In a previous post on why group work matters, I discussed two prerequisites for effective collaboration in the typical undergraduate classroom:
- Individually-graded assignments and an effective system of peer evaluation to prevent free riders,
- Diversity within groups that enriches students’ learning experiences and prepares them for workplace success.
I’ve attempted to achieve the latter objective in two of my courses by deliberately populating project-based learning groups with students of various ages (first-year, second-year, etc.) and academic majors. I’ve distributed male and female students across groups as evenly as possible, too.
In a third course, each student self-selects into a group according to the theme he or she wants to focus on for the semester. While it’s always possible that a single student might end up working alone because he or she is the only person to choose a particular theme, or that a group will be extremely non-diverse, I think it’s unlikely. A year ago students’ preferences fell fairly evenly across the themes, making for groups that were of similar size but also diverse in terms of gender and age. For my purposes, in this course generating student buy-in by giving them a limited choice over content outweighs the chance that some groups might be less diverse than others.
As for preventing free riders, students will be completing two worksheets that elucidate the relationship between responsibility and productivity when working with others. The 4 IP3 worksheet is designed to get students talking about what kind of procedures they will need to follow if they are going to collaborate effectively on the project. The 5 Team Assessment worksheet is a more explicit peer evaluation instrument, but it has the twist of asking students to identify on their own which characteristics they think are important for working productively as a team. I am planning on using this worksheet twice — one-third and two-thirds into the semester — so that students gain a greater sense of whether they and their teammates are moving in the right direction.
As with the other worksheets, what students write down won’t constitute a formal part of the course’s final grade, but the peer evaluation will help me gauge how groups are functioning and identify any slackers. From there I can adjust a particular student’s grades on different group assignments accordingly. More importantly, evaluating oneself and one’s coworkers, and then discussing what one has written, might be the best way of preventing free riders. Telling someone “you screwed up” is never pleasant, but it often needs to happen, and people often need to hear it. I’m hoping that the worksheets will get the students to learn how to do this on their own so that I don’t have to.