Motivating students to make the most of group projects

Implementation of group projects in class represents an important pedagogical strategy to engage students in active learning. Specifically, it may promote collaborative learning, problem-based learning, evidence-based learning, team-based learning, and peer instruction. Students may benefit from group projects in different ways, including but not limited to: (1) practicing teamwork skills (e.g., communication, collaboration, interdependence, and accountability), and (2) building problem-solving skills (e.g., reasoning, critical-thinking, knowledge applying, trouble shooting, and concept constructing). As such, implementation of group projects has been increasingly observed in higher education across disciplines including nutritional and metabolic physiology [1-4].


However, not all students favor group projects. The common complaints may arise from time commitments and unequal contributions [2]. Some students may prefer to work alone on assignments in which they can easily take control of the pace and spend less time to earn high scores. This view is true in some sense, but students will miss the benefits of collaborative learning, team-based learning, and peer instruction. In general, it takes more time to accomplish a project as a group than as an individual because time is needed to build an effective team. However, the effects or benefits of group projects on student learning are profound, as mentioned above. To be society or career ready, for instance, students are not evaluated by scores alone but also by soft skills such as teamwork, accountability, adaptability, flexibility, and resilience. In terms of contributions, some students may feel short of chances to express themselves because of dominating group members, while others may complain about free riders who take less responsibility in group projects but earn the same scores [2]. The paradoxes can be addressed by motivating students to actively participate in and make the most of group projects.


First, let students enjoy the freedom to select topics of interests for their group projects. Interest can significantly motivate students to make efforts exploring evidence for answers. Nevertheless, the project topics proposed by students are by no means random; instead, the themes should fit in with the course content and learning objectives. In order for a project to overarch the interests of a group of students, the instructor may facilitate setting up the groups based on student interests. In addition, the instructor’s guidance is critical for the project initiation, where adjustments are necessary to customize the project question or theme such that it takes into account every member’s interests and learning objectives.


Secondly, balance group size to fulfill key roles. Group size affects group dynamics and the performance. Group oversizing increases the difficulty of engaging each member in the discussion or activities within limited time, which results in free riding and unequal contributions. A group size of 3-5 students is considered reasonable; a group size of 2 students may still work, but it lacks the typical group dynamics of assigning and rotating roles. In a 5-student group, the roles can be assigned as a facilitator (to moderate group discussion), a challenger (to raise counter-arguments and alternative explanations), a recorder (to take notes of group discussion), a reporter (to summarize and report the outcome of group discussion), and a timekeeper (to keep the group on track of time and deadlines). For a smaller group, the facilitator may take an additional role of “timekeeper”, and the challenger or recorder may take an additional role of “reporter”. More importantly, role rotation motivates students to play different roles in a group, which can prevent students from dominating in a group discussion or project and eliminate free riding. Role rotation motivates students to put themselves in others’ shoes, which promotes mutual understanding and trust that foster stronger teamwork. To this end, the instructor may direct students to divide a group project into sub-sections such that the key roles can be played by each member of the group via role rotation.


Third, have individual contributions weighed for group project grading. It is common that all members earn the same score for a group project. However, having individual contributions weighed for group project grading will motivate students to maximize their talents and potential in solving problems and executing the project. Practically, let students acknowledge or sign their contributions when they submit the assignment, and accordingly, grading rubrics can be designed such that both individual and collective merits of a group assignment are weighted. For instance, an oral presentation can be easily assessed by the relevance, depth, innovation, readiness, and communication skills for each individual portion, and by the overall hypothesis, rationale, logical flow, presentation transitions, and convincingness for the collective merits. This practice may increase the workload on the instructor and teaching assistants, but it significantly boosts the motivation of students to do the best they can for a group project.


Lastly, effectively apply anonymous peer evaluation. Group projects demand a variety of outside class efforts and activities, and a generic evaluation or rating of peer contributions would not suffice. Instead, the anonymous peer rating should be specified in detail such as the responsiveness, promptness, the amount of literature contributed, and the performance in discussion, presenting and challenging different viewpoints, and setting and achieving goals. The itemized rating or guide can keep the peer evaluators on track and evaluation straightforward. In addition, it is critical to provide timely evaluation so that students know how they are doing and what to improve, and so they may take prompt actions to improve later group work. If a group project consists of multiple subsections, an anonymous peer evaluation can be installed for each subsection with the average being taken as the final rating. If there is no subsection in a group project, an anonymous peer evaluation can be installed in halfway and at the conclusion of the project, with the average being taken as the final rating. Timely and multiple peer evaluations motivate students to reflect and find effective ways to work together as a group. By contrast, using a single peer evaluation for the group project only tells students about their performance but does not produce the motivation or opportunities to identify and fix issues for improvement.


In summary, implementation of group projects in class may benefit student learning in many ways [1-4]. Here I described some practical strategies that motivate students to fully participate and make the most of group projects. These practices may also address concerns raised by students and instructors about unequal contributions or free riding [2].


References and further reading

[1] Benishek LE and Lazzara EH. Teams in a New Era: Some Considerations and Implications. Front. Psychol. 2019, 10, 1006. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01006

[2] Chang Y, Brickman P. When Group Work Doesn’t Work: Insights from Students. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2018, 17(3), ar42. doi: 10.1187/cbe.17-09-0199.

[3] Rathner JA, Byrne G. The use of team-based, guided inquiry learning to overcome educational disadvantages in learning human physiology: a structural equation model. Adv Physiol Educ. 2014, 38(3), 221-8. doi: 10.1152/advan.00131.2013.

[4] Schmutz JB, Meier LL, Manser T. How effective is teamwork really? The relationship between teamwork and performance in healthcare teams: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2019, 9, e028280. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028280

Dr. Zhiyong Cheng received his PhD in Analytical Biochemistry from Peking University, after which he conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Cheng is now an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Science at the University of Florida. He has taught several undergraduate- and graduate-level courses (lectures and lab) in human nutrition and metabolism (including metabolic physiology). As the principal investigator in a research lab studying metabolic diseases (obesity and type 2 diabetes), Dr. Cheng has been actively developing and implementing new pedagogical approaches to build students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
One thought on “Motivating students to make the most of group projects”

This is very useful. Thank you so much for sharing!

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