If we were on a Zoom call and I told you we were about to get into breakout rooms, how stressed would you feel? Would you stay on the call, or would you jump off?
I remember the groans students gave me when I first started teaching and dared to say those detested words, “Get into your groups.” I’d wear an intentional smile while students grudgingly picked up their things and shuffled slowly across the room to meet in their new groups.
Colleagues around me who were more experienced than I was at the time swore that group work did the trick when a class fell silent. So, there was something (well, it turns out, there was a lot) that I was missing. Over time, I learned how to use inventory methods like Think-Pair-Share and Entry/Exit Tickets for quick activities. I also started adapting methods from the project management world to effectively organize long-term group projects. In 2020, I cowrote an op-ed with Cathy N. Davidson about 8 Ways to Improve Group Work Online, and, since then we’ve written The New College Classroom, which has a chapter called “Group Work Without the Groans.”
In this post, I’d like to dive a little deeper into how we can teach students good project management strategies and skills through group work. Employers insist that they look for communication, collaboration, and project management skills when hiring. Group work is the best way to acquire these skills, and students will use them throughout their lives and careers.
1. Frame Group Work as Essential to Career Success
Unless we explain why and how group work is essential to learning and applicable beyond college, our students might assume we’re assigning them busy work. We need to lift up the curtains to show students the strings: how the project works in practice, why we’re doing it, and what the learning goals are. Every job I’ve ever had has required teamwork, from cooking as a sous chef at a restaurant to managing Transformative Learning in the Humanities at the City University of New York.
If students doubt the need for group work, ask them what their majors are (if undeclared, then what they’re thinking of majoring in). Then, set a timer for three minutes and ask them to imagine and write down scenarios in which they might engage in teamwork. A History major might collaborate with archivists. A Chemistry major might conduct experiments and write coauthored papers. An artist, designer, or architect might work with an engineer to complete a large project. Some of the most inspiring moments in music, like Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, are the products of collaboration.
2. Emphasize the Value of Differences
The best way to ease students into group work is to air the social anxiety we feel before meeting new people. Students can’t help it if they get nervous when they hear the words “breakout rooms” or “get into groups.” Slowing down to air out concerns over potential disagreements, slacking off or grades affords instructors an opportunity to talk about differences as the most valuable assets to group projects.
When they value differences and recognize that multiple perspectives make a project better, then students can engage in meaningful group work. This is the first of the three tenets of Collaboration by Difference, a method developed by HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory):
- Recognize and value differences
- Let non-experts talk first
- Always ask “what’s missing?” at the end of a meeting
I ask students to commit to these three things. I also try to give students enough time to slow down and get to know one another first. They need to learn who their peers are and what each member has to contribute before they can work together successfully. One way to do this is to ask them to interview one another and provide them with some example questions they might ask.
3. Train Students to Give Formative Feedback
Group work is like a constant peer review. Students know too well that it can feel disappointing and even disheartening when someone critiques their work. That is why it’s important to cover formative feedback.
Formative feedback builds up students’ work rather than tearing it down. I like to remind students that it’s easier to criticize something, but it’s far more challenging to propose a better solution. The former is summative feedback: criticism that sums up what was done without engaging with the work in a meaningful dialogue. Formative feedback identifies the best parts of the work and offers ideas for how to highlight those and strengthen the weaker elements.
Learning to process feedback and use it to grow cultivates resilience. Resilience is essential to students’ ability to thrive in our constantly changing, evolving world. Knowing how to accept and incorporate feedback is one of the most useful skills for one’s life and career. Frequent reminders of that help students to connect what they’re learning in each course to their lives beyond the classroom.
4. Introduce Students to Backwards Planning
When confronted with a big project, students should break it down into manageable parts. My favorite project management tool to do so is a Gantt chart. It also prompts you to put controls in place for the uncontrollable hiccup. (As they say in Monty Python, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) I suggest students break up a project into smaller internal deadlines, working backwards from the big external delivery deadline.
For each group’s first deliverable, I ask them to share their Gantt chart, checklist, or project plan with me. They can use whatever tools they want, from physical paper and markers to tools like Asana, Toggl, or Google Docs. I expect them to show me an equal distribution of labor and a considerate method they will use to keep everyone accountable. The second deliverable I ask for is a proposed project outline using the STAR method.
An added tip: it helps if students know the criteria that will be used to evaluate their group work from the beginning. You can develop this criteria together (Felicia Rose Chavez recommends having students use their own words to define criteria in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop). Or you could develop a self- and peer-evaluation system so students are aware they will be evaluating their own contributions and those of their peers.
5. Celebrate Milestones, Large and Small
Slow down at the end of a group project to appreciate students’ accomplishments and reflect on their process. This metacognitive reflection on what was done, how it was done, and why they did it, is the single-most most important learning component. According to the National Academy of Sciences, students discover more about themselves as learners, their strengths and weaknesses, in metacognition. Metacognition also increases their ability “to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts and tasks.”
Finally, consider mentoring students in their groups to model healthy practices, whether they’re working in semester-long Biology lab pairs or on a business prototype in groups. Group office hours can save you from repeating the same advice and students benefit from peer-to-peer learning. They can be supplemented with one-on-one meetings as needed.
Try adding these tips to your next group work session – you might find less slow, begrudging shuffles and more excited, engaged students.
Written by Christina Katopodis, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Transformative Learning in the Humanities at the City University of New York (CUNY).
Seeking even more innovative ways to implement group work and student collaboration in your course? Check out the article “3 Steps to Deliver Effective Group Work in WebAssign.”