Response to The Real Thing

Fake CokeTracy Lightcap wrote a great comment on The Real Thing. I’ll respond here. He raises three important points about skill development:

  1. When students are working in teams on a collaborative project, often their first instinct is to separate the project into discrete tasks and assign responsibility for the completion of each task to a different each team member. At the end of the semester, students mash the pieces together to produce a malformed whole. None of the students learn the entire process that the project is supposed to teach.
  2. In courses designed around team-based projects, students might not get enough opportunities to adequately learn any single skill.
  3. The prevalence of (1) and (2) can lead to senior seminar or capstone courses that become experiences in emergency triage. Since students did not develop the requisite skills in their first years of college, the instructor is left to focus on one particular skill used in the discipline that he or she thinks students must acquire before graduating.

Although I haven’t completely solved (1), I do scaffold team projects around initial individual assignments that are intended to improve students’ information literacy and prevent free riders. The assignment I use most often is a variation on the analysis of an academic journal article. I often follow this up with what I call an information synthesis, in which I ask each student to read items in his or her team’s reading list and compare them to what he or she wrote in the article analysis in the following fashion:

  • How does the information relate to your team’s project?
  • What perspectives and solutions do these readings suggest are important to the project?
  • What pitfalls or obstacles might your team encounter as it works on the project?

As for (2), I never make a team-based project worth more than about one-third of the final grade, and the project-related individual assignments like the journal article analysis compose a part of that one-third. The final document that represents the culmination of the team’s work accounts for only five to ten percent of the course grade. An equally-sized chunk of the grade consists of spaced repetition in skills such as constructing evidence-based arguments.

Regarding (3), I know of one colleague whose students finally learn — as seniors — how to generate correct citations.

Links to the entire Real Thing series: