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Online Teaching & Group Projects: Overcoming Complexities

Online Teaching & Group Projects: Overcoming Complexities

by Kentina Smith, Ph.D.
July 24, 2015

Group projects can often bring stress to both instructors and students. The key to successfully navigating group projects is detailed planning and having a repertoire of troubleshooting strategies when things go wrong. This article offers instructors recommendations for setting the tone and handling group projects in their courses.

Many students do not want to hear that they have to complete a group project in a course. When they find out that this is a requirement, there might be some grumbling and resistance. Depending on the discipline, instructors might even balk at the idea of having to include group projects in their courses. Essentially, with group projects, instructors and students are giving up some level of control and independence. Group projects have the potential to offer positive impacts on student learning and long-lasting skills. But, when things go wrong, instructors need to be equipped to deal with issues that run the risk of becoming detrimental to student learning or well-being. Like weather forecasters, instructors have to be prepared to predict the unpredictable. This article will offer some insight into things that could go wrong in group processes.

Overcoming the complexities of group projects: Making three or more heads better than one.

I dread that upcoming group project.

one student to another student

I dread that upcoming group project.

one instructor to another instructor

Who knew? Students and instructors singing the same song. But the lyrics in this song are not very pleasing and with dread comes stress. Perhaps it is the dread of repeating or reliving bad experiences, the fear of personalities not clicking, the unpredictability, or the dread of resistance from students. Group projects bring about a wide range of feelings for both instructors and students. Depending on the task and academic discipline, these feelings can range anywhere from exciting and interesting to frustration and resentment for having to facilitate or complete collaborative projects.

Many students prefer to complete course assignments independently. For the most part, independent work is a more hassle-free way of getting things done. Some might even argue that group projects may only benefit low to average performing students and diminish the learning potential for more gifted students. The fact is, some institutions may require group projects and there is just no justifying a way out. While students can successfully acquire skills and knowledge on their own, there are benefits and lessons to be learned from completing a group project. This applies to many workplace expectations where employers may count on students to be able to collaborate with people from different backgrounds, as well as solve complex problems.

Selling the idea of group projects and setting the tone for students

Group projects are learning opportunities for students to actively engage in course content, to navigate the structures of a group dynamic, and to understand the processes of interpersonal relationships. Through group projects, students should come out having learned how to be contributors in a community-like setting, enhance problem-solving and organizational skills, and become more aware of how their actions affect the well-being of others.

Instructors must set the tone early in the semester and be consistent, when it comes to controlling how things go in the course. Clearly state the following, in writing:

  1. Objectives for group projects. State the purpose for the group project(s). Share with students’ research that has found the superior nature of group projects. Outline the connection between the required course goals and the group project. Instructors should not organize group projects that seem pointless to even work with others. Instructors should aim to set goals for group projects that has the potential to enhance a variety of different skills that each group member might uniquely bring to the team.
  2. Learning outcomes for the activity. Instructors should be transparent and explicitly state what students are expected to learn once the group project is complete.
  3. Expectations for the assignment. Create detailed instructions and a group project rubric and have students sign or acknowledge a statement of understanding. Instructors and researchers offer free rubrics online. If given the flexibility, instructors might want to make the group processes a smaller percentage portion of the grade. Group processes would include items for demonstrating appropriate group dynamics, interpersonal skills, creativity and innovation. A larger percentage of the grade could come from skills to assess student’s individual content knowledge and appropriate organization of that knowledge.
  4. Organization of the group. There are several ways instructors can organize groups. Create a Plan A and Plan B, due to the unpredictable nature of class sizes and dynamics in the class. When structuring groups, create distinct roles and responsibilities that will accommodate groups of different sizes. When selecting group members, some ideas are to ask students to submit resumes (if appropriate), request that students submit a list of their strengths and weaknesses, or carefully analyze the personalities that evolve through class participation. Instructors can be intentional, by forming groups based on skill sets and experiences.
  5. Behavioral expectations of group members. These expectations could be embedded in the rubric as a form of professionalism credit. Be very specific and list examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors for the group project that will also translate to proper workforce behaviors. To encourage buy in from students, instructors can require that students in the class contribute to and agree on a set of additional criteria for behavioral expectations to be included in the final rubric.
  6. Procedures for submitting and/or presenting. Set clear due dates and guidelines for how the final product will submitted.

