Designing Group Projects

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

My most recent pedagogical obsession is not, as you might think, social media fasts, but rather working out ways to effectively create group projects. Honestly I consider this one of my serious shortcomings as a professor. I really as of yet have not created a group project with which both the students and I were happy with the results. Something always goes wrong. This is not to say that there haven’t been good ones (and some total misfires) but I have yet to really figure out the best way to do it. Part of my problem comes from not having this modeled for me in graduate school (we in the humanities are more accustomed to working solo) coupled with my own few past experiences as a student, in which I greatly dislike working in groups. But beyond that I think it is a substantial problem with both the way institutions are designed and with student expectations. It is hard to evaluate students individually (what the institution requires) yet try to hold the whole group accountable. And I struggle with this, because I want to encourage and evaluate students for who they are, but on the other hand I see as part of my job to teach students how to work in groups. I think most of the kinds of work environments they are likely to end up in will require working in groups, and internet projects do to their complexity require groups.

So here is what I am trying this semester for my EMAC 4325, Privacy, Surveillance, and Control on the Internet . . .

The focus of the class is on semester long research projects where each group has a public website/blog covering one aspect of the class. So for the whole semester groups have to work together to produce their project. The project is designed to require a range of skills, design, writing, coding, image manipulation, video and audio editing etc.

I came up with two basic rules for this project:

  1. Everybody in the group gets the same project grade (which is 50% of the final grade).
  2. If you are unhappy with a member of your group, i.e. feel that they are not sufficiently contributing, you can fire them from your team.

I put together these two rules from different projects I saw others do, although neither project put them together. On the first day of class I explained these rules and then handed them out the long detailed sheet which contained all the information on the project. Part of the project, indeed the first thing they had to do was come with community rules which described how the group was going to function, what initial responsibilites would be, and finally what the means by which they could dismiss a member of the group would be. In other words they had to write a group constitution of sorts complete with reasons and methods by which they would dismiss someone. (I did explain that in every case a meeting with me would be necessary, but I did this mainly as a way to make sure the group rules were followed, if a group decides to remove someone then I plan to support them.)

If someone is removed from a group then they become a group of one, responsible for their own project (which frankly is quite a bit of work).

Do I think this will solve all of the group assignment problems? No. But I think this probably represents more realistically how groups function outside of academia, they succeed or fail as a group, it doesn’t really matter if you work really hard, harder than anyone else around, you still need the group (ask Lebron James about this). By focusing on the group I won’t get caught trying to figure out team dynamics and what went wrong, assigning blame (like restaurant wars on Top Chef), instead everyone succeeds, or everyone fails. Simple . . . hopefully.

The next thing I did was get them divided into groups.

This was actually the most difficult part of the class, so far. I wanted students to be able to have a say in what group they joined, so that they were working on a topic that interested them, but I also wanted to avoid people just pairing up with people whom they have worked before and are friends. I also wanted to make sure that each group got a diversity of talent. I contemplated having them pick teams (schoolyard style) but thought that would end up being a bit ridiculous and isolating to the people who were not picked. Instead I had each student write on a one side of a notecard their name, on the other side they wrote the three topics that interested them the most, and then the three skills they would bring to the project, creating anonymous mini-resumes. I then selected one person for each group, and subsequently that person got to pick from the notecards one person for their team. On the whole this worked out, everyone got in a group that interested them, and the talent in every group is pretty diverse, and groups were picked based on talent not prior relationships or popularity.

Overall, three weeks into the semester, I am happy with how the groups are progressing. I have started to give them weekly feedback, always directed at the group rather than individuals. You can see the complete details of the project at the class website, along with links to all the ongoing projects.

I’ll write about this again at the end of the semester . . .