How do we get students to collaborate on group projects? Too often their involvement feels forced, their engagement superficial, and their interest minimal. Students do not learn content or develop collaborative skills unless they connect with the task and one another.
Fortunately, some help appears in pragmatic study that aimed to identify the factors of group projects that elicited effective collaboration (Scager et al., 2016). To discover those, the researchers selected five STEM courses with group projects that students had evaluated highly. Using focus group interviews, researchers asked students in those courses to talk about what they believe made the projects such successful learning experiences.
What students found noteworthy fell into two categories: features associated with the design of the activity and the processes they used as they worked together. In the design area, students talked about autonomy, how they had some control over the task they were completing. Some decisions were theirs to make, and that gave groups a sense ownership. The project was theirs; they had skin in the game.
The students told researchers they liked the challenge associated with complex tasks; in one of the courses, they created a textbook. Tasks can be too complicated, and when they are, students back away, but students also turn away when the task isn’t challenging. Additionally, if the task has been designed so that it looks like a project is too difficult to handle alone, that feature gives students another reason to collaborate. Designing the right degree isn’t always easy, but if complexity gets tied to relevance, the two synergistically foster engagement. Relevance and complexity make that task look like work that matters—the kind that students can imagine doing as professionals. In some of the courses in the study, students reported that the projects they were producing were more important to them than the grade; in one course they were doing “real” research.
In addition to features associated with the design of the project were factors that related to how the students functioned as a group. They reported spending time on what the researchers called team and task regulation. They talked openly about how they should proceed and how to divide the work; they set deadlines and planned agendas for their group meetings. In all nine focus groups, students talked about needing one another to accomplish the task—positive interdependence, in cooperative learning parlance. Their sense of being in it together motivated them to support and encourage each other, and that made individuals feel like the group had their backs. Perhaps most interesting, none of the students complained about free-riding in their groups, even though they recognized that not all members contributed equally. One student described unequal participation this way: “There weren’t students who contributed less; there were only students who contributed more.” And finally, students described open, ongoing communication in these groups—the exchange of ideas, explanations, arguments, questions, and feedback—what the researchers dubbed promotive interaction.
The research team acknowledges that their sample was small and warns against generalizing their findings. They see what happened in these project groups as being “transferable” to other contexts: “Unlike generalizability, transferability does not involve broad claims but invites readers of research to make connections between elements of a study and their own experience.” Much of what these students talked about relates to a range of group activities. For example, student autonomy can be incorporated in almost any kind of group work. Maybe it’s a choice among several task options, the chance to select the questions they’ll answer in a group discussion—to choose which study strategy they’ll use during the in-class exam review session or what content they’d want to on focus during the review.
What these students reported sounds almost too good to be true; surely, these were smart, mature graduate students. But no. All five were describing undergraduate courses in their majors. What the study does not address is where and how these students acquired such sophisticated group processing skills. We know from other research that those skills probably didn’t develop on their own. At the same time, we know that the skills they talked about are acquirable—they can be learned but they need to be taught—just like projects can be designed in ways that encourage collaboration.
Scager, K., Boonstra, J., Peeters, T., Vulperhorst, J., & Wiegant, F. (2016). Collaborative learning in higher education: Evoking positive interdependence. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(4), ar69. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-07-0219