Workout

Richard SimmonsEarlier this year I posted about a series of worksheets (here and here) that I used in two courses for project-based learning. I expected the worksheets to help students:

  • Create and evaluate ideas.
  • Learn about the relationship between responsibility and productivity when working with others.
  • Engage directly with each other, rather than through me, during class.

Did the worksheets serve their intended purposes? I think their effectiveness was mixed. Some of them instructed students to work individually and then discuss their ideas with teammates after every team member had finished his or her worksheet. Often students wrote very little and some teams launched into conversations almost immediately. Certain students quickly became “followers” because they had no ideas to contribute after not making an effort to think. In contrast, Brainstorming I and Brainstorming II appeared to be productive exercises, perhaps because group discussion occurred first and individual work happened second.

A possible solution to this problem is to more definitively separate the tasks of worksheet completion and group discussion. Students can first complete worksheets independently outside of class and submit them to me. Then I can grade them with a simple scale and hold team discussions on the next day of class. The downside is that I’ll have to find other activities to occupy students in the classroom for the time that they otherwise would have spent writing on worksheets individually.

A second problem was that some worksheets were redundant. For example, Helps and Hindrances was essentially a more structured form of the brainstorming exercise. I can probably reduce the number of different worksheets without any negative consequences.

Finally, the worksheets designed to establish group processes and norms — the Team Performance Assessment and Ideas, People, Process, Product — didn’t contribute much. None of the teams in last semester’s courses were completely dysfunctional, but I doubt that this had anything to do with the worksheets. The sequential assignments and other structural aspects of the projects were probably more influential.

The self-assessment of teamwork, a graded assignment rather than a worksheet, was probably the most successful tool that I used. It created a lot of angst-ridden reflection among students at the end of the semester. Perhaps I should modify it for use at multiple points during the course, to force students to periodically analyze how their teams are functioning and why.

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