Things that could go wrong in group processes

  1. Social loafing. Some students will give very little to no effort in a group. This infuriates those that do put forth effort. Some students just find it much easier to “hide” in a group, especially if that group has willing participants to pick up their slack.
  2. Bullying. Some students are aggressive and will repeatedly attempt to exert their perceived power over others.
  3. Group think or conformity. When people put more emphasis on agreement to maintain group cohesion or to be liked, at the expense of critical thinking skills. A classic example of this would be someone who persuasively states “I’m sure we all agree on this.” Some students might actually have a different viewpoint but never speak up because they don’t want to rock the boat. However, instructors might consider this may come up later when grades come out and students claim “Well, that was not MY idea.”
  4. Deindividuation. When people engage in unacceptable behaviors, due to the ability to conceal their identity. In the case of online courses, students are not completely anonymous. Instructors and students are aware of names but might not ever met the student personally. When the course is online, students can hide behind the shield of the computer and may feel more compelled to say things they would not say in person.

Things instructors can do when the thunder and lightning descend upon the group dynamic

Ideally, the goal for successful group projects should be to plan ahead in order to reduce the number of potential headaches, before class even gets started. However, we all know that we do not live in the land of perfect. When instructors attempt to engage many different personalities from varying age groups and cultures, there is no guarantee what might happen even in the most highly structured setting. When things go wrong in the group process, how the instructor handles the situation sets the tone. Instructors could immediately engage with students in the following ways:

  • Be clear and direct. Remind students of the expectations and rubric; refer them back to the statement of understanding that [hopefully] you had them sign or acknowledge. Reiterate that they will be graded accordingly. Resist the temptation to succumb to the desire of students whose sole solution is to bail on the group when conflict occurs. Sure, that’s the easiest solution but it doesn’t involve the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that employer’s desire and students need to succeed in situations when bailing might not be an option.
  • Be consistent. Maintain the integrity of the course. Work to provide the same expectations and guidelines for all students. Once instructors get the ball rolling on offering one exception to the rule, they can count on other students to request their own personal list of special exceptions.
  • Be honest. Inform students that disagreement is normal, but inappropriate and unprofessional behaviors are not. Be specific in pointing out the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Remind them of the institutions student code of conduct and your duty to enforce those policies, when warranted.
  • Reconsider group sizes. Break larger groups into smaller groups.
  • Meet with struggling groups (virtually or face-to-face). Have each member of the group offer a reasonable and logical solution to their issue. Let the students vote on the best solution(s) or the instructor can intervene and select the best solution. Have the group appoint a student in the group to play the role of devil’s advocate, if needed in the future.

Additional Resource

Clemson University’s Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation offers a free online team member handbook called “Successful Strategies for Teams”. It is an excellent guide for additional tips and strategies for working in teams.

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About the Author

Kentina SmithKentina Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Kentina Smith has been in the field education for more than 20 years in varying capacities. She has mentored new teachers in secondary school, worked with adolescents focusing on academic and social emotional issues, taught middle school mathematics, history and social studies, and college psychology courses.

She is a psychology professor and highly experienced teacher. She holds three psychology degrees; a Ph.D. and Master of Science from Walden University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her Ph.D. concentration is in General Educational Psychology. Her professional interests are in issues relevant to teaching and learning, research and writing.

Author: Factors Related to Middle School Teachers’ Self-Efficacy in Inclusion Classrooms (Publisher: Dawn Boyer, Ph.D.)
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