Group Work on a Grand Scale, Fall 2012

Accessible Version

By Natasha Patrito Hannon, Educational Developer, Teaching Support Centre

A first year class of 350. A semester long group project worth 60% of your final grade, culminating in a public presentation for the entire University community. 65 five-person groups. Is this instructor nuts??

Principles of effective instruction suggest that thoughtful collaboration among students is a key contributor to engagement in higher education (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Kuh, 2003).  It is well established, however, that average class sizes are increasing across most institutions in Canada and increased class size is often cited as a barrier to the implementation of group projects, particularly in first year survey courses.  Group projects among groups larger than 50 students are often perceived to be unwieldy--difficult to manage logistically and virtually impossible to assess in any convenient way.

This short paper seeks to change that perception by exploring best practices that have been correlated with group project success, even in the largest of classrooms.  With creativity and thoughtful planning, the boundary of class size can be overcome and the benefits of group work can be fostered in groups of 100, 200, even 500 students. Drawing on a review of existing literature and the author's experiences introducing a semester-long group project into a first-year course of 350 students, we will explore critical project planning decisions, including:

  • project structure and timing of activities and assessments;
  • setting of teams and establishment of productive group norms;
  • role of learning management systems in the promotion of group dialogue, storage of project artifacts, and provision of logistical support; and
  • mechanisms for evaluation - formative, summative and peer.

Throughout the article, we will assume that the assignments to be worked on by student teams involve considerable time and effort, and that the teams will remain together for a significant portion of the course or for all of it (Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004).

Project structure and timing of activities and assessments

Embed mandatory group meet times into course structure - If the group project is worth a significant portion of the student grade (>25%), class time should be devoted to group meetings and group process. Research indicates that the success of team learning initiatives is directly correlated to the amount of class time associated with them (Fiechtner & Davis, 1985). In my own course where the group project constituted 55% of an individual student grade, two class meeting hours per week were assigned to lecture content, while the third hour was mandatory group meet time. In the large class context, this is an important step in mitigating the logistical challenges associated with coordinating the personal schedules of 50-plus students. Because the time has already been allocated in the student's class schedule, there are very few reasons why an individual cannot be present during weekly group meetings.

Mix individual and group elements into the project - Disparities in the amount of effort put forward by members of a student team can contribute to significant conflict among group members and considerable challenges for their instructor. The potential for these types of conflicts, of course, are magnified when an instructor is overseeing 20, 30, or 60 teams. To help distribute work equitably across team members, incorporate individual assignments at key points in the group project structure. For example, have all members of a group contribute three unique resources and corresponding descriptions towards an annotated bibliography in support of their project.  These individual submissions can be graded for completion and then the group can collate them into a comprehensive bibliography at a later date. In this way, all group members have some insight into valuable resources associated with their topic of interest and have contributed in a meaningful way to a key aspect of the overall assignment.  Space project requirements throughout the semester - To ensure that students remain consistently on task, distribute the submission of collaborative project requirements throughout the semester.  Whatever these elements may be (topic proposal or rationale, annotated bibliography, written report, presentation, etc.), embedding them throughout the semester will allow students to receive valuable formative feedback early on in the process which will ultimately enhance the quality of the final product(s).

Incorporate roles to draw on students strengths and enhance autonomy - Particularly important for first and second year students who may have had limited experience working in groups, the assignment of specific roles identifies key tasks which are central to team success, reduces anxiety, and helps teams to overcome the inertia associated with taking on new and unfamiliar challenges.  In my course, students were charged with developing an educational campaign around a contemporary environmental issue. Among the roles outlined for that project were Copy Editor, Communications Expert, Interviewer(s), Presenters, and Graphic Designer. While each team member was expected to contribute to the overall project in significant ways, they individually (or in pairs), took on leadership for a particular aspect of the project. This allowed students to draw on strengths and interests they had developed outside of my course context, enhancing student motivation and commitment.

Allow for creativity - The greatest joys I've experienced as an instructor have emerged from the often unexpected, creative, and powerful outcomes of successful group projects. In my environmental science course, students have built to-scale models of verticulture facilities, have dressed as 'live' and 'dead' coral, have personally interviewed the federal environment minister, and have initiated petitions that have accumulated as many as 7000 signatures. By building opportunities for creative expression into group projects, instructors minimize instances of cheating or plagiarism and motivate students to explore areas of passion and interest.

Setting of teams and establishment of productive group norms

Set team size larger than is absolutely necessary - The literature suggests that group sizes between three and six students are optimal for collaborative learning (Oakley et al., 2004). Because groups often need to be set prior to the drop deadline for a course, it is important to set your group sizes larger than is absolutely necessary to achieve the desired project outcomes. For example, if you believe that a minimum of four students would need to work together to successfully complete a project in one-semester, assign groups of five or six students. This will buffer any add/drop situations or unforeseen medical absences.

As an instructor, set the teams-but allow for an element of choice - The majority of research has demonstrated that instructor-generated teams function more optimally than those formed by the students themselves, particularly in first- and second-year university contexts (Fiechtner & Davis, 1985). From a logistical perspective, instructor-driven group formation is also often the most efficient option in a large classroom setting.  However, some element of choice can, and should, be embedded into the process.  For example, in my course, students were able to individually select among 25 very broad educational campaign topics by writing a short (< 500 word) statement of interest. A maximum of 15 students could choose any given topic, and three five-student teams were generated at random from within that group of 15. Thus, students were able to engage with a topic of personal interest, while the instructor maintained control over group assignment.

Embed tasks that promote effective group processes into mandatory group meet times - Mandatory group meet times should be structured to encourage effective and fruitful collaboration. In my own course, students were given short tasks (e.g. As a group, develop a common set of 5-7 interview questions to ask of your interview subjects OR create a timeline for the upcoming three weeks in relationship to this project. Identify who will be responsible for completing each key task.) that could be accomplished within each of our mandatory one-hour meetings. The 'Communications Expert' for each group was responsible for posting the outcomes of their meeting task to the course website within 24 hours of the tutorial session.  Thus, the instructional team could track group progress and team members had a common reference point for important group decisions and upcoming milestones.

Role of the learning management system

When overseeing group projects on this scale, the learning management system (LMS) is an invaluable and irreplaceable logistical support tool. In my own course, the LMS served as the locus for topic selection, private intra-group dialogue, TA and group interaction, collecting artifacts of group process, asking and answering questions, grading and dissemination of feedback, and the storage of rubrics, tip sheets, and other resources related to the project.

Central to LMS use was the creation of private group discussion boards for each student team (to which only group members and the instructors/TAs had access). This was the group's official communication hub and many teams exchanged upwards of 300 messages through this system. It was a mechanism for sharing new and interesting resources, and the board served as a repository for pieces related to the project, including the outcomes of weekly meetings and drafts of project elements. Interestingly, a number of groups also used this system to communicate for purposes that extended beyond the project--for example to set up study sessions prior to the mid-term and final exams.

In order to most effectively employ the LMS in support of collaborative learning, consider:

Using the LMS early and often - Ensure that students are consistently checking the LMS prior to the launch of the group project by making it central to your course design. House important course documents and resources there, initiate online discussions, answer common student questions, etc.

Providing LMS training to students - Do not assume LMS fluency among students, particularly during this transition to OWL powered by Sakai. If the LMS is going to be a cornerstone of student collaboration throughout your course, provide some formal introduction to the online project supports that you've created and their effective navigation. In my own course, I did this via a one-hour optional tutorial early in the semester, which approximately 200 of 350 students attended.

Mechanisms for evaluation - formative, summative and peer

Embed low-risk assessments at key points in the evolution of the project - To ensure that student teams remain on task over the duration of the project and to offer these teams formative feedback that will improve the overall quality of their final submissions, embed several lowrisk assessments (e.g. topic proposal, annotated bibliography, draft writing) throughout the term.

Enlist community members to contribute to the grading of final products - Consider mounting the outcomes of student projects publicly and engage faculty members, graduate students, or experts from outside the Western community in the evaluation of these products. In my own course, student groups presented their educational campaigns in the UCC atrium in a day-long event we titled the 'Environmental Expo'. Twenty-five faculty and graduate students from the Environmental Science Program volunteered two hours of time to circulate among the displays and evaluate the students' oral and visual presentations.  The public nature of the forum and the presence of faculty members and graduate students contributed an element of prestige to the event, added to the motivation of students, and impacted the wider Western community much more dramatically than an in-class presentation could have. Another key bonus, of course, is that the instructional team with the support of volunteers was able to grade in eight hours what would have likely taken us over 40 hours to mark on our own.

Allow peers to evaluate each other - If students have worked together so closely and intensely for a significant amount of time, they must be able to voice their appreciation of or dissatisfaction with the contributions of colleagues in a constructive fashion. The best and most equitable mechanism that I have ever discovered for engaging in peer evaluation is described in significant detail in the paper by Oakley and colleagues (Oakley et al., 2004). Their description comes replete with a sample rubric and feedback form, as well as suggestions for the most effective implementation of this peer evaluation strategy. This was the system that I employed in my class with great success and very few, very minor complaints from students.

Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987).  Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education.  American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 38(9), 3-7.

Fiechtner, S. B., & Davis, E. A. (1985).  Why some groups fail: A survey of students' experiences with learning groups. The Organizational Behavior Teaching Review, 9(4), 75-88.

Kuh, G. (2003). What we're learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change, 35(2), 24-32.

Oakley, B., Felder, R.M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I.  (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centred Learning, 2(1), 9-34.