Teaching Challenges: group projects


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

6 thoughts on “Teaching Challenges: group projects

  1. Great idea about individual talks for group projects. One faculty could manage it if the sessions were one after the other instead of concurrent….big time commitment depending on the expected length.
    I have used co-written methods and results with individual Introductions and discussions to evaluate individual scholarship, literature exploration and understanding of the science..

  2. Interesting; assigning individual talks make sense. Like Lomad, I’ve used group methods & results combined with individual intros & discussions. I’ve sometimes also used peer evaluations of group members, but only for a small portion of a project grade (maybe 5%, it’s actually been a while). My impression is that peer evals identified flagrant freeloaders, sort of at the level of a pass/fail on teamwork. I’m wondering what others will think.

  3. Group projects are the focus of the lab portion of my primary course, and students work in groups of four. With 80 students and two TAs, we definitely don’t have the capacity to have any portion of the papers written independently (especially not given that the students turn in drafts that we evaluate and help revise). I’d never thought of doing individual presentations, but it’s a great idea, especially if you have the capacity. I think that for my situation, the cost of presentation fatigue for the TA and me would outweigh the benefits—we’d have to each watch 10 students per section, and Persons 9 and 10 wouldn’t get quite as keen an eye as Persons 1 and 2. Then add that we have two labs back-to-back on one day, and now we’d be looking at Persons 18, 19, 20…yikes. I think the cost in grading fairness would be a dealbreaker for me, but a great idea to keep in the arsenal.

    So I have the students present as a group, and they get evaluated together on content and slide quality, but separately on presentation skills. I haven’t found the switching between speakers to be very awkward, but I agree that it is difficult to assess individual understanding and contribution in both the oral and the written work. Ultimately, I let this go as something I don’t worry much about, because the group project comprises ~30% of the final grade, so for students who don’t contribute/understand, they usually find plenty of other ways to make their grades reflect that. :)

    Group participation is worth 2% of their final course grade. To evaluate this, I have each student fill out an evaluation about his/her three group members and assign each peer an actual grade. The TA and I read these evaluations together and use them, together with our own observations of group dynamics, to guide the grades for group participation. As Gary mentions above, these typically reveal who did (and didn’t do) their fair share. One interesting paradox I’ve run into with this is when three group members say “X didn’t contribute at all” and X says “they wouldn’t let me contribute at all; they didn’t even include me on emails”—this is especially common with all-female groups, and I haven’t found a good solution.

  4. As a student, I really disliked group projects. Either I would end up doing the vast majority of the work, or not much work at all. Interestingly, as a researcher, I really enjoy collaborative work.

    I think maybe this has to do with the circumstances of the collaboration being so different between the two contexts. In the classroom, your group is chosen randomly, and the project mandatory. Consequently, there is a lot of variation among students in how much they invest into the project. Inevitable, one person really gets into the project, and it is difficult for others less motivated to keep up. Also because the groups are random, dividing up the work in a fair and efficient way can be a challenge (differentiating the skill sets of peers you may have just met).

    Out of the classroom, a lot of these problems don’t exist. In most cases, you select collaborators based on mutual interest and/or complimentary skill sets. Also asymmetric contributions among collaborators is not so much of a problem, as the payoffs of specific projects are generally asymmetric as well (the person who does the majority of the work is the first author).

    I hope this comment doesn’t come off as complaining, I don’t mean to, just thinking aloud about why I didn’t like group work as a student, but do as a researcher. You make some good points about the benefits of group work, and they probably outweigh the cons. I just wonder how to mitigate the cons of group work given the time and resource constraints of the classroom. You brought up one very good one (individual presentations), but I guess this requires special circumstances.

  5. For this larger project, which comes towards the end of the course, we let the students organise the groups themselves. They can choose who to work with and what topic (plants, birds, or insects). By this time they have worked together multiple times (sometimes randomly assigned, sometimes self), so they should have some idea who they’d like to work with. Not as free as collaborations but we hope that it helps alleviate some of the resentment that can come from bad combinations of people.

    I think we can manage individual presentations because the class size is small (~25 students), a luxury! And I’ve wondered about adding peer evaluations as well.

  6. I teach gen. bio for majors at a small school, which had 3 lab sections of ~ 25 students each. For the second quarter of Bio, which focuses mostly on ecology, students were required to do an independent research project. They could elect to do the project by themselves, or with up to 2 partners. The project was very structured and introduced the first week of the quarter, with lots of scaffolding to make sure students stayed on top of things and didn’t put it off. The research could be conducted in 3 hours, the length of 1 lab period. Students had to turn in a research question and hypothesis (as a group), timeline for project (as a group), methods (as a group), mini lit-review (individually), data summary including at least 1 figure and/or table (group), give a 15 minute group presentation (divided up into 2 lab sections, so I didn’t have to listen to 10 presentations back to back!), and then turn in a short journal style article with abstract at the end of the quarter. It took me a lot of time to grade all of those projects, but I think that’s what we should be doing in our general bio courses. The other instructor and I will fine-tune things this coming year (last year was both of our first year at the school!), but I think the effort is worth it because students learn a lot.

    I like letting students to select whether they will work with a group or not. I always hated group projects as a student. If they hate group projects, I don’t want to make them do it. But if they feel more comfortable working as a group, that’s great for me! Less grading, and as you mentioned in your blog post, how things work in the real world.

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