It seems safe to say that successful academic endeavors involving working in groups are valuable experiences for students.  The experiences gained from working in groups, and the skills acquired, are generally accepted as being transferable to future employment and are highly valued by employers (see recent blog post: Group Work is not just for Students).  An idyllic group project would have our students effectively planning, communicating, collaborating, and creating to successfully reach a common goal.

More often than not, it seems, group projects are detested by students for a variety of reasons, some of which are perfectly reasonable.  The most often I hear in my own practice is that one (or more) group members contributed virtually nothing during the process.  While one might say that this itself is preparing students for how “real-world” workplaces can function, we should hold ourselves to higher standards and at the very least do our very best to encourage and guide our students toward productive, and contributory, collaboration with others.  The following will be a small selection of practices that have impacted the evolution of collaborative assignments in my own course.  More specifically, these are the most impactful practices that I’ve implemented with academic integrity in mind.  My projects are wholly collaborative so collusion is not a concern, though if you have (or plan to implement) group projects with additional required individual contributions, it certainly will be.  Examples of these types of individual contributions you may consider could include an individual student reflection on the collaborative process and their own contributions, and/or an individual student peer feedback form.

The current structure of the collaborative projects in my course includes requiring a maximum of three group members.  I’ve done groups of 4 before that have been successful but I’ve anecdotally had better experiences when they are limited to 3.  I select the groups in advance using information gained from an initial course survey focusing firstly on major, and secondly (if needed) on personal hobbies/interests.  Students are generally free to ‘switch’ groups after the first project if they feel so inclined.  Unsurprisingly, the most successful groupings generally stick together for the remainder of the term.

Each collaborative project is assigned with a set of specific and detailed guidelines.  I call it “The Roadmap”.  This roadmap describes and reiterates the collaborative nature of the project and specifically states that all group members should engage with all parts of the project; division of tasks for later assembly together is not the goal as each student is responsible for the entirety of the project.  To facilitate this wholistic collaborative approach, the projects include a tracking page where they keep a record of contributions and edits.  This alone makes it incredibly difficult for a non-contributory member to assume ownership of others’ work on within the project.

Both of the previous examples relate to the beginning, or assigning, stage of the collaborative project.  There are several other practices worth consideration at this stage including: providing or requiring groups to create a project timeline, providing guidelines for tracking communication within the group, and providing examples of what is and is not acceptable collaboration (if applicable to your project).  Of all the ideas and suggestions above, the most impactful practice I’ve implemented has been to provide explicitly clear directions and expectations when assigning a collaborative project in my course.  Instances of academic dishonesty have been few and far between are nearly always a result of failure to follow the explicit directions of “The Roadmap”.  On the rare occasion that suspected integrity violations are not specifically addressed in the roadmap, they serve to inform my own future practice (i.e. I change ‘The Roadmap” moving forward).