Group Work Therapy

My colleagues and I were joking the other day that academics should get therapy for their undergraduate group work experience because we were always the one who worked the hardest and felt put upon by the group work system. My fear of group work has kept me from assigning a group project these past four years because I didn’t want to be responsible for the inevitable feelings of resentment and frustration.
However, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have my upper-level class on the American Revolution work with the recently digitized Boston Committee of Correspondence collection at the NYPL. The collection is large and provides many different ways for thinking about the organization of popular unrest.

So, I made a group project.

And it went spectacularly!

I thought it might be useful for others recovering from a group-work failure to see how I set up the assignment, why I think it worked, and what I would do differently next time.

The Assignment: Each group will identify a Massachusetts town’s correspondence to investigate. Each group will create a 5 page narrative about how and why the town engaged in popular unrest. These groups will also create a narrative for the public through powerpoint, prezi, storymap, or timeline. The goal of both presentations is to convey an argument about your town that is appropriate for your audience.

What went well:
1. I worked hard to create balanced groups and I shared my formula. I was lucky to have a large number of senior majors who I marked clearly as “the experience” within their group of three. In addition, I gave students multiple chances to express how their group was functioning. Because the assignment was short and in the middle of the semester I knew the students well by the time I made the groups.
2. This was not an assignment worth a large percent of the final grade so the stakes were lower. It was also not due at the end of the semester when students’ worries and emotions can run high. Because students mostly understood that this was not an assignment that would probably make or break their final grade they were much more relaxed about the experience.
3. We did a chunk of the work in class. I reserved a computer lab for two class periods which meant that I watched the groups interact and had already flagged students who weren’t sharing their load. It also let us talk about how to use an archival collection, those damn long S’s, and other quirks of 18th century handwriting. This assignment fell at the end of our discussion of the pre-war period and was a great way for us to finish our discussions about motivations for war.
4. My students felt an ownership over their towns. I hadn’t quite anticipated this but because every group was doing their own research on their own town they became really invested in the people and the place. The result was better research and better projects. I really can’t say enough about the Committee of Correspondence collection. It made this project easy with its lovely digitization and ease of access.

What I need to work on:
1. Even though the many narratives of the revolution is a central theme of my class, many students didn’t know how to construct a narrative or how to create narratives for different audiences. Students who had been in classes with me before understood what I wanted but students who hadn’t struggled to understand what I wanted.
2. I didn’t set aside enough class time for the groups to present their research. Without an oral presentation some students felt like the project wasn’t given enough time and attention.
3. Most importantly, I didn’t do enough to explain the level of research outside the archive that I expected. I got great analysis of what these letters said but pretty basic research about what was going on in the colonial world when these letters were written. Perhaps I need to model that more in my classroom.

All in all, I was really satisfied with the experience. My students have asked to do more with digital collections and several of the first-year students are participating more in class. Not all of the groups were functional, but I don’t think I passed on a hatred for group work and I was able to address the slackers in an appropriate manner.

How do you do group work? What pros and cons do you see in the process?

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