Getting Real: Real World Tactics for Group Project Success

projectStudent A:  “The overachievers will take care of all the work.”

Student B: “If they just follow my lead, we’ll all get A’s.”

Student C: “If we all just do our parts we’ll get it done.”

Student D: “I hope this project doesn’t hurt my grade.”

All of the above are thoughts that students may have – consciously or subconsciously.  The fact is that group projects get a bad reputation.  But, why is that?  Often times it is because of the less than positive experience of working in groups, and not the project itself.  Groups typically have to go through Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development that includes: forming, storming, norming, and performing, but for a class project, this process must be accelerated since there is a limited amount of time during a semester.  So therefore, how do we catalyze this process?

Furthermore, in the context of group projects, we sometimes tell students “you don’t get to choose your colleagues in the real world” and then we leave students to get started on their own, organize on their own, and work through their own issues.  Moreover, the problem with the logic of you don’t get to choose your colleagues in the real world is that 1) you kind of do, and 2) in the real world you typically know your job title, which also gives you an idea of your role on the team.  With that in mind, just because we don’t get to choose our colleagues in the real world (although we sometimes do during the interview process),  does not relieve us of our responsibility for providing the scaffolding and creating the right environment for group success.  This includes communicating the goal for the groups, setting expectations, tapping into and organizing students based on talents, and highlighting tools for communicating and managing the project…you know…the stuff that leaders do.

This piece highlights a few tactics for promoting group project success using real world strategies and principles and resources taken from the field of project management.  These strategies can help you move students more quickly into the performing stage of Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development.

1| Establish Roles to Promote Accountability

When assigning a group project envision yourself as the project director.  In some real world project management situations, while the project director isn’t down in the weeds of the project with the project manager and other project team members, the project director is ultimately responsible for the success of the project.  This means that the project director may check in from time to time and can expect updates from the project manager.

REFLECTION ACTIVITY:  Reflect on assigning yourself the role of project director for a moment.  Can you think of ways that  taking on the role of project director will change how you support groups in your class?

As the project director, you must then develop and define roles for the project teams based on what the project entails.  Some of those roles might include:  project manager, editor, and researcher.  With large groups, some roles can be broken into two although there are a vast number of roles you can think of if you put your mind to it.  For example, someone might be tasked with introducing the paper while another might be tasked with writing up the conclusion.  Yet others might be tasked with coordinating the presentation component of the assignment and the outline component of the assignment.

Watch for This:  Some students perceive the project manager as the role that can tell people what to do, but doesn’t have a lot of workload.

The project manager has a huge responsibility for the project’s success.  This role is responsible for updating the project director on the project’s progress and communicating any sources of trouble that the group needs help with.  The project manager drafts the project charter and schedule in conjunction with the project team.  The role also does team building and keeps the group moving toward the goal.  Additionally, the project manager must be willing to step in if any member needs help or can’t perform their work for any reason i.e. sickness, drops the course, etc.

Watch for This:  Some students get hung up on the fact that they aren’t in a “manager” role.

If you believe this may be a problem or if you simply want to make all students a manager so they can gain leadership skills or truly envision themselves as having leadership parts, then make everyone a “manager!”  For example: project manager, research manager, editing manager, presentation manager, outline manager, etc.  After all, everyone is managing a specific piece of the project anyway.   All roles are important to achieving the goal not just those with manager in the title, and this should be communicated to students.  Yet, making everyone a manager takes the focus off of the minor details and keeps students focused on the bigger goal.  Hey, this is a practice some companies use as I’ve actually worked in an organization where they simply gave everyone Director or Manager titles!

2| Assess Students’ Strengths for Role Assignments

Another  strategy is to develop a short survey to assess students’ strengths.  This is easily done using the Canvas Quiz tool.   The survey might employ a Likert Scale asking students to rate on a scale of 1 to 5, the degree to which they enjoy certain tasks.  The tasks being evaluated by the scale should be based upon the roles for the project.  Remember to define the scale by letting students know that 5 is the highest degree of enjoyment so that you get the right data.  Students might be asked to rate the extent to which they enjoy the following:

  • Organizing others and keeping people on task.  (Assesses fit with Project Manager role)
  • Researching information about a topic and sharing it with others. (Assesses fit with Research Manager role)
  • Proofreading and editing documents. (Assesses fit with Editing Manager role)

Based on the survey data, assemble students into groups and into roles that play on their strengths.  Of course once they are in their groups, you can allow them to change roles just to give them some flexibility.  There is a school of thought called “common sense” that says people should try to assume roles that focus on their strengths while attempting to manage their weaknesses.  Okay the school of thought is not really called common sense, but some articles have been written on this very topic.

Think of it this way, people generally apply to job roles that they believe play to their strengths, not their weaknesses.  Taking the time to assign roles can cut down on group member disputes over roles.  Taking the additional time to assess students’ strengths before assigning roles has the added benefit of building awareness of how students should approach taking on roles whether in the class or in the real world, that is, by first evaluating their strengths and preferences then going after roles that play to those strengths.  Not everyone may get their first choice role, but if they don’t, you also know how to further support them as project director and can evaluate them more fairly with this information in mind.

3| Talk About Workload

In setting up the assignment, share that some roles may in fact end up doing more.  Let’s just put it out there!  This is a reality of group work that not everyone will carry the same load at all times.  Saying this may prevent disputes over this matter from budding within groups.  However, let students know that even though some roles may have more work, a part of their evaluation will be based upon their ability to work collaboratively as a team and every member should perform their role effectively to achieve the collective goal.  Furthermore, design the assignment in such a way that students have their own respective topical portions within the broader project topic.  In that way, everyone still has a substantial contribution regardless of how much work is involved in their project roles.

4| Use Project Charters and Schedules for Organization

Provide groups with templates for creating a project charter and a project schedule to complete prior to starting the project.  The project charter officially launches the project.  It should be due early on (after a couple days) to show the project’s name or subject, describe the topic or challenge they are tackling, list who will be performing which roles, describe how they are planning to approach the project, and share what tools (including tech tools) they plan to leverage to achieve various tasks.  In this way, students are not left to their own devices and you can provide direct instruction to further help them develop their team work and project management skills.  It is recommended that you provide some specific guidance ahead of time on where students should be posting certain items so you can see how much each person is contributing and evaluate their contributions.

Requiring submission of a project schedule is also critical to helping students get organized.  The project schedule is truly the calendar with milestones for the task at hand.  Again, this allows you to provide feedback on how the group is planning and managing the project.  In real world situations, sign offs on such documents must occur from both the project sponsor (the client who you are doing the work for and/or who is providing the money) and the project director.   The project director provides feedback before it goes to the project sponsor, so just like in the real world, the project team receives feedback before the project launches and again in the end when you assess the project team’s performance.

Final Thoughts

Group projects require planning, both on the part of the instructor and students.  It is a good practice to help facilitate a great group experience by applying these principles.   While you sometimes have to play the role of guide on the side, there are still times when you should provide direct instruction to contribute to students’ success.

For more information and resources for taking a project management approach to group work, feel free to contact an FDC staff member!

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