I began teaching as a graduate assistant immediately after finishing my undergraduate degree in English. During my early years as an instructor, one assignment that regularly caused trepidation, both for me and for my students, was “the group project.” As a student myself, group projects often led to frustration. Students have different goals, different levels of engagement, and different skill sets. Often, students working in groups are quick to throw each other under the bus when problems arise. Students will complain about not being able to choose their own groups. Students will complain when one or more members of the group fails to attend class or show up for group meetings. Students will experience high levels of anxiety, fearing that their grades will be negatively affected by the shortcomings of their group members. Despite the clear benefits of giving students practice with collaboration and working in groups, I found myself empathizing with my students and their concerns. Group work can be difficult to grade, and the resulting projects are often splintered, predictable final products that lack creativity and genuine teamwork.
Five years ago, I had a breakthrough. Going into my first year as a full-time faculty member, I decided to address common frustrations with group work head-on, as part of my professional writing class. I assigned a group project where students would work in teams of 4-5 to execute a major, semester-long writing project. Over the course of the semester, students would also study and openly discuss the frequent challenges, frustrations, and attitudes that often accompany group work. I made clear to the students, in the first few weeks of class, that we would work in groups while also engaging in frank discussion about why groups succeed and fail. Further, and perhaps most importantly, I added an element of competition. I announced that at the end of the semester, a panel of three judges from outside the university would visit our class to see each group unveil and present its final project. The panel of judges would determine a winning group based on the quality of the group’s project, the potential of the project to fulfill a genuine need, and the professionalism displayed in the group presentation. The winning group would be awarded twenty extra-credit points. Using this approach, roughly modeled on the reality television program Shark Tank, has completely transformed student attitudes toward group work. This approach has also produced some of the most creative, unexpected, valuable collaborative writing projects I have seen in my ten years as an instructor.
As this basic approach to group projects gained momentum, I added new elements. I introduced several texts, videos, and theories related to teams and teamwork, including Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, and a number of TED Talks on leadership, teamwork, and group dynamics from a diverse assortment of scholars and industry professionals. Students were eager to discuss and analyze these various approaches to teamwork. I also incorporated a series of three team challenges. I set aside three class periods each semester—one for each team challenge. On the day of a team challenge, students would arrive in class and get into their groups. I would then present a problem-solving exercise or assignment of some sort. For example, the first team challenge usually involves three parts: solving a difficult maze, solving a logic problem, and assembling a wooden puzzle. Students must work in their groups, attempting to complete the challenge. The first group to correctly complete the challenge earns a few extra credit points. Following each challenge, students are required to write a brief reflection paper analyzing how well they worked together as a team. Further, I have noticed that these challenges help students get to know their group members, build trust, and feel more connected as a team. While the reward—a few extra credit points—is fairly meager, the competitive aspect of the team challenges and the group project contest has made a huge difference. Students are increasingly motivated, and they want to impress the panel of judges who visit class at the end of the semester.
Structuring group projects as competitive contests has improved the quality of student work and has allowed students to participate in a competitive atmosphere not unlike what they would encounter in the workplace. The best part of this assignment has been seeing what the students come up with as final projects. Students have produced a wide variety of projects, including hunting calendars, cookbooks, field guides on local tree species, seasonal survival guides, and handbooks on various types of farm equipment. One group created a blog, profiling various members of the campus community. Another group planned, advertised, and executed an on-campus workshop on grocery shopping and cooking strategies for busy, health-conscious college students. One semester, each group was required to produce a project connected to a service learning activity, and I took the entire class on a field trip to various sites on a proposed birding trail. It has been so refreshing to see students pushing their own boundaries and trying new things; group projects as competitive contests has taken my students away from the generic, predictable power point presentation where each student takes turns going over a few slides.
I have included the general set of instructions for the group project, along with sets of instructions for three preliminary assignments that each group completes as they progress throughout the semester. I hope these ideas and materials will help other instructors who want to assign group projects, but may feel some trepidation. Trying some new things has helped me move from an instructor who resisted major group projects and sympathized with frustrated students to an instructor who views group projects as exciting opportunities with limitless potential for both creativity and professional development.
Assistant Professor of Composition at University of Minnesota Crookston
Dani Johannesen earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Dakota in 2012 and is currently Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Minnesota Crookston. She is the co-editor of Iconic Sports Venues: Persuasion in Public Spaces (Peter Lang, 2017), a collection of scholarly essays on the rhetorical implications of sports venues. Her scholarship and creative work has appeared in Brevity, Midwestern Gothic, South Dakota Review, The Nautilus: A Maritime Journal of History, Literature, and Culture, and elsewhere. Her scholarly interests include magical rural-ism, environmental literature, eco-criticism, and rhetorical studies.
There’s a lot of talk in teaching circles about feedback—how to give an appropriate amount that doesn’t overwhelm the student (or the teacher’s workload) and balances praise and constructive criticism. Finding praise is, of course, characterized by its very verb as the part where you have to strain yourself, what you include to soften the blow your critique.