grading group projects

mmphillips at STKATE.EDU mmphillips at STKATE.EDU
Tue May 5 08:29:42 EST 1998

We do the same sort of thing in our freshman level General Biology course
-- have students do semester long group research projects.  We've found
that half our job is supervising the science and a good half of the job is
supervising group process.

Some things we've learned along the way that minimize the chances for group
1. Group size is crucial.   We too have found that you never, ever, ever
allow groups of more than 4.  With 5 people, there is much more room for
someone to be a slacker, without the project suffering.  Three is ideal.

2.  Have groups set up group norms or a contract.  At a minimum, you can
get the group talking about group process by asking them if they think the
group is working by its rules/norms.

3.  Explicitly attend to group process and do not avoid conflict.  Schedule
meetings during the semester to discuss how the group is functioning as a
group.  The students have to learn to confront group members and give them
a chance to change their behavior.

4.  Find some way to have individually graded portions of the project.  All
of the theory about cooperative learning stresses that there must be
individual accountability, along with positive interdependence (we all do
better if everyone contributes).  This is a hard one for this kind of
project.  Something that we are experimenting with is to have periodic
quizzes on the project (and to set it up that the group gets extra points
if everyone passes with 100%-- which we did not do this time).  We've
quizzed them on things like "What are your methods?" on the day that the
project proposal is due.  "What is your hypothesis and what background
information have you gathered that provides the rationale for your
hypothesis?"  -- administered when they turn in a draft of their intro and
methods for peer review.  When they turned in their draft of the full paper
we asked "What is your hypothesis and describe how your data support or do
not support your hypothesis".   I'm not convinced that having the quizzes
has necessarily made the slackers do more, but it certainly has penalized
them for not knowing what is going on  and their partners know it, which
goes a long way toward making them feel better about the process.

Another key thing we've learned is that there is ALWAYS two sides to a
story -- the doers rarely understand how they shut people out, take too
much control, and set up a situation where someone else fails to
contribute.  This is why it is essential to confront these issue before the
final grade is being decided.  People have to be given a chance to change
their behavior and to tell their side to their partners.

I'd go on, but it's time to get to class, and think this gets at most of
what I've figured out so far.

Martha Phillips
Biology Department
College of St. Catherine
St. Paul, MN

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