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Category: Group Work

Employers love collaborators. Communities needs collaborators. Democracy requires collaboration.

Students hate collaboration.

And faculty feel . . . well . . . meh?

We know that collaboration is powerful. We know that it both provides students with skills they need and deepens their learning by exposing them to viewpoints different from their own. But is it worth the hassle? There are the freeloaders, of course—the students that ride on the efforts of their peers. Then there are the controllers, those folks who assume their peers are going to freeload and so take over the projects, bossing people around and making everyone miserable. Between the two, every time we assign collaboration, we’re bound to have students showing up during office hours: “Someone in my group isn’t doing enough.” “So-and-so is doing too much.” “Everyone is either doing too much or not enough, and I’m starting to feel like a kid with divorced parents, stuck in the middle and loving it not so much.”

So, what’s to be done? Here are three tricks that, because they turn agency and responsibility over to the students, actually make group projects more manageable (for us) and a better learning experience (for them). (Note: These strategies are geared toward long-term groups working together over a period of weeks; feel free, though, to think about ways some of these strategies might be translated to daily group work or short-term projects.)

1. Allow students to choose their own groups but require them to provide a rationale for those choices.

How it works: Have a discussion with your students about the various factors that go into effective collaboration: schedules and availability, sleep and study routines, complementary skills, complementary personalities. Have a conversation about what’s most important to them—and why. (Hint: there’s no right answer to this question.)

Once everyone has a clear sense of what can go into play when creating effective groups, ask the entire class to work together to create three different plans for how everyone in the class might be broken into effective groups. Ask them to have a clearly articulated written rationale for each plan. Tell them that once they’ve developed three plans, they should decide as a class which one they’ll choose and provide you with a written rationale for that choice. Once you’ve given students these instructions, leave the room.

Why it works: This approach can be powerful because it places both agency and responsibility in the hands of the students. Sure, they can choose to create groups that are based largely on social circles, but if they do so, they need to explain why they made that choice—and live with the benefits and consequences of that choice. If the projects go well, they learn that being deliberative about these things can be useful. If things don’t go well, they learn that whitewashing careful logic to arrive at a predetermined conclusion can create a real mess.

Tip: Trust your students. Even if there are a few folks in the class who will see this approach as an avenue to hanging out with their friends, there are plenty of other students in the room who will argue for a more thoughtful approach. And if the latter lose that argument, chances are these responsible students will end up working together and be just fine.

2. Require each group to develop a “constitution.”

How it works: At their very first meeting, each group should discuss group expectations and norms: What are and are not appropriate behaviors in terms of group interactions and communications? The list might include things like the following:

Reading this list, two things should be obvious: first, there’s room for humor and humanity in these constitutions. That’s a good thing as humor and humanity build strong relationships, and relationships are what makes groups work. Second, students should be sure to bring all their fears and anxieties about collaborative efforts to the conversation and state them explicitly. Here’s what I hate. Here’s what doesn’t work for me. Learning to communicate, even—or particularly—when the topic makes us uncomfortable is another one of those superpowers that can be gained in productive collaboration.

Why this works: Here again, both agency and responsibility are in the hands of students. If we want students to be able to be deliberative participants in our struggling democracy, we need them to be used to dealing with responsibility and its consequences. Additionally, requiring students to do this pushes them into effective communication with their peers immediately. Rather than having to respond verbally or in writing in the heat of a difficult moment after something happens, students have the opportunity to experience proactive, productive, constructive communication and collaboration.

Tip: Require each group to email you a copy of their constitutions. Promise that you won’t judge and that you’ll give extra points for humor.

3. Require weekly written check-ins—from both the group and individuals.

How it works: Every Friday, every group emails you (or uploads to the LMS or their e-portfolios) a log of their work for the week:

These logs should be signed by the submitters. Though not everyone in the group needs to sign off, everyone needs to know that they’re all held accountable for ensuring that these records are turned in on time.

In addition, every individual should send you (via email, the LMS, etc.) a confidential, personal reflection on their and their groups’ work for the week. It should include the following:

Why this works: Self-regulation is wonderful, but it needs some scaffolding. By holding groups accountable for their work together each week, we help them avoid situations where the collaborative project gets shoved aside until the last minute, resulting in rushed and often subpar work. While the individual responses certainly keep everyone on their toes (no one wants to get a bad grade from their peers), their main purpose is to deepen student learning by offering an opportunity to pause and reflect on all aspects of this educational experience. Yes, we want to know what students have done, but we also want to know what they’ve learned—and what’s more, we want the students to recognize what they’ve learned. With that recognition comes a better understanding of themselves as active participants in higher education, an understanding that will in turn create opportunities for them to participate in a more goal-oriented way moving forward. In this way, students can become equal partners in their education rather than simply passive recipients in a transactional process.

Tip: Grading these logs and reflections should be treated lightly: I generally give groups and students a check for each one turned in, then aggregate the cumulative marks for a single, relatively small grade (no more than 5 percent of the overall course grade). The purpose of both of these check-ins is simply to keep students on track and to ensure that they’re not losing themselves in the complex work of the collaborative process but actually thinking and learning.

In the end, everything here is offered less as an algorithm that should be applied, step-by-step, to your course than as a broad set of guidelines to consider as you develop strategies to support your students in a manner that suits your field and your sense of who you want to be as an instructor. As long as you’re focusing on handing agency over to students in a way that requires them to be purposeful and deliberative as they engage in the collaborative process, they will likely learn more, and you will likely stress less.


Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World