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The Elusive Functional Group Project

First, Updates!

Yikes! Half the semester has flown by already! What have I been doing if not writing blog posts? A few things:

  1. Teaching, of course. The non-majors biology, turned Neuroscience and Society, course is going really well. We just finished talking about neurotransmitters, how drugs influence behavior and how drug policies in our country would be different if they were established on the basis of science and not racism. I think these topics are not only a good way to use the hard science we learn, but also generally important for my students to know as they turn into citizens of the world. They seem to really be enjoying the course and I’ve already found a few places I can tweak for next semester when I teach another two sections.
  2. Applying for jobs. ‘Nuff said.
  3. Research. My capstone students are making some really great progress and will likely each be turning out a publication at the end of the year. They have simple projects, but those projects are pretty foundational as far as where my research program is going. We will also add another layer to the projects by including some transgenic mice!
  4. Just livin’ life. Last weekend was fall break and my beau and I did some hiking at Ricketts Glen.

    It was beautiful. ūüôā


Designing the Perfect Group Project

Does it exist? I don’t know. But it’s part of my professional mission to figure out the most effective and efficient way for my students to do group work.

We are all familiar with the issues of the standard group project. All of those issues, which I will not list, come down to THE PROBLEM, which is that not everyone contributes equally. Unfortunately, it is really difficult, nay impossible,¬†to see where the work of one student starts and another’s begins when it come to assessing. In the end, each student receives the same grade on the project regardless of contribution. I struggle with this because I hate giving good students bad grades and vice versa. I’ve decided to try, and improve upon, an approach that mimics the workplace and puts accountability on the members of the group. Groups will designate a team leader whose only responsibilities¬†are¬†keeping the other members organized¬†and tracking¬†individual members’ responsibilities – and grading them. Unlike previous trials of this system, this semester I will be providing incentives for the¬†student leaders -they will receive an individual grade based on the overall project grade. ¬†I’ll explain…

The Project and the Incentive System

In this back half of the semester my classes will be working on their group service projects. As a reminder, groups will be creating an interactive activity that will help school-aged children learn a neuroscience concept. We will take the activities to the local elementary school’s Family Fun Night at the end of the semester to share with the kids. In addition to the¬†number of criteria that the projects must meet to be considered an ‘A’ project, I have required the students organize themselves in a specific way during the group work.

Each group will self-assign a project manager / group leader. This student is in charge of keeping the group on task, organizing group meetings, and monitoring the quality of the project. The other group members are the worker-bees. They will be assigned specific tasks over the course of the project timeline that will bring the project to completion. These tasks aren’t necessarily assigned by the project manager, but the manager should be keeping track of when member do, or do not, complete what was assigned to them.

In addition to this ‘real world’ organization of groups, I have also incentivized it. Each individual has 25 personal points to earn for these projects (the projects themselves are worth 150 points). Each member will be awarded¬†their individual points by the project manager. So, if a member completed tasks on time and participated to the satisfaction of the project manager, they will receive all 25 of those individual points. If the member does not perform well, they will earn less than 25, again at the discretion of the project manager.

The project managers also have 25 individual points to earn. I will be assigning the project manager points based on the performance of the group. The top 1/3 of the projects, based on grade, will earn the project manager all 25 points. The middle 1/3 and bottom 1/3 will earn the project manager 15 and 5 points, respectively. My hope is that this will inspire the project managers to encourage their groups to perform at a high level.

I used the project manager role in group projects last semester, but had not used this incentive system. I actually found the outline for this system in a paper by Ferrante et al. (2006).  They included a survey for the students before and after on their views of group work and overall saw a positive change in feelings toward working on a team. I think that this structure will increase efficiency and quality of the projects, as well as teach students some valuable workplace skills.

Since I do want students to learn some good group work skills and keep their work organized, I gave each group a binder with some essential information and worksheets to complete. The materials include a calendar to write due-dates and meetings, a worksheet to help them plan/create their activity, an example of a high-quality project, meeting worksheets to organize tasks and talking points, rubrics, and much much more. The binders will be turned in at the end of the project with everything completed, making my job of grading a little less overwhelming…I hope.

Upon introduction to the group organization scheme and the binder, the students seem positive about the work. I’m looking forward to how this plays out and will definitely be reporting on the success from my point-of-view and that of the students. I think there’s a lot of potential here to not only make group projects easier, but to also teach students valuable group works skills.

Have you ever done something creative with group projects that worked really well? Is there anything you’ve been wanting to try? Let me know, I’m open to ideas and suggestions!!

Reference

  1. Ferrante, C. J., Green, S. G., and Forster, W. R. (2006). Getting more out of team projects: Incentivizing leadership to enhance performance. Journal of Management Education, 30 (6), 788-797.
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