From team charters to reflections: six steps for a successful group project
I teach a business writing class and used to dread being assigned group projects. While I appreciated the lessons provided by teamwork, these takeaways were often overshadowed by complaints about different personalities and scoring criteria.
Then March 2020 hit.
After a languid year on Zoom, and once everyone was able to safely return to class in August 2021, I decided to give group projects a try again, but with significant changes. Fortunately, these changes were successful.
Here are the steps I followed:
Step One: Start Early
One of the biggest mistakes I made the first time around was introducing the group project too late in the semester. For example, in a typical semester, my students complete three large individual assignments and a team project, all due on the last day of class.
In previous semesters, I didn’t want assignments to overlap, so I waited until there was a month left in the semester before even discussing the team project. I quickly realized that was not enough time.
At the end of that semester, the students told me that they wished they had known much sooner so they could start working on it, even if they were simultaneously finishing another assignment for my class. Therefore, this time, I presented the group project on the first day of class, and we dove about halfway through the semester. Having an extra month has significantly reduced my students’ stress levels and subsequently produced higher quality projects.
Second step: allow students to assess their own work habits and choose their partners
Another mistake I made previously was randomly assigning groups. So this time, before the formation of the group, I sent a Google document allowing each student to identify their strengths and weaknesses. For example, I asked, are you a leader or a helper? Do you work in advance or at the last minute? How do you prefer to communicate with the other members of your group?
Additionally, I also asked each student if there was someone specific in the class that they wanted on their team. I still put the groups together but it gave the students a bit more control.
Step Three: Working with a Community Partner (Project-Based Learning)
There is a lot of research supporting the implementation of project-based learning (PPL) in the classroom. For example, Tiwari, Arya and Bansal (2017) found that APP “places students in realistic and contextualized problem-solving environments. In doing so, projects can serve to bridge classroom phenomena and real-life experiences” (p. S4).
In order to create a “real” scenario for my students, I partnered with a local organization. Our client was the CEO of a small non-profit organization and was struggling with a number of financial, HR and marketing issues. I allowed each group to decide what problem they wanted to tackle. In previous semesters, I assigned each group a different problem, but this time I let the group members decide. And if two groups wanted to focus on the same issue, I allowed that too.
In the third class period after I presented the assignment, the students interviewed our client. In the previous lesson, each group had developed their own questions based on the interest of the group so that the students were prepared.
Their finished product was a white paper (one per team), in which the students described the overall problem and assessed all aspects of the situation, then came up with a recommendation. During the last class period of the semester, the students presented their solutions to our client. It was a win-win scenario; the client received helpful feedback and the students strengthened their research, communication and problem-solving skills.
Step Four: Create a Team Charter
Team charters are not new to the business world or even to academia. Team charters are used to determine goals and identify ways to combat conflict. The first day I assigned the group project, I educated the students on team charters and their purpose. According to Aaron, McDowell and Herdman (2014), “team charters serve to reinforce the norms of a healthy team” (p. 96). I shared this with the students and asked them to create their own version of a team charter. I provided prompts such as, How do you plan to meet the deadlines? How will you communicate outside of class? Who is the team leader? What role will each member of the team play? How will you manage your differences?
Students shared that they referred to the team charter many times when faced with challenges related to group dynamics or other issues, proving that it was a worthwhile activity.
Step Five: Schedule Class Time for Homework
Before, I never left a lot of time in class for the teams to work on their projects. This time I decided to try something new and offered six class periods (one hour and 15 minutes each) for group work. I told the students that they were responsible for deciding how to use their time most effectively. So if they wanted to leave earlier, for example, they could. However, almost every group worked for the full duration of each class period. It gave them time to complete the work at their own pace, and I was able to observe their group dynamics and answer questions as they arose.
Step Six: Reflection
The last step was reflection.
I didn’t want to ask the students to evaluate each other. I’ve tried this in the past, but found that if emotions are running high, students may not assess themselves impartially. Instead, I got them to reflect on their own contributions. Most were refreshingly honest, stating that some days they didn’t make their weight, for example, or they dropped the ball on their part of the search.
In conclusion, I now believe that with proper planning, group projects are valuable. In the future, I plan to continue awarding them. I also plan to continue working with an outside organization. At first I was worried, but by implementing the changes listed above, I found success. And more importantly, my students too.
Elizabeth Dunham, MLS, is a retired marketing executive and currently an assistant lecturer at York College of Pennsylvania. She teaches business communication courses as well as first-year experience.
Aaron, Joshua R., William C. McDowell, and Andrew O. Herdman. “The Effects of a Team Charter on Students’ Team Behaviors.” Journal of Education for Business 89, no. 2 (2014): 90–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2013.763753
Tiwari, Ranjana, RajKumar Arya and Manoj Bansal. “Student motivation for project-based learning for the application of skills in research methodology.” International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research 7, no. 5 (2017): 4. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijabmr.ijabmr_123_17