-outcomes quiz for students to complete upon submission of their assignments.

Another solution is to create contract grading, which means each student signs a contract that outlines their role, specific tasks and deadlines, and the instructor agrees to give students the same final grade if they fulfill their end of the contract.

Do you have an academic success tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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