Science is a collaborative effort and in essence, more and more of our scientific effort is done in groups. We come up with projects together, divide the labour, and co-write the papers that come out of it. So the idea of the lone scientist, working away in a solitary lab is really something for the movies rather than reality.
In teaching, group projects not only mimic the reality of what happens ‘for real’* but also provide a valuable learning experience for students. If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of group work here is a start and here and here offer some tips on how to implement group assignments.
I’ve been involved with group work as a student and now a teacher. There are certainly pluses and minuses from both perspectives but overall I think the benefits out weigh any costs to group projects. For me as a teacher, one of the big challenges for group work comes from needing to evaluate students individually. I’ve been involved in assigning grades in the Canadian, American and now Swedish university systems. It varies from country to country and even from university to university on how final grades are assigned but at the end of the day each student walks away with an individual grade. The difficulty comes when a group project makes up some portion of that grade. Do all students in the group receive the same grade for that project? Do you try to evaluate the individual within the group? How?
In the field course I am involved with teaching in Sweden, a major part of the course is student projects. It would be impossible to have the students do anything meaningful as independent projects, they simply don’t have the time to learn the skills and collect the data in the short field portion of the course. Even if it were possible, working in groups to collect data has other benefits. Besides group projects allowing the students sufficient people power to collect enough data to be able to say something about it, they have the opportunity to learn how to work together. It means that they need to decide what exactly data they are collecting (within some loose parameters set by us to ensure some success), how to divide their efforts and how to write it up. These activities actually all mimic what we as scientists often do with our time. But in previous years the groups also presented the project as a group, something scientists never do.** This year we had an extra teaching assistant so we decided that every person would present their projects. We were able to have individual presentations by running four concurrent sessions (with a joint coffee break, of course), each with a teacher evaluating the presentations.
The upshot was that we were all really happy with the change. The presentations were much better and less awkward without the switching between people mid-presentation. It also felt much easier to evaluate the individuals understanding of their project through the question period. In other years you never knew how much people relied on their group to answer difficult questions. I know that some courses collect data in groups and write papers independently, which is another approach to evaluating individual performance. Given the time constraints in our schedule and the fact that writing scientific papers in collaboration is becoming more and more common, I think it is reasonable to have them write joint papers for our course. But I am happy that we’ve been able to strike a good compromise by finding a way to let everyone take centre stage. It is just too bad that we teachers don’t get to see all the talks.
Do you use group work in your courses? And if so, how do you evaluate the outcomes for individuals?
- I can’t get this phrase out of my head these days since I get asked multiple times a day if something is for real by my almost 5 year old.
** Unless you are Peter and Rosemary Grant