What I think of group projects

I’ve always reserved a special place in my heart for group projects. It’s the same place that I reserve for pickles, cats, people who talk on their cell phone in quiet places, laptops with no battery life, small talk, and anything that needs to be described as “avant-garde.”

It’s a dark place.

Why is that? According to many educational experts, group projects are excellent teaching tools that help students learn in community and develop the skills they’ll need in the “real” world. According to most students, group projects are special form of hell created by sadistic professors who probably also pluck the wings off butterflies in their spare time.

Obviously there’s a disconnect somewhere.

What’s the problem? Working together and learning in community sounds great. But, in my experience, group projects look better on paper than they work in reality.

So, help me out here. What has your experience been? Have your group project experiences been like mine, or have you been a part of a few that actually worked well and were good learning experiences? If so, What makes for a good group project? (I can’t believe I just used the words “good,” “group,” and “project” in the same sentence. That has to violate some fundamental rule of English grammar.) Why did it work and what made it different from other, less effective, group projects?

I’m always trying to be careful not to allow my personality and preferences to limit my teaching techniques. Everyone should learn just like me. But, sadly, they don’t. So, I should be open to the possibility that some students might benefit from a teaching tool or methodology that has never held much value for me personally. If group projects have been good learning experiences for you, let me know. I may need to reconsider my long-standing resistance to such assignments.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 1, 2011, in Teaching Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Please… No… Your stance is right on… The problem with group projects is too many to name… First, I always get stuck with people who wait until the last minute to do things.. Inherently, as long as it’s done it shouldn’t matter

  2. Accidentally hit publish too early… “shouldn’t matter… But in truth, with someone who does their work way in advance this has always bothered me.. Plus the quality and excellence I do my work in may not be matched (it’s nice when it’s beaten though).. And therefore my grade is lower, my gpa can get hit and I live embittered at the sick prof who assigned that project.. I ramble, but the point has been made… What do I know though, I’m still in undergrad, maybe grad work is different

  3. Group projects are a real pain. Biggest problems are trying to get everyone together at the same time, and trying to make everyone’s part gel together. If we must do group projects, here is my suggestion. Make every person do their own work and earn their own individual grade. However, make them come together as a group before the project, during the project, and after the project to share idea and insights. Projects would still be done individually, but the brainstorming would be in a group. Each member could individually choose to accept or reject the ideas for their project. But at least they have been presented with other views. Beyond that, group projects punish those who work hard and reward slackers. What if that is how professor’s and staff’s pay is determined. What if every person at Western made the some amount of pay regardless as to how much work they actually do for the school. The administration assistants would make the same as the president. Some people would be overpaid, while others would be underpaid. My guess is that would never fly. So why impose that kind of process on students. Encourage collaboration to spur on greater possibilities, but forget the group project mentality.

  4. Communism has a bad reputation for a reason.

  5. I HATE group projects. I actually did a few independent studies during my MDiv just to avoid them. I’ve never had a good learning experience through a group project.

  6. My work group experiences have been mostly positive, I think it is a fantastic teaching method and it should be done more often; particularly within a seminary setting. There many of the students are planning on some kind of ministry / vocation and simply put there is enough individualism within the church already.

    As for group projects there are a few obvious ones that come to mind:

    1.) Putting together a ministry project that needs to be implemented.
    2.) A brain storm on a preaching series through a particular passage.
    3.) A re-enactment of a passage or story.
    4.) Putting together a multimedia display of an assignment.
    5.) Putting together a community profile, drafting a constitution for the church, a statement of belief etc.

    However I also acknowledge that students need to be taught how to work as a group. I have done and facilitated a number of group / team work building exercises and one of my favourites is to get a group of leaders, split them into groups of 4-5 people and have a race to see which group will be first to put a simple child’s jig saw puzzle together.

    Is it a hard slog? Yes it is. Does it create friction? Yeup – you bet you it can and does. But the benefits of it in teaching the students how to work together as a team is actually priceless….

    Perhaps one certain project that this method can be implemented is to have a group work together to put together a project on team work 🙂

    • I love the last suggestion. I’m pretty sure that if there’s a circle of hell beyond the ninth, it’s specifically for doing group projects on doing group projects. I bet they even make you listen to Justin Bieber while you’re doing it.

      I will say that your second suggestion is something that I find very valuable. But, I include that more under the heading of “collaborative learning” than group projects. And, I’m all about collaborative learning. (Isn’t that essentially what a blog is?) Some of my favorite aspects of the Th.M. program are its collaborative learning dynamics.

      Good to hear from someone who finds group projects valuable, though. That’s a good reminder that learning styles differ and some find these to be very helpful. Maybe you can help pry the rest of us out of our comfortable shells.

  7. I’ve always struggled with that job interview question that asks “Do you prefer working on your own or on a team?” It feels like they are really just wanting you to say, “I love working on a team and I know everyone has something to contribute if they can just reach for the stars and believe in themselves! Yippee!”, but the truth is that I much prefer working on my own. Does that make me a bad or uncharitable Christian? Maybe, but I hope not.

    I agree that scheduling a meeting time for everyone (the process and the result) is pretty horrible. I also found (especially in undergrad) that someone always has to be the “leader”, which means parenting/dragging along that one lazy or dull person.

    I will say that it has presented many good lessons in patience and listening.

    • That’s true. I suppose that if the main purpose of group projects is to frustrate everyone so much that they either need to develop more character or hurt someone, then they’ve been immensely successful.

  8. The first group project I saw was as a young kid when Bobo Brazil and Dick the bruiser (late 1960’s I think) tagged teamed against “the Sheik” and someone else that I can’t remember. I do remember that everyone had different ideas about input, rules, preparation, outside involvement, and outcome. I haven’t seen much change in a half century leading me to question group projects, WWF, and micro-evolution 😉

  9. The only group projects I have ever been a part of that have worked have been in a competitive environment. Something about beating the other groups always seems to get people motivated. One group project I remember in particular was for physics class. We had to move water across 5 simple machines. We bought a lot of tubes and funnels. Waiting in the checkout line at the hardware store was like walking to the gallows, so many condemning looks and fingers wagging – tsk, tsk, tsk. Good times.
    Other than that I agree completely with Marc… I do recall (although it has been a while since I’ve read it) that many of the characters in The Inferno were educators who believed in the efficacy of the group project.

  1. Pingback: What Group Projects Teach You | Exploring Our Matrix

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