Wednesday, June 07, 2017


The Groupwork Dilemma

In the car on the way home from The Girl’s softball practice earlier this week, discussing a group assignment she has at school::

TG: I’m glad I’m in a group with (names).  They’re all nice, and we all do our work.  But I feel bad for (other friend).  She’s in a group with three boys, and they’re awful!

Me: How are they awful?

TG: They’re always yelling jokes to each other across the room, and they don’t do any work!  

Me: Ouch.

TG: And the teachers expect them to be horrible, so if they ARE horrible, nothing happens!  But if one of us says something salty, we get in trouble!

Me: Yeah, that happens.

TG: They’re horrible!  And the teacher wants us all in groups with girls and boys, so there’s no escape!

Me: Hmm.

TG: Why would they do that?

Me: Well, I guess they want you to learn how to work in groups.

TG: But the boys don’t work in groups!  They just crack jokes!  The girls wind up doing all the work!  Poor (other friend) sits there doing all the work while the boys shout to each other across her face!

Me: Ugh.

TG: Exactly!  So you have a choice.  You can do all the work yourself, including theirs, or you can get a bad grade.  It’s not fair!

She’s in the seventh grade, and eerily observant, so I take it on faith that her description of knucklehead behavior is at least substantially accurate.  Junior high can be like that.  I’ll leave her (almost certainly accurate) description of uneven sanctions for another day.

Her description of the larger groupwork dilemma seemed to raise a larger academic issue, though.  We’ve all been in group assignments in which some members of the group wound up doing disproportionate work, while others basically free-rode on their efforts.  It’s the bane of group assignments.

So, two questions for my wise and worldly readers.

First, any tips for TG on how to handle groupwork in junior high?  I came up short on that one.

Second, has anyone out there found reasonably fair and non-creepy ways to get around the “free rider” problem in group assignments?

You have to have a system where the group members weight the contribution of the other group members, and a teacher who pays attention to what is going on in class to know when the self-scoring is wrong.

Also remember that, even if the district is good, the teachers are not all of the same quality or that one is just burned out and doesn't care what happens during the last week of school.
I don't have suggestions for TG on #1.

I agree with CCPhysicist on #2. A colleague pointed me to the methods described in this article, "Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams" by Oakley, Brent, Felder, and Elhajj.

Specifically, I have the students submit peer evaluations that I use in a spreadsheet that is similar to what is shown on p 23 of the linked pdf file. Including a mandatory "comment" field (in which students explain why they assign a teammate or themselves a ranking of excellent, very good, good, etc. has led to peer reviews that usually seem honest. Team members who do a bit of the work get a higher score, and team members who annoy others by not doing work end up with a lower score.

The scores get a bit skewed if one person does a large fraction of the work _and_ the team gets a high grade.

Setting up the spreadsheet is quite annoying the first time, but copying it for reuse is (relatively) easy.
I heard a student talk about peer evaluations. She and one other of the team had done virtually all the work and gave negative evaluations of the two others who had done virtually nothing. One of the ones who had done nothing went crying to the tutor and said the people reviewing him gave him low marks for personal reasons and they had actually done lots of the work. The impression I was given was that the tutor probably didn't buy it but let the lazy student get a higher grade than they deserved because he didn't want to open up a big can of worms around the personal reasons.

You do really put students in a bind if you ask them to rat on other students. They still have to deal with the people they give negative reviews to in other classes and so they have to decide whether it's worth the hassle to have one of their classmates offside with them or instead curry some favor by giving a more positive review then deserved.

I'm not personally in favor of group projects unless the tasks are clearly delineated and there are lots of check-in points with the grader to make sure that the work is being completed.
I have been assigning group projects for years and have had few problems. Three things have worked for me:
1. The group decides who does what. I ask them to identify their individual strengths and use those strengths to develop a strong project. I have found that if you require students to do something that they do not know how to do (create PowerPoint slides) or something they do not feel comfortable with (public speaking), they are less likely to participate at all. If developing those skills are important, we work on those at the individual level, not in a group project.
2. Half of the grade comes from peer evaluation. I have found that students have no problem accurately describing the contributions of their group members. I have had no one complain about a low grade on participation. If a students participates, the others usually give them a high grade. If they don't, there are multiple students providing corroborating evidence about their lack of participation.
3. Students may get kicked out of a group for not doing the work. However, the participating group members are required to discuss the issues with the nonparticipating member prior to giving them the boot. This usually takes care of the problem because the nonparticipating member would be required to complete a project on their own if they were to be kicked out. Few want to do that.

Groupwork is difficult. But, group work is part of most professional's work experience and we need to learn how to deal with those who do little to nothing. I tell my students that they will be dealing with these kinds of people for the rest of their professional lives, so figuring out productive ways to deal with them now will make their work lives easier later.
I am skeptical that peer evaluations will work as well in a group like the TG's friend's. For middle schoolers, I would advise the one doing all the work to carefully document, with time stamps, exactly what they did and when, and have a parent sign off on the parts done at home. That student can then do the appropriate proportional amount of the project, or more if they so please. And after the assignment is turned in, after class and in private, have the student tell the teacher that she had difficulty getting her group-mates to contribute to the project, and that she felt she did a her fair share or a disproportionate amount of the work as appropriate, hand over the documentation to prove, and then same something nice about the non-workers (this last one is important since there seems to be disproportionate punishment going on, the student needs to make sure her behavior doesn't seem too salty so as to make the issue into a bigger stink that it is).
We ran into the same problem with our kids when they were in middle school (and high school). High-achieving students, and students with good work ethics, will do whatever it takes to succeed. Other students recognize this and some will deliberately let themselves be dragged across the finish line. I haven't yet found a good solution; I wish you luck.

