How Do We Account for Individuality in Group Projects?

We’ve all known that one group member, the one who doesn’t show up (either physically or mentally) to any of the meetings. We’re also all familiar with that group leader, the one who takes initiative and sometimes takes over. And certainly we’ve all experienced group conflict. Just because you’re in a group with someone doesn’t mean you agree with their perspective. When we formulate group projects, how do we account for individual slacking, individual hard work, and individuality of opinion?

I’ve been grappling with how to address these issues of individuality as I’ve observed the progress of my HIST 1302 students on their Problems in American Life digital exhibitions. As a refresher: I’ve split students in my U.S. History from 1865 to present course into groups that are examining the history of one pertinent issue in contemporary American life. They are required to write individual essays on the topic, but also must develop an overarching narrative that they will present in the form of a digital exhibition. And this is where that third point – individuality of opinion – is making itself most clear. I want students thinking like historians and presenting like public historians. In other words, I’m asking them to craft a coherent, complex, and contingent narrative about their topic from 1865 to present.

But what is a narrative? Students have encountered this multivalent term most often in literature classes, but now they’re asked to formulate one in history class, where things are supposed to be non-fictional. Getting students past this impression has been tough. I’ve explained it multiple ways, but as it specifically relates to this project, I’ve presented narrative as both what you’re presenting and how you’re presenting it. It is the story you’re telling about your contemporary issue, and it is what frames the entire exhibit about that issue. I’ve told students to work together to first develop a chronology of their topic; to identify what, who, and when shaped this topic; and, to choose a perspective from which they will relate this history.

How students with vastly different backgrounds and experiences decide on one perspective to tell a story has been demanding. Those in the Capitalism and Economic Inequality group, for example, have diverging opinions about whether modern capitalism is an extension or adulteration of Adam Smith’s theories. I hear heated debates about whether they can or should present their narrative of capitalism as one of triumph or defeat. They ask me, “Who’s perspective is right?” That’s not an easy question to answer, and I really can’t answer it for them. As I spoke about in my last post, I’ve tried to balance the desire to craft the narrative through my choice of sources with the determination that students discover a narrative for themselves. I tell students to remember that their exhibition, like history, is not a list of facts, but rather an evaluation of people, places, events, ideas, and objects. In the end, they must analyze the evidence presented to them and draw conclusions that they will present through their exhibitions.

Of course, this requires a lot of cooperation and hard work on the part of group members, something that is not a given at all universities. I know I’m lucky that in every group meeting thus far, I’ve heard passionate exhortations emanating from groups as they decide on important project matters. Having students that truly care not only about doing A-level work, but about learning something in the process is a blessing. But it doesn’t mean that everyone is doing the same level of caring or learning, let alone writing or exhibit design. This gets back to the first two points of my earlier three-prong problem: how can I account for the slackers and, conversely, the leaders? I interact with every group during our class meetings, and I notice the same students not participating in discussions. And it’s not simply because they are on their computers or phones; I encourage students to use technology during meetings. But I know that the Women’s Reproductive Rights group probably does not ask the same student to play the latest annoying iPhone game for the entire meeting period. Should I note based on observation, or ask students to divulge, who is not pulling their weight? Is it fair to give a group grade when not everyone in the group does their part? As someone who grew up as a group leader, constantly annoyed with those who seemed too cool for school, my seventh-grade-self reemerges and tells me to penalize those who aren’t participating and give extra credit to the group leaders. But these are not middle schoolers; they are adult college students. Perhaps it is not my place to scold the sluggards. Perhaps it is the duty of the group. Still, I’m uncertain whether or not to factor individual participation into each student’s final grade. And I’m less certain how I would reasonably determine who are the slackers and who the leaders.

Having never assigned long-term group work before, these issues of individuality are perplexing. How do you account for individuality of opinion and effort in class group work?

2 thoughts on “How Do We Account for Individuality in Group Projects?

  1. Where you don’t have the option of observing every group’s working process or don’t have any sort of individual summative assessment, another strategy for getting a sense of what is happening within groups is peer evaluation (e.g., Students tend to score themselves and other students more harshly than their teachers, so these assessments should be taken with a grain of salt, but if groups are large enough consensus tends to emerge around who contributed and who did not.

    That said, while I think peer evaluation like the kind linked above can be valuable (especially when the groups are larger than four students), they only offer a window into the group dynamic. Introverted students are likely to be rated as less contributory by their peers, although they may have made the most significant contributions. Self-evaluation and a more narrative-based peer evaluation, as opposed to a checklist, may ameliorate some of that. If students are compelled to write concerning theirs and others’ contributions to the group, it may give you a better sense of whether the writer was engaged and may also be a proxy for seeing how deeply they understood the assignment and its outcome. Generic statements like “Jean was a good leader” would suggest a writer less interested and engaged in the group dynamic than one who explains that “Jean took charge in scheduling our meetings, and she usually came with a list of ideas, such as…”

    As for individuality of opinions? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

    • Thanks for the link and the ideas, David. I agree that a narrative-based peer evaluation seems the most fair and the most helpful. Perhaps it will reveal some ways I can improve the project in the future — bonus for me! I’ll update with results if I decide to try it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *