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September 26, 2011

Five Tips for Creating the Problem-Free Group Project

By Jeremy Rinkel
Grades 9–12

    Assigning group work can be very frustrating. Reflecting back on my first year, I'm amazed at how out-of-control and unorganized my group projects were. I'm sure when the principal walked by my room, my class looked very chaotic. My students didn't understand my directions, the target was not clear, my expectations were off, and I wasn't sure how to grade them. But I took good notes on what worked and what didn't, and I did better the next year.

    Though issues will arise with group projects, I continue to do them because the benefits are so great. Group work provides another form of assessment and takes students to a higher level of thinking. Students also learn to work on a team, an ability they will need in today's world. I've learned so much about myself and my students since I began group work. In this post, I'll share some of these things, along with five tips for creating a problem-free group project.

     

    Set a Clear Target

    Creating a clear target for your students is very important when assigning a group project. If possible, show them an example of the finished product. For a recent Talkshow1group project in which students wrote and produced a news or talk show interview with one of the characters from Ray Bradbury's story "A Sound of Thunder," I provided students with a step-by-step talk show instruction sheet. In the past, I have started group projects and students have had no idea where to begin, but this time, they understood better what to do.

    Grade for Time on Task

    Always be sure to discuss with students your expectations for behavior during a group project. I tell students that the first time I see that they are off task, they will receive a warning. The second time, I will give them an alternative assignment. I stress the importance of meeting deadlines, and I allow enough time to complete the task. In some cases, the time may be extended if I can tell they're working hard and truly using the time to improve their projects.

    One way I grade for time on task is peer critique. After the project is over and students are out of their groups, I have students write their team members' names on a sheet of paper and rank their participation from 1–5, one being low participation and five being high. If students rank their peers three or below, I ask them to give reasons.

    Of course, with some individuals this peer grading does not work. Another way of grading time on task is just observing groups within the room. I can often tell which students are engaged and which are mostly observing the work.  

    Encourage Creativity   

    Students sometimes need encouragement to be creative. For some reason, most students have lost or learned to hide their creativity by the time they get to my grade. One of my students showed me a phenomenal painting that she had done the other day. I had no idea she had artistic ability. In her case, she believed it wasn't "good enough" to show. So at the beginning of any group project, I stress to the students that I want them Talkshow2 to be creative. I do not want them to lose focus on the story or the task, but I want them to think "outside the box" when creating the final product, whether it is a drawing, illustration, TV show, or essay. Telling students up front that creativity and originality are part of their grade will also lead to more creative projects.

    Make Yourself Accessible

    Just because the class is doing a group project doesn't mean it is "downtime" for the teacher. In order to assess and make sure students understand the task, teachers must move around the room. I often sit in groups and observe discussion. In some cases, I share my input to help jump-start them, but I want to make sure they're using the information to start their own thinking process and not using the idea "verbatim." Moving from group to group is a great way to mingle with students and get to know them better. It also is a great time to ask questions and take them to a higher level of thinking. If a teacher is visiting with the groups and creating rapport, students are more likely to ask questions when they are stuck on a step of their project.  

    Designate Individual Jobs

    When students are assigned a group project, they usually focus on the final "product" of the project. Some students get overwhelmed thinking that they will not be able to accomplish the task in the allottedGroup2 time frame. It is important for the teacher to explain the importance of dividing the work and  delegating responsibilities. By designating jobs in a group project, students learn teamwork, responsibility, and dependence on one another. These skills will prove valuable as they join the workforce. For the "A Sound of Thunder" talk show assignment, students had to fill the jobs of leader, question writer, question answerer, camera person, and editor. The students worked together in class, but extra work was needed to type and edit the script. Download a copy of my individual job descriptions for this project.

    I will admit that this project was not problem-free. Student absences, off-task students, technology issues, and the confusion of beginning the project were a couple of issues I faced. As I do group projects, I document what works and what doesn't, and I hope to one day create the problem-free group project.

