10 Steps to Managing Cooperative, Project-Based Learning Groups

In an ear­lier post, Keep­ing Stu­dents Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Class­room, I focused on projects com­pleted by indi­vid­u­als. What about group projects?

Com­mon Group Project Issues
Back when I was in school [insert granny voice]…and the teacher assigned a group project, some would cheer and some would moan. Those who cheered gen­er­ally pic­tured the assign­ment as an I-get-to-spend-time-playing-with-my-friends assign­ment or a someone-else-will-do-all-the-work assign­ment. I moaned. I saw group work as a prepare-yourself-to-do-boatloads-of-extra-work sen­tence that would neg­a­tively impact my bud­ding social life.

Even stu­dents with the best inten­tions have dif­fi­culty work­ing in groups. They decide what they want to do. They decide what needs to be done. Then they do e-v-e-r-y s-t-e-p t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r. They col­lab­o­rate on each sen­tence of the script. They sit by the same com­puter where one types and the oth­ers watch. They don’t real­ize that, if they divide a project into man­age­able chunks, they can get twice the work done in half the time.

What does that have to do with tech­nol­ogy? I lead stu­dents to pub­li­ca­tion for­mats that stu­dents can work on simul­ta­ne­ously — from mul­ti­ple places. Usu­ally, the for­mats are posters (for the stu­dents who like to draw/cut/paste by hand), Google Pre­sen­ta­tions, movies, and Prezis.

Even with these tools, scaf­fold­ing is nec­es­sary. Below is a series of mini-lessons I use for the first project. The expec­ta­tion is that groups become more inde­pen­dent in sub­se­quent projects.


1. Con­tent Comes First
Be clear about how stu­dent projects will be eval­u­ated. In one of my most recent projects, I wanted stu­dents to engage in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion book club dis­cus­sions and sub­mit sub­se­quent projects that demonstrate…

  • reflec­tion on his­tor­i­cal fic­tion char­ac­ters, set­tings, and small details (observed dur­ing book club meet­ings and use of post-its for meet­ing preparation).
  • com­pre­hen­sion of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion text.
  • non­fic­tion read­ing that enhanced under­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion text.
  • evi­dence of orig­i­nal thoughts and how those thoughts changed or were rein­forced through­out the story. This tended to be the for­mu­la­tion of a “big idea” that could be sup­ported with evi­dence from the text.

Stu­dents were not allowed to touch tech­nol­ogy (apart from the email and Google docs they used to com­mu­ni­cate) until they were clear about the ideas they wanted to communicate.

Exam­ple Prezis of this projects are pro­vided at the bot­tom of Step #2.


2: Choose and Defend A Par­tic­u­lar Pre­sen­ta­tion For­mat
Once stu­dents know what they want to com­mu­ni­cate, they can begin dis­cussing the clear­est means for com­mu­ni­cat­ing their ideas.

Even in a 1:1 envi­ron­ment, some groups choose a poster for­mat. Admit­tedly, I nudge the poster groups toward info­graph­ics — design­ing a for­mat like the one here:

This stu­dent took a pic­ture of her desk at home, then inserted the text.

But, in the end, they may sketch out a hand-drawn poster idea that meets all the afore­men­tioned cri­te­ria. These par­tic­u­lar stu­dents can pro­fi­ciently work with tech­nol­ogy tools (they have ePort­fo­lios, active Google doc fold­ers, and more), they just pre­fer writ­ing with pens, draw­ing by hand, cut­ting, and work­ing with phys­i­cal layouts.

Many stu­dents choose Google Pre­sen­ta­tions. Given the choices of Power Point, Keynote, and Pre­sen­ta­tion, my stu­dents now choose Google prod­ucts. I sus­pect many use this tool because it is famil­iar. Also, they can work on their Pre­sen­ta­tion from their home com­put­ers rather than hav­ing to lug around their laptops. They sketch out their plans for each slide.

Oth­ers choose to do an iMovie. Those who choose iMovie like the idea of writ­ing a script and read­ing it into a speaker rather than speak­ing in front of a large group. They plan out their pic­ture slides, out­line the script, then begin work. We do weekly iMovies, so the iMovie for­mat is quick and easy for all students.

A final group of stu­dents wants to take on some­thing novel. For this project, my teach­ing part­ner and I intro­duced stu­dents to Prezi. We chose to intro­duce Prezi because it par­tially resem­bles a poster, par­tially resem­bles a Keynote/Pre­sen­ta­tion/Power Point, and can be pro­duced by a group from mul­ti­ple com­put­ers (simultaneously).

Two exam­ples can be found by click­ing the image below:

Note: Prezi did not embed as expected. The pic­ture is linked to a post with the exam­ple Prezis.


3. Stu­dents “Divide and Con­quer” the Work­load
Mul­ti­ple stu­dents around one poster or com­puter is a recipe for dis­trac­tion. It’s not that groups are try­ing to be bad. The 11-year-old mind seems to pic­ture group work as “fair” when every­one does every part together. And, when stu­dents are jock­ey­ing for space and/or fight­ing for their voices to be heard by the typ­ist, one or two stu­dents give up. They start to fid­dle with things or they engage oth­ers in side conversations.

Divi­sion of labor should be explicit. Once stu­dents have the project’s “big pic­ture”, they are chal­lenged to divide the work into 30-minute tasks and del­e­gate these 30-minute tasks to each per­son. For a big­ger High School project, I’d prob­a­bly have stu­dents fill out a One-Page Plan. If you have stu­dents with par­ents who are project man­agers, invite them in to help guide groups.

