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):

screen-shot-2015-09-12-at-7-46-27-am

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.

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