Group Projects: Why Students Hate Them, How To Do Them Well, and How to Take Them Online

While discussion forums are generally everybody’s first thought when it comes to peer-to-peer interactions, I thought I’d spend some time this week tackling that bear of instruction known as the group project.  I’ll start of by saying that I’m normally very skittish about designing group project in online as it’s very hard to do well.  With that in mind, the first piece I’ll share is a USNEWS article that summarizes the challenges of this instructional method.  The major complaint being made is that bringing these projects online makes it harder to hold project members accountable as the logistics of coordination and transparency become more difficult.  More importantly, though, is that it’s harder to get people to do their jobs.  As the article states, “it’s easier not to be accountable to someone you never see.”

While all of that seems discouraging at first, I’ll tell you that none of the complaints being listed by the article are different from those made by the 13 year olds I used to teach.  There’s always that one guy who never does his work, and this will be real in a career as it is in a class.  So before we get into the online-specific strategies that can be used to facilitate group assignments, I thought I’d share some simple strategies for facilitating any group project, offline or online.

  1. Keep it small: I would be skittish about more than 4 people to a group. The more humans, the more variables and machines with a lot of moving parts have a tendency to break.
  2. Set Expectations: Group projects fail when faculty assume that students don’t need something explained. With so many moving parts, idiot proofing the assignment isn’t just saving us headaches later; it’s doing right by our students.  When in doubt, put it in writing and rubrics should be mandatory.
  3. Establish Accountability: While self-reviews are likely to produce self-serving results, I’ve found that peer-reviews can be helpful, especially if they’re tied to a grade. You have to make the criteria as specific as possible and require examples but students are more likely to pull their weight if they know their peers are going to call them out.
  4. Start early and chunk it out. I say this about every single summative assignment and I’m never going to stop.  If students are going to submit something in 8 weeks, they need to start on day one and they need clear guideposts for how to move forward.  By breaking projects into chunks and establishing a schedule, it’s easier to hold people accountable.
  5. Create a sample plan and make that the first deliverable: the more structured something is, the more likely people are to follow it. Build a plan for how you would accomplish the project.  Set up an ideal timeline (see suggestion 1) and a list of items that need to be completed to meet it.  Chances are, if they know what it needs to look like, the group members can come up with a way to fill that plan out.

Also, and I’d really like you to look at this, Faculty Focus has a great checklist for evaluating the effectiveness of an online group project and I strongly suggest you read it and share it with your faculty.  Finally, Moodle doesn’t really lend itself to group projects the way blackboard does.  We can build group forums and threads in the shell but the interactivity is missing.  With that in mind we should look elsewhere.  Here are some webtools that can be used to help facilitate group work:

  1. Skype: Scheduling skype conferences are simple, skype is free and skype uses the same hardware students are using to access moodle. Worst case scenario?  They can call into a conference.  This is a great tool for hosting meetings.
  2. GoogleDocs: Students can view the work being created in real time, track access and make edits. Not only can they collaborate, they can hold each other accountable.
  3. Creately: Building charts and diagrams becomes a lot easier and it’s also quite similar to googledocs.
  4. Voicethread: Think Skype, but asynchronous. It allows students to have a conversation but similar to a discussion forum and show things as well.

What do you think?  What has worked for you in the past and what concerns do you have about online group project?  They are tricky, but with the majority of businesses moving to a web 2.0 model and group work being done online at work, I think modeling proper execution in school will help us create a competitive edge for our students.


Rigor: It’s Not About How Hard You Work

Rigor is a word I hear a lot these days in higher ed, but I’m not always sure it’s one that is well understood.  There tends to be a lot of talk about what makes curriculum rigorous and a lot of people say that they have built a “tough” course to take. Defining rigor is difficult though.  It’s also very common when I’m pushing faculty to develop more rigorous courses that they worry about drowning their students in work.  They are worried about making courses that are too tough for students to take.  On the other end, there are those who say that a lack of rigor is killing academia.

The thing is, from an education standpoint, rigor doesn’t mean “tough.”

Think of it this way.  If I drown a student in a hundred multiplication tables it’s tough, but it’s not rigorous.  If students are given a five page chapter summary where they are expected to outline the key points, the professor has issued a time intensive assignment to complete, but how hard is it to summarize? 

Rigor, as applied to education, is less about how hard students are working, and more about how hard students are thinking.  Check out this publication for a good overview (pages 1-5)  Think about Bloom’s taxonomy: For instance, if students are always working at the lower depths of knowledge (remembering information and demonstrating understanding of facts), how will they become critical thinkers?  If we spend all day asking students to describe how nurses should interact with patients and doctors, what will happen when we ask them to evaluate a nurse’s actions in a case study of hypothetical interactions in a hospital? 

Rigor is about dragging students out of their comfort zones, putting them in situations where they have to solve problems and challenging them to grow beyond the curriculum as they do it.