    What successes and challenges have you experienced when creating group projects?

    Assigning group work can be very frustrating. Reflecting back on my first year, I'm amazed at how out-of-control and unorganized my group projects were. I'm sure when the principal walked by my room, my class looked very chaotic. My students didn't understand my directions, the target was not clear, my expectations were off, and I wasn't sure how to grade them. But I took good notes on what worked and what didn't, and I did better the next year.

    Though issues will arise with group projects, I continue to do them because the benefits are so great. Group work provides another form of assessment and takes students to a higher level of thinking. Students also learn to work on a team, an ability they will need in today's world. I've learned so much about myself and my students since I began group work. In this post, I'll share some of these things, along with five tips for creating a problem-free group project.

     

    Set a Clear Target

    Creating a clear target for your students is very important when assigning a group project. If possible, show them an example of the finished product. For a recent Talkshow1group project in which students wrote and produced a news or talk show interview with one of the characters from Ray Bradbury's story "A Sound of Thunder," I provided students with a step-by-step talk show instruction sheet. In the past, I have started group projects and students have had no idea where to begin, but this time, they understood better what to do.

    Grade for Time on Task

    Always be sure to discuss with students your expectations for behavior during a group project. I tell students that the first time I see that they are off task, they will receive a warning. The second time, I will give them an alternative assignment. I stress the importance of meeting deadlines, and I allow enough time to complete the task. In some cases, the time may be extended if I can tell they're working hard and truly using the time to improve their projects.

    One way I grade for time on task is peer critique. After the project is over and students are out of their groups, I have students write their team members' names on a sheet of paper and rank their participation from 1–5, one being low participation and five being high. If students rank their peers three or below, I ask them to give reasons.

    Of course, with some individuals this peer grading does not work. Another way of grading time on task is just observing groups within the room. I can often tell which students are engaged and which are mostly observing the work.  

    Encourage Creativity   

    Students sometimes need encouragement to be creative. For some reason, most students have lost or learned to hide their creativity by the time they get to my grade. One of my students showed me a phenomenal painting that she had done the other day. I had no idea she had artistic ability. In her case, she believed it wasn't "good enough" to show. So at the beginning of any group project, I stress to the students that I want them Talkshow2 to be creative. I do not want them to lose focus on the story or the task, but I want them to think "outside the box" when creating the final product, whether it is a drawing, illustration, TV show, or essay. Telling students up front that creativity and originality are part of their grade will also lead to more creative projects.

    Make Yourself Accessible

    Just because the class is doing a group project doesn't mean it is "downtime" for the teacher. In order to assess and make sure students understand the task, teachers must move around the room. I often sit in groups and observe discussion. In some cases, I share my input to help jump-start them, but I want to make sure they're using the information to start their own thinking process and not using the idea "verbatim." Moving from group to group is a great way to mingle with students and get to know them better. It also is a great time to ask questions and take them to a higher level of thinking. If a teacher is visiting with the groups and creating rapport, students are more likely to ask questions when they are stuck on a step of their project.  

    Designate Individual Jobs

    When students are assigned a group project, they usually focus on the final "product" of the project. Some students get overwhelmed thinking that they will not be able to accomplish the task in the allottedGroup2 time frame. It is important for the teacher to explain the importance of dividing the work and  delegating responsibilities. By designating jobs in a group project, students learn teamwork, responsibility, and dependence on one another. These skills will prove valuable as they join the workforce. For the "A Sound of Thunder" talk show assignment, students had to fill the jobs of leader, question writer, question answerer, camera person, and editor. The students worked together in class, but extra work was needed to type and edit the script. Download a copy of my individual job descriptions for this project.

    I will admit that this project was not problem-free. Student absences, off-task students, technology issues, and the confusion of beginning the project were a couple of issues I faced. As I do group projects, I document what works and what doesn't, and I hope to one day create the problem-free group project.

    What successes and challenges have you experienced when creating group projects?

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