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.
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.
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?