Crit­i­cal ques­tions are:

  • What needs to be writ­ten? Can that be divided into chunks?
  • What needs to be pur­chased? Who wants to go where? When?
  • What needs to be researched/read? Can that be divided?
  • Can the project be divided into sec­tions so that each stu­dent is respon­si­ble for one of those sec­tions? Posters can be divided into sec­tions — Who will be respon­si­ble for which sec­tions? Pre­sen­ta­tions are divided into slides — Who will be respon­si­ble for which slides? iMovie sec­tions can be pro­duced on sep­a­rate com­put­ers and assem­bled in the end — Who will be respon­si­ble for which sec­tion? Prezis work like Pre­sen­ta­tions - Who will be respon­si­ble for each part?


4. Stu­dents Plan a Time­line
Time man­age­ment is one of those crit­i­cal skills that is miss­ing from the writ­ten cur­ricu­lum. The key is back­ward planning.

  • If the project is due on x-date, what is the best date for the final assembly?
  • If the final assem­bly needs to be done by x-date, when should we be review­ing each oth­ers’ sec­tions and revising?
  • If we are review­ing each oth­ers’ sec­tions on x-date, when should drafts be sent to one another?
  • If drafts are due by x-date, when should research be com­plete? items purchased?


5. Group mem­bers work as Indi­vid­u­als
After stu­dents have decided on con­tent, defended a for­mat for pre­sen­ta­tion, and “divided-to-conquer” the work, they can be mean­ing­fully engaged in their own mini-projects. Each work ses­sions should have a work goal. My line is, “I’m happy to let you get your com­puter when I know what you will accom­plish in the next x-minutes of your life” (said with a smile, of course).


6. Indi­vid­u­als Com­ment on Part­ners’ Pieces
Dur­ing the revi­sion and assem­bly stages, some trouble-shooting may be necessary.

One Pre­sen­ta­tion group had dif­fi­culty because group mem­bers began edit­ing slides that oth­ers had cre­ated. It resulted in audi­ble “Hey! Stop that!” responses. I then did a short mini­les­son on “own­er­ship” of indi­vid­ual slides as the author’s cre­ation. Group mem­bers were allowed to make com­ments, but not change another person’s work.

Learn­ing to for­mu­late con­struc­tive com­ments is crit­i­cal to any group project. I like what Kath­leen Mor­ris and Linda Yol­lis have to say about blog com­ment­ing — their advice relates to group com­ment­ing on project portions:

  • read over the com­ment and edit before submitting,
  • com­pli­ment the writer in a spe­cific way, ask a ques­tion, and/or sug­gest new infor­ma­tion to be added,
  • write a rel­e­vant com­ment that is related to the [portion],

One stu­dent said, “When my team­mate said he wanted to for­mat the title with a bunch of stars, I thought that was lame. Then he did it and it was great. I learned that I need to see what a part­ner does before crit­i­ciz­ing it.”

Those in Prezi groups had some ini­tial prob­lems with one per­son con­trol­ling the lay­out when mul­ti­ple peo­ple were on it at the same time. They worked it out, though.


7. Groups Reflect on Their Work
Finally, the group needs to come together and com­ment on the “fit” of all the parts.

At this point, I’ve already assigned grades to indi­vid­ual stu­dents for their input. It’s time for stu­dents to look back at the rubric, pre­tend they are the teacher, and “assign” them­selves a grade (which I con­firm or dis­cuss with them later). Are there any last-minute changes that need to be made?


8. Allow Groups to see other Groups’ Work
Some stu­dents are risk-averse. They want to work on project for­mats they know. But when they see oth­ers’ work, they have a frame­work they can use when con­sid­er­ing for­mats for other projects.

Those who have tried new pre­sen­ta­tion for­mats are not “experts” in that for­mat — and can be called upon by oth­ers in the future.


9. Use Projects to Inform Report Card Com­ments
Those who chose to make Prezis don’t know this, but I jot­ted down a quick report card com­ment about self-motivated learn­ing. My teach­ing part­ner and I gave very few instruc­tions on how to use the tool. Stu­dents took their own time to work through the tuto­ri­als before assem­bly. I also noted which stu­dents helped other stu­dents trouble-shoot — an indi­ca­tion of char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. Finally, I noted which stu­dents had their parts of the pre­sen­ta­tion ready by the group’s revision/assembly dates.


10. Cel­e­brate!
Stu­dents should cel­e­brate work well done. If your stu­dents are in the same sit­u­a­tion as mine, their par­ents put a lot of pres­sure on them to suc­ceed. Rather than see­ing life as a series of tasks, I want them to learn to enjoy the feel­ing of accomplishment.

The cel­e­bra­tion need not be a full-on party. It can be com­bined with Step #8. I’ve devel­oped a the­ory for tweens and teens…If there is pizza, it’s a party.


Future Projects
When I look over the com­pleted Prezis, I see that stu­dents could use a review les­son on cit­ing the sources of their images. They could also be guided to use more visu­als and fewer words. Finally, it is clear that Prezi has no built-in spell-check. Some com­mon words were (and maybe still are) mis­spelled on slides. While stu­dents revi­sion skills may be good, edit­ing skills still need some work.


What have been your expe­ri­ences with group projects? How have you man­aged them?


  1. Worth snatch­ing a look at Mitra’s SOLE. On iPhone and don’t have link at hand. But reposted it on the blog.


  2. […] 10 Steps to Man­ag­ing Coop­er­a­tive, Project-Based Learn­ing Groups | 1 to 1 Schools […]

  3. […] 10 Steps to Man­ag­ing Coop­er­a­tive, Project-Based Learn­ing Groups | 1 to 1 Schools […]

  4. […] In the post, I break down man­age­ment into 10 mini­lessons or steps: […]

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