Seven Principles, part two: Developing Reciprocity and Cooperation.

Group work gets a bad rap in college classrooms. Ask any student who’s done a group project in a course, for example, and they’re likely to give you a litany of reasons that they don’t like group work. The responsible and attentive students often feel like they’re carrying weight for the non-productive members, in addition to their own portions of the work. It’s hard to produce single product–a paper or a presentation, for example–with multiple people involved in the process (as any of us who’ve sat through a meeting where an entire committee tried to draft a policy statement can attest). There’s always the one person who never shows up to anything, then magically reappears at the final presentation, ready to shoehorn in on whatever grade the rest of the group earned. And, finally, the rule of committees often applies to group work, too: “All of us are dumber than one of us.”This presents a bit of a dilemma to those trying to incorporate group work into our courses. We know collaboration and the ability to work with others constructively are skills that will serve our students well, both in their academic careers and in their post-collegiate years. Chickering and Gamson argue that collaborative work is a foundational principle for good undergraduate education, and a significant body of research confirms that–done well–it can be quite effective for student learning. The dilemma we face, then, arises from the difficulty of incorporating a pedagogy that we know can produce the results we want in the face of what is likely to be disinterest, if not outright disdain, from our students. How do we design and implement assignments that get our students to collaborate effectively while avoiding the pitfalls that so often plague these types of activities?

A big part of the answer here lies in the design and planning of group assignments. In particular, it’s useful to make sure we’re able to clearly articulate the specific goals and practices we expect our students to accomplish or perform. If the task is to produce a research document, then we ought to be explicit about what exactly should be in that document, and suggest some concrete strategies for going about the task. If there are expectations on how the workload should be allocated, we ought to make those explicit up front. If there are ways for students to assess themselves and each other both during and after the project, it might be easier to foster a sense of accountability.

To design effective group assignments, there are some suggested practices which can go a long way towards preempting some of the most common problems students encounter:

  • Introduce the assignment with a discussion about group projects; if students have the chance to talk about and reflect upon previous negative experiences, that can be a useful segue into a conversation about what they need do to make this current project successful. This is where we can also make some well-chosen interjections about common problems like underestimating the amount of time needed to complete the task, or what might happen if some group members don’t follow through on their responsibilities.
  • Create a structure that allows for students to hold themselves and one another accountable. Regular check-ins, requiring each group to have members play specific roles, having students submit both group and individual components–these and other measures create a sense of accountability and structure that students often find helpful.
  • Scaffold the project with regular deadlines. Are there components that need to be completed in a timely manner in order to keep the whole project on track? Are there ways to create short-term “deliverables” to check groups’ progress and identify any potential trouble spots? Breaking the assignment down into intermediate checkpoints can be a way to keep student groups on track, as well as diagnose and intervene in areas of concern. This is especially true if the assignment stretches over all, or most of, the semester.

The reason Chickering and Gamson advocate for collaboration as a “good practice” in undergraduate education is that effective learning “is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated” in nature. Collaboration can establish a sense of relevance, of emotional investment, that can make a significant difference in a course’s learning outcomes. There are a number of ways to structure a course to make it collaborative, even beyond the generalized group-assignment strategies discussed here. Team-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Learning Communities, instructional cohorts, undergraduate research opportunities–all of these are proven, effective pedagogical strategies to foster student collaboration to improve learning.

Here are some helpful resources on promoting meaningful collaboration with and among students:

The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation has an excellent overview of best practices for designing group projects, complete with examples from a variety of disciplines and approaches. Duke University’s Center for Learning Innovation also has a nice introduction to structuring group work that considers a wide range of assignment types and contexts, with some nice tips and tricks to help us design effective activities. This article from the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence discusses the teamwork skills that students need to be academically successful and ways in which we can incorporate them into group work. Particularly useful are the suggestions about how we can help students create a good climate within their groups or teams.

Next week, we’ll expand on some of these themes by looking at Chickering and Gamson’s advocacy of active learning strategies. As always, if you have any questions, or would like more resources or to follow up on any of the things this post discussed, please don’t hesitate to contact CETL.


Finally, a cute reminder that collaboration can accomplish all sorts of things:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *