Group projects are a divisive topic amongst students. The phrase has some singing from the rooftops and others running for the hills. But, why is this teaching tool so polarizing? Deanika and Julian, both juniors in CALS, give their take on the matter.
I don't have any classes that involve group work this semester, and honestly I'm kind of sad about it. Unpopular opinion, but I love working in teams. I haven't experienced the unfortunate situation of "free-loaders" or unresponsive members that conveniently only contribute once group evaluations start circulating. On the contrary, all of my groups in the past have involved dedicated members interested in collaboration and producing a final product that reflects a diversity in thought and an array of unique perspectives. I see group work as a well-oiled machine. Deadlines are met, communication flows smoothly, and everyone contributes in a valuable way. To me, I enjoy working in teams because I find that "bouncing ideas" off of others is a good way to fuel meaningful discussions, which can take interesting and new turns that may have not been explored through individual work. Maybe I've just picked the right classes or gotten lucky with group assignments, but whatever the case, I must say, I'm a fan of teams.
My experiences with group projects at Cornell range from tolerable to unbearable. To me, the most important part of a successful group project is having a defined structure. One way this can be achieved is for the group to draft a team charter at the outset of the project. The team charter outlines expectations for how the group interacts and the expectations of each member. I had a class in the fall that had a semester-long group project. The professor had each team complete a team charter when we were halfway through the project. This was ineffective because norms were already established in our group. My team members slacked and I did the majority of the work. One of my semester-long group projects sophomore year was much better. The professor provided structure by requiring the group to meet with a TA several times throughout the process. These meetings kept us on track and receiving feedback from the teaching team was incredibly helpful to track our progress. I’m currently working on a one-time group project in which there is no structure. We did not create a team charter, we do not have any meetings planned, and we’re receiving no feedback from the professor. One of my team members responded to our group chat with, “What is this for? I’m in Alaska.” It’s my worst nightmare, but I find solace in the fact that I’m taking the class pass-fail.
So, is it all luck? As students, should we just cross our fingers and hope to get groups like Deanika’s? But, what if we end up like Julian? Do we just bite our tongues and grind out the entire assignment?
Our thoughts: No!!
There needs to be greater standardization in group projects, so as to ensure more consistent experiences across the board. We believe this can be achieved through efforts on both the professor’s side as well as the student’s. Drawing back on what Julian said, professors should have students charter the workload in order to ensure personal accountability. This diminishes the likelihood of free-loading in that an individual will be held responsible for specific aspects of the project. Therefore, if these aspects are incomplete or done poorly, that person alone will face the consequences. Additionally, professors should periodically check in with teams to ensure that the group is making progress. On the student’s side, the active group members should work to make sure that each individual feels valued. Most of the times, students slack-off because they feel their opinions will not be well-received. This can be accomplished by reaching out to more passive group members individually and specifically asking them to contribute. Keeping a positive attitude is also critical in ensuring that all feel welcome and in keeping tension at bay. When it comes down to it, group success stems from how the mindsets of each individual member come together to form a cohesive goal. If there are discrepancies in thought, this will hinder group success and likely lead to an ineffective end product. Therefore, the last component necessary to achieve optimal group project conditions is communication. This tool, when used effectively, creates an intra-group dialogue aimed at unifying the team so that everyone is on the same page.