The Problem with Group Projects
The preceding articles in this series focus on the portion of Reality is Broken we listened to on our drive to the beach. On the drive back home, the book transitioned from individual gameplay to collaborative game play; providing me with a window on the “shared concentration and synchronized engagement”.
When I began my teaching career at an AACSB accredited business school group projects were considered a necessary element in a business school’s curriculum. The prevailing Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) standards, at the time, strongly recommended that individual business school faculty “encourage collaboration and cooperation among participants” (Standard 13) and require students to “contribute to the learning of others” (Standard 14). AACSB standards also suggested that the curriculum provide learning experiences that simulate “group and individual dynamics in organizations” (Standard 15).1
These are all sound reasons to have students participate in group projects. However, including group projects in a variety of courses doesn’t guarantee that the projects are going to accomplish any of the goals articulated in the AASCB standards. Creating successful group projects is already an uphill battle since students don’t appreciate being forced to “work together”. They also perceive that many of these projects are contrived don’t resemble the functional teams they will encounter once out in the working world. If these were ‘real’ projects, group members would realize that their work could impact the profitability of their company of their company and their job could be impacted by the success of the project. These are students, however, and they know that the thing that matters most is, at very least, passing the course and graduating. Therefore, student groups don’t tend to be the paragon of collaboration and cooperation that AACSB envisioned. Top performing students are, first and foremost, concerned about their grades. They have little patience for students who aren’t as motivated and often feel they have to ‘carry’ the group. Less motivated students often take the opportunity to ‘free ride’. In many cases they feel more justified in their ‘free riding’ behavior when confronted by their impatient, driven top-performing classmates. Then there are other students who really want to do well but need extra help or encouragement. These students often feel overshadowed and disrespected by their group’s top performing students who often delegate more of the drudge work to this group.
At their worst, group projects are a lose-lose proposition. This is particularly true in situations when, to meet the group project requirement, an instructor turns a standard research assignment into a group project. A traditional research project is a fairly straightforward process with discreet tasks. You pick a topic, look to see if there is enough available information on the topic, collect resources, evaluate those resources for relevance, make notes, and write the paper. In a perfect world, the group project version of this project would involve all students contributing at each step along the way. What happens way too often , however, is that students decide to chunk the project by assigning everyone a specific step. In this scenario they’ll probably choose the strongest writer to complete the final draft. This leaves the other group members with the “less important” tasks such as doing the research and deciding what information is relevant to the research topic.
There are any number of ways that this can end badly and submitting a poor quality paper might not even top the list. In ICB300 Abby illustrated the deleterious affect of an unsuccessful project on student morale. If a student submits an unsatisfactory individual assignment, they usually recognize their responsibility for the outcome. When that becomes a group assignment it is much less clear who is responsible for the quality of the end product. Most often, students will often blame the outcome on the other students in the group. Abby was one of the top-performers and her primary complaint had been that she had worked really hard, but in the end, had been let down by other students who didn’t share her course performance goals. In a course like ICB300 this feeling was magnified since this project grade impacted the final grade, in what would normally have been, three separate 3-credit courses. What caught our attention was spread the blame the instructors who had designed the frustrating, ill-conceived 2 project.
One Problem Solved, Another One Created
When we decided to use the Marketing Plan Project for our new integrated (Marketing, Management, and Finance) course we thought it would be a great way to illustrate how the separate business functions fit together. We also believed that by using a current ‘real world’ example, for students to work with, would add relevance and legitimacy to the project. It would turn out that, ultimately, these elements would add to the experience. However, before these content-centric elements could be fully appreciated by the students we needed to address the issues of motivation and morale. We had made the group project more complex than any project these students had yet undertaken but we hadn’t fully considered the impact on the students. What Reality is Broken would make clear was that we needed to change the focus from a fixed end-product (the marketing plan) to the actual creation process; with specific attention on the role and importance of each individual to that process.
“Collaboration is a special way of working together. It requires three distinct kinds of concerted effort: cooperating(acting purposefully toward a common goal), coordinating(synchronizing efforts and sharing resources), and co-creating(producing a novel outcome together). This third element, co-creation, is what sets collaboration apart from other collective efforts. It is a fundamentally generative. Collaboration isn’t just about achieving a goal or joining forces; it’s about creating something together that it would be impossible to create alone.” Jane McGonigal
Collaboration as a Superpower
Interestingly, the above quote dovetails nicely with the goals from the AACSB standards. The crucial element McGonigal adds is the idea of “co-creating” and “producing a novel outcome together”. In group projects we tend to look for consistent deliverables. There is a right way and a wrong way to build the group project and the primary focus is on the outcome rather than the process. McGonigal made me realize that it was necessary for the students to understand that “the game truly matters”. If we expected students to buy into our vision of ICB300 we would need to provide them with meaningful roles and recruit them as partners in giving meaning to the course activities. It would be important for us to make the goal about more than just winning but to “reap the positive rewards of playing a good game”.
- The AACSB Standards have been, since, updated. Standard 13 in the old version that references “collaboration and cooperation” seems to have morphed to “Interpersonal relations and teamwork (able to work effectively with others and in team environments)” in Standard 9 of 2013 edition. “Contributing to the learning of others” in old Standard 14 corresponds to “For any teaching/learning model employed, students have opportunities to work together on some learning tasks and learn from each other in an inclusive environment.” in Standard 10 of the 2013 standards.
- ill-conceived is my characterization not hers