Grouping for Success…Mine and Theirs

Group projects are good. They teach cooperation, time management and leadership. Students are often able to be the learner and the teacher during the course of a well planned project. But when you teach middle school, students lack a few things to be a truly successful group…namely cars. They can never seem be able to get together to work.

Regardless of the activity and my goals, whenever I assigned a group project I knew some students would work together, some projects would be done by one person with everyone’s name on it and some groups would give me excuses about not getting to each other’s houses or classmates being on restriction. I once had a student volunteer to type the groups paper up only to find out he didn’t have a computer. So in a way, group projects are bad.

But over this summer, during a class on project based learning, I was exposed to an interesting concept…teach students how to work as a group. Hmm….

So for our project on choosing reliable sources (the last few postings have been about this project), I implemented a few new techniques.

1. I assigned checkpoints. At two points during the project I checked to make sure certain tasks were done. The first one was the breakdown of work and the second one was their rough draft. If they didn’t have checks for these, they lost points on the final project.

2. I made students divide up the tasks first.  Each section of this project required some research and at least a paragraph of writing; the minimum writing any group member could do was one paragraph. By the second day of research, students must have completed a chart stating who was researching and writing what. This let each member focus on their portion and allowed them to work at home alone rather than waiting to meet with a classmate. This also allowed for differentiation since the weaker writers could choose to write less while the better writers were willing to take on more without me being obvious about assigning it. I hate telling kids outright that they have to do less; it’s sort of insulting.

3. I graded everyone separately and as a group. Since students had to list what part of the project they did at the first checkpoint, they were graded on that portion as well and on the project as a whole. Plus they had to write a reflection. This made everyone accountable, not just the “smart” kids.

The expected result was it allowed students time to work together, but equiped them with the skills to work apart. I never really thought about the idea that students need help learning how to work as a group, but I can see a huge difference in how well they worked together. Less arguments, more responsibility.

The unexpected outcome was in the quality of their projects. I think that making it clear that everyone had a part and making them write down what they were responsible for focused kids on the task at hand rather than letting them wait and see what the other students were doing. I had some really cool posters, Powerpoints and essays, better ones than I’ve ever had before.

I know that many of these strategies come from the PBL philosophy.  This project was my first attempt at it and I really controlled too much of it to be truly PBL. But many of the strategies can be applied toward any group work. They work, so I’m going to use them.

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