Friday, March 9, 2012


In previous posts (see Parts I and II in this series), I have been discussing my foray into team projects in a large (140 students) class. It's time for an update!

As can be expected, there are both successes and challenges to report. Perhaps surprisingly to some, my group of "misfits" (the students who were lumped together because they had all neglected to submit the first assignment) are doing quite well. Unfortunately, several of the students assigned to this group consistently miss class and fail to contribute to the group work. However, there is a core of 5 students who are committed to working together, and though they have struggled at times, they are producing work comparable to most of the other groups (and much better than some). In speaking with them during the last two team sessions in class, they seem to have become more comfortable working together. They also seem to be satisfied with my explanation that they won't be penalized for the lack of work contributed by the "no shows", and that they have input into those students' grades. I was especially excited when one of the students in this group said to me last week, "We'll show you! Our poster is going to be the best one!" 

Some of the other groups, on the other hand, haven't banded together in quite the same way, and aren't taking advantage of the class time I have set aside for team work. Several groups do only the bare minimum of what is required for the day, and then leave class early rather than using the time to work together and plan for the next task. For example, I had each student individually submit an annotated citation which was due before class. They were then given 2 class periods to work together to review the information they had each collected, make revisions, seek additional sources, and ultimately create one compiled annotated bibliography submitted for a group grade. Several of the groups simply patched together what they had done as individuals (usually without attending to my comments, much less discussing with one another), submitted their assignments, and left early. It was very clear as I reviewed the submissions which groups had worked as a team, and which had not - and this was reflected in the grades they earned and the feedback I left them.

I'm worried that some of the groups may be of the "I need to put my hand in the fire to learn it's hot" sort. It seems that no matter how many times or in what different ways I communicate that they need to plan ahead and work together, they're just not getting the message. Some of my colleagues have suggested that I create assignments for them to submit at the end of each in-class session, but I don't want to create more busy-work just to get them to stay in class, and the students who are using the time wisely likely wouldn't appreciate the distractions that might be caused by those who are just waiting around until they've been dismissed. I suppose this might be one of those situations where, no matter how difficult it is for me to watch, I have to just let my students fail and face the consequences in order to learn what to do next time.

Luckily, I've already built in some mechanisms that could help them walk away with singed finger tips and a lesson learned, as opposed to third-degree burns. For one, I've made sure that each successive assignment is worth more than the last, which means that if they do poorly on the first few it will impact their grade, but still give them a chance to get back on track and hopefully learn from their mistakes. Also, students are required at several points in the semester to submit feedback on their group mates, which will influence the grades of individual members of the teams. In my experience, pressure from their peers can often lead to students improving their performance.

Although I hated having to give some of the teams harsh feedback this week, it gave me a boost to see how many students turned up in class today (the last Friday before Spring Break). The majority of students were present and met with their groups for at least half of the class period. I brought in materials (poster boards, paper, glue, etc.) for them to get started on their posters, and was impressed to see the students working together to plan their poster layout and calling me over to ask questions. I'm cautiously optimistic that the time I have taken to provide them with feedback - both on the process and the products of their team work - may not have been in vain after all.

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