I think the problems usually stem from the way that instructors build their group assignments. It's not appropriate to expect a group of middle school students to police each others' behavior. That's part of a teacher's role. I'd argue that this extends through high school and, yes, into undergrad work. So if the instructor is trying to "teach" group work, the assignments need to be structured to reinforce *that* rather than emphasizing content mastery or presentation skills or etc. And the grading needs to be based on observable group-working outcomes, not content outcomes. That's where the problem comes in. With respect to Cynthia Reeves above, I think it's not the responsibility of the students to figure out how to handle each others' behavior. It's the responsibility of the instructor to set clear expectations, monitor progress toward those expectations, and address students who aren't meeting them.
I've found that the best way to avoid all the problems described above is to design a well-structured task/project with specified roles and responsibilities for each team member. Each team member receives a grade based on how well they've accomplished their part of the project; there is no "group grade".
I agree with Matt. Students at this age cannot police each other; they are still learning to cooperate even when all the members of a group WANT to cooperate. One of my children, in 6th grade, had a group assignment where one member decided her only role was to bring snacks to an after-school work session. The rest were fine with that, since she was an intimidating kid and they knew they would not be able to get her to do anything else.
I second milo minderbinder's comment--I typically construct group projects using the "jigsaw" method (so called because you don't get a full picture unless all the pieces are put together properly. The point is not just accountability but also pedagogy: the group project should actually benefit from being done by a group--no taking what just one of them could do and tasking five of them with it. And I demand to see intermediate work product, which also helps evaluate who did how much.
Teachers know which kids are goofs. It behooves them to show kids how to break up the tasks (e.g. identifying 4 roles and then letting the group decide which kid gets what role; or appointing a leader who gets to assign the roles).

For the specific case of the chatty boys, I would recommend TG go to the teacher and point out the acute issue for her friend. (as an aside- I would recommend to *not* address the differential handling of misbehavior/"saltiness". However you might mention to TG that teachers *have* to come down harder on saltiness that is likely to subvert the class more... which means that the more *on the nose* your saltiness is, the more need for the authority to shut it down).

The teacher should realize that the kids can see what is happening here. The critique of the contributions of certain group members might mean more to the teacher coming from an impartial third party, and really TG should make sure she understands the teacher's pedagogy here. Is the goal to accomplish a more complicated final product than any one could do alone? Is it to learn to "get along" in groups? Is it to learn to *participate* as a group? Each suggests slightly different approaches for the friend.
A lot of it depends on how big the assignment is and how supervised it is.

For middle and high school students, the best thing is to start by giving them smaller projects completed in class in one or two days. Then, the teacher spends the entirety of "group project time" circulating the room and giving feedback on how well the groups are working rather than looking at the content, to make sure students are getting the message that working as a group is the important thing right now. ("Participation quiz" is one common strategy for this - basically scoring each group on how well students are working together in real time as they work.) I pretty much don't sit down for the entire work time if I've given students a group project to work on unless they've been really successful with other group projects in that class already that year.

I also used to do things like have each group member use a different color of marker and only allow them to use that single color on their group poster (we did a lot of our short group assignments as a group presentation of a worked-out math problem on a poster or whiteboard). A lot of my dialog as I circulate the group would be in the form of "I see a lot of red and blue on this poster, but it looks like green needs to get on the poster more. [green student], what ideas do you have to contribute to the poster? Where can you add something?" Color-coding like that makes for a really easy accountability system for short in-class groupwork. There are lots of other little accountability tricks along those lines, but that one seemed to work particularly well with my high schools students for some reason.

After they get used to working in groups for things that take less than a class period and realize that they will get caught out if they don't pull their weight, then you can try bigger projects, but starting out with one is probably not going to go well.
I've posted about group work many times, including

The main solution in my applied electronics course, where we have 10 projects to be done in partners is to require the students to change partners for every project. If there are an odd number of students in a section, one must work alone (no threesomes), but no one works alone more than once.

The forced rotation mens that no one is stuck with a flake on every project, no one gets to freeride on every project, and the pattern of grades clearly shows who the flakes are. Students get the experience of working with both strong and weak partners, and some appreciation for different strengths (the projects require skill at electronics design, at careful construction, at debugging, and at writing—few students are good at all of these). Having had 10 different partners also helps them later on in forming teams for senior design projects—they have a better appreciation of who they can work with and who to avoid.

The forced rotation also results in more class bonding—the students have to mingle more than is usual in a large lab class, and at least get to know the rest of their section.
Junior high is a very low-power situation. If the teacher is down with Patriarchy, then the teacher is down with Patriarchy.

If TG is the sort of person who documents well in 7th grade, then she can document and you can bring it to the teacher. If she isn't, like the vast majority of humans, then she's best off keeping her head down and doing her own time.

I think the best your daughter can do is to complain to the teacher that some of the students aren't doing any work. Then try, under the teacher's watchful eye, to get the others to agree to a specific and documented breakdown of the work. Then she can do her own work and let the chips fall where they may. She did what she was supposed to do, period. Hopefully the teacher will notice this, and give her better marks than the others, but if not, the whole group will get a terrible mark. And that's fine; junior-high grades don't matter long-term.

More importantly, she'll have learned that some people can't be trusted at all. And the others will have learned that some people would rather let the whole boat sink than do another's share of the bailing. Damn it.
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