Group Assignments

Four Simple Rules That Promise Teachers Will Never Have to Mediate a Group Assignment Again

Oh, the lovely joys of dealing with group disputes in class.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced them in some form or another.  Students line up at your door during office hours with the following typical complaints:

  • Susie has missed the last three meetings
  • I feel like I’m doing all of the work
  • I don’t agree with where the group is heading
  • Bobby doesn’t listen to any of our feedback

And so, we are left to mediate these disputes.  Normally they happen a few weeks before the semester ends when students realize that the deadline is fast approaching for group deliverables. This is the typical outcome (with a Hangover movie theme):


Well, no more!  I am here to present to you a few time-tested practices that make students handle disputes on their own.

Here are the ground rules:

  1. Teams must be at least two members and no more than four (this upper boundary can be expanded depending on the class size and circumstances).  The lower boundary of two is the MOST important.
  2. Teams may fire members on their teams.
  3. Team members may quit their teams.
  4. Any single person that finds themselves without a team at the end of the term fails the course.

That’s it.  Since I’ve implemented this, I have never had to get involved in any disputes because I’ve given the students the power to choose their own fate. This practice has three effects that I have noticed.

Effect One: The students that tend to slack off in group work are suddenly “motivated” to put an effort into the group work.  I’ve seen the average grades in my courses improve overall.  Even the “C” students become motivated to produce “B” or even “A” level work.

Effect Two: Any visit that students have to my office hours about group work is immediately condensed from a 30-minute conversation to a 5-minute conversation.  If the student is one of the “hard workers,” they can choose to abandon the team and “sell” their work ethic to another team.  If the student is a “slacker,” then they have to use their interpersonal skills to join another team AND show their work ethic to that new team.  As a faculty member, you simply have to remind them of their options.  That only takes a few minutes.

Effect Three: Students get a sense of how it is in the “real world.”  In the real world, if you don’t perform, you lose opportunity.  This is a lesson that tends to get lost when we don’t empower students in group work types of settings.

While I have a plethora of examples, one specific example is worth noting.  There was a team of four individuals working on a concept development project.  In Week 7 (out of 15), three of the team members came to my office complaining about the fourth team member who was not responding to text messages, attending meetings, etc.  The fourth student also came to see me shortly after complaining that the rest of the team was excluding them.

During our meetings I reminded both sides of the rules (so, they were only 5-minute meetings). In the end, the three “productive” team members decided not to fire the fourth. After the semester was over, one of the “productive” team members came to my office to share their experience.  She expressed insights almost verbatim from a Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Hire Slow, Fire Fast.” One particular quote from the article was a key take away for this student:

“It isn’t compassionate to keep one person — but make their whole team struggle as a result. We need teams in which everyone can trust each other to do a great job. If “hire slow, fire fast” sounds harsh or mercurial, consider how harsh it is to allow a whole team to be held hostage by someone who should not have been hired in the first place. And while we’re on the subject, lacking courage is not the same as having compassion.”

I’m not sure if just reading this article would have imparted this lesson as deeply as the experience did for this student.  This type of scenario happens quite often. Students often walk away from the course with new insights on building a team, managing a team, and keeping a team accountable.  And isn’t that what group work is all about?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!  Please feel free to post below.

2 replies »

  1. Hi, Colleen.

    I currently allow teams to fire people (but only after all other options have been exhausted, including intervention from me). I’ve also taught a few times with Jeff York when I was in grad school at Colorado (we’re co-authors and buddies and see pretty much eye-to-eye in terms of our teaching philosophy)… in his class the lowest performing team at each major project milestone (maybe 3 times throughout the semester) is automatically disbanded and the refugees from that dead team hit the open market (joining existing teams or forming a brand new one with different members and a totally new project.)

    Whatever the form this takes (yours, mine, Jeff’s), I think this can work very well and handing some/all of the ownership over solving team problems to the teams themselves is very appealing. One worry that I can’t seem to shake, though, is this. What about scenarios where the danger of a vulnerable student being excluded is very real? For example, this semester I have one section of my class with only ONE international student (I typically have at least 3-4 in each class together at any given time). His teammates originally complained to me that he was dead weight. Unsurprisingly it turns out they were just intimidated by the idea of interacting with someone different from them and did little to try to get over that to include him. He, in turn, interpreted their fear as disinterest and concluded they didn’t care about having him contribute to the team anyway. Eventually, he and one of his teammates separately came to see me and asked what they could do to fix this disfunction in their team. I was able to get the two of them to talk about it and together they got the rest of the team to see that the problem boiled down to their fears and not having the courage/sense to talk with each other to overcome them. Now this team kicks every other team’s ass on a regular basis. It’s not that this situation worked out because of anything I did… but I wonder if it was easier to just fire this guy rather than work through an uncomfortable conversation, how would it have turned out? Maybe no better or worse than it did, but as I currently have things structured, at least I know I can promise students I will do my best to look out for everyone’s interests.

    In summary… I fundamentally agree with what you’re suggesting here, but I worry about leaving potentially the most vulnerable students to fend for themselves.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Michael Conger
    Assistant Prof, Entrepreneurship @ Miami University (aka. “Miami of Ohio”)

    • Hi Michael,
      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. I like the idea you propose of the lowest performing team disbanding! I may actually incorporate that in the Spring to see how that works. Thank you for sharing that!

      I do share your concerns about students being excluded and the international student example is certainly a relevant one. Since implementing this rule roughly five semesters ago I’ve only had two cases of firing. Both teams consulted with me prior to doing it and their primary concern was the student failing the course, which was surprising to me in a good way. I also ask members that are fired to meet with me right away.

      The first case the student that was fired quickly joined another team and stepped up his game to catch up and contribute to the new team. It turned out to be a better team experience for him and the course. The team he joined was also thrilled with the new energy and additional help.

      The second case the student came to me ahead of time because he knew he was going to be fired. He apologized to me and his team for dropping the ball. He was not doing well in any of his courses it turned out. He ended up dropping the course and reenrolled the following semester with more determination and did well.

      I guess my point in those two stories is that in both cases, the student learned and bounced back. From what it sounds like, we both prioritize the student experience and learning above all. I’m not sure those students would have had that opportunity if the firing option was in place. In the “real world” there are consequences for poor performance and I’d like students to get a sense of that beforehand.

      Your story and feedback though are something I will now look out for specifically to avoid that type of scenario. I greatly appreciate that insight.


      (I’ve been to Miami University several times when I lived in Cincinnati. There was once an international conference there I attended. One attendee actually thought it was in Miami, FL and was extremely confused when he arrived!)

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