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July 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 7

No More Assembly-Line Projects

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How to ensure all students are working together to complete a task.

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Instructional Strategies

No More Assembly-Line Projects

Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Javier Vaca, and Diane Lapp
How to ensure all students are working together to complete a task.
We've all heard the criticisms about group work—that one person gets stuck doing most of the work, or that a fast-moving group leaves a member behind in their rush to complete the task. These student behaviors have often torpedoed a collaborative group.
How do you make sure that all members are doing their fair share? Our short answer is that teachers should design collaboration into the assignment throughout the process. Having said that, we know there are lots of "group projects" that make it easy for individual members to sink or swim alone. For instance, a task that involves writing is inherently independent. At some point, each member of the group is going to need to retire to a corner to compose.
A task that lends itself to an easy division of labor (a report, a PowerPoint presentation) will likely result in a short meeting on who will do what and another brief time when students organize the final product together. It's less of a team effort than an assembly-line project where the individual pieces are bolted together.
A group project that requires independent contributions of its members needs an accountability system that monitors the processes the group uses. This means that evaluation by the teacher can't be left until the end of the assignment. Our experiences support the earlier work of Brigid Barron and colleagues ("Doing with Understanding: Lessons from Research on Problem- and Project-Based Learning"), who studied the factors present in successful project-based groups. Our combined work results in these recommendations.

Elements of Great Group Projects

  1. Design tasks that address larger learning goals. A project centered on the question, "What is space junk?," focuses on discrete knowledge that is easily divided into an assembly line of production tasks. However, the question "How can we avoid creating more space junk?" invites collaboration by asking students to consider how several factors interact.
  2. Give students experience with small tasks before asking them to tackle longer projects. An incremental start helps them build the stamina required to sustain work extending over several days or weeks and gives individuals the practice needed to succeed in a group.
  3. Establish timelines for both individual and group completion of each phase of the assignment.
  4. Create interim times for meeting with individuals and with groups throughout different phases to monitor progress and provide formative feedback.
  5. At the end of the project, ask the entire group to provide feedback on their individual contributions. We have them complete this on one form so that all members see each other's words. It's amazing how honest they are about what they did and did not do.
  6. Factor both individual and group evaluations when grading the assignment. This means that each member receives two grades for the assignment—an individual grade and a group grade.

These Elements in Action

Mr. Arnold, a 3rd grade teacher, taught a unit on the basic structure of the U.S. government in his social studies class. Students learned how the government is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Mr. Arnold used modified excerpts of the U.S. Constitution to show his students how its first three articles established the branches and how the founders of the nation created a system of separation of power among the three branches to avoid a monarchy.
To consolidate their understanding, students worked in small groups to create a chart showing the checks and balances that each branch has over the other two. After the chart was completed, the students discussed in their small groups which branch they thought was most powerful. Mr. Arnold