I bring this up because colleges are all different and, when employers are looking at a resume, the reputation of the institution that awarded the candidate’s degree matters.  Rigor is becoming a huge selling point for a lot of institutions, and online programs should be no different.  Frankly, successful students are the best marketing program any school can have, and it’s the variable we have the most control over because we decide the curriculum, design the learning environment, and influence how the knowledge and skills grow inside them.

With that in mind, I pulled together a few ideas for things that faculty can do to help drive rigor you could consider sharing as you see appropriate:

  • Ensure that there is a summative assignment that assesses learning objectives throughout the course, challenges students with higher-level cognitive skills, and design the activity to be practical and relevant to the real world so students can apply what they’ve learned to broader problems.
  • Make students take a stand on something and defend it in a discussion forum using relevant data – forcing them to evaluate and analyze multiple sources.  If you’re lucky, somebody’s going to change their minds on a topic too, always a win.
  • Have students plan out and manage broad projects, evaluate the actions of others in their field, provide feedback to their peers. They’ll be doing this in the workspace, why not get started now?
  • Instead of a final exam, give students a final case study where they’re asked to solve a problem with no right answer. By forcing students to find their own way (while communicating clear expectations) you’ll get them out of their comfort zone and you might get some interesting responses along the way.

I’m sure you’d agree that students can – and want to – do the work, as long as it is worthwhile.  What do you think are the biggest challenges to pushing for rigor in higher ed?  How do you coach your faculty towards more rigorous instruction?

Teaching to the Textbook

One thing I notice as a course designer amongst a large group of faculty is a heavy reliance on textbooks as the sole learning resource for their online classrooms. While there is certainly educational value in requiring readings from a textbook, textbooks are more often than not the center of the course. In many cases, the only learning resources instructors use are assigned readings from the required course text, though sometimes they’ll take a baby step further and include the textbook’s accompanying PowerPoints as an extra learning aid. 

Do you see anything wrong with this?

I do – it’s lack of authenticity in the course. By structuring a course solely around a textbook and using only publisher-supplied content for student resources and assessments, instructors are neglecting their audience, the students. Schools have a brand that’s used to attract a certain kind of student, but what happens when a school’s brand and what makes an institution unique doesn’t extend to the products (courses) being delivered to the consumer (the students)?  Students may begin to wonder why they are paying for the course, when they could by the textbook and access to resources from the publisher and complete their learning on their own; or worse yet, fail to see how a school’s mission extends into its curriculum.

Now, to clarify one thing, I’m not out to dismiss textbooks as a learning resource for students. In fact, when used appropriately, textbooks can definitely aid instructors in teaching content; some benefits include:

  • Textbooks can foster student interaction with content
  • Textbooks can provide a background of knowledge to help students progress towards meeting the outcomes for a given lesson
  • Textbooks give students the chance to engage with the material in a longer format and encounter multiple viewpoints.
  • The supplemental content from textbooks when used as a starting point can provide opportunities to create learning experiences

In short, they’re great for teaching facts and concepts but, on their own, aren’t so great at facilitating opportunities for real learning (which is why many major publishers are building course packages with supplemental book resources and activities). What can faculty do to make sure their programs are giving students the information they need in a way that’s meaningful and relevant? What can faculty do to customize their courses for their institution and their students?


Here are a few suggest I’ve found to get started:

  • Encourage faculty to develop their own set of unique learning resources. Even by selecting current research articles or educational videos to go along with the textbook readings they can easily create a more customized set of learning resources for students. Instructors might even explore MOOCs as a good alternative to a traditional textbook or a complementary teaching resource.
  • Encourage faculty to develop the assessments. Spotlight faculty who create authentic or practical assessments for students instead of relying on publisher test banks and textbook questions.
  • Encourage faculty to design learning environments that foster independent student exploration and research. Give students the tools they need to be successful, and let them take an active role in their learning. You might consider a scaffolding approach across courses as a way to build students’ skills in self-directed learning.


What’s your thoughts on the subject: How do you think your institution’s courses stand out? What are some ways your faculty are creating custom courses designed with your school’s students in mind?

Student Feedback and Discussion Forums

I found an interesting piece regarding providing feedback to students.  Generally in instructional design, we strive to provide three major types of interaction: student to student, student to content and student to faculty.  While all three are vital, the element that research has shown that student to faculty interactions are the ones that provide sustained growth in student performance.  As such, I figured I’d share something I found regarding providing proper feedback for online students.


Additionally, the forum is where the majority of these interactions can take place.  One of the reasons why we push so hard for their use in every module.  It’s not just the medium for interaction that’s important, it’s the type of thought required in that medium as well.  Tyler Hart, an associate of mine, found a really cool resource for writing discussion forums the other day that I thought I’d share too.


I think that’s all of what we’re working on right now.  Let me know if I’ve left anything out or if you need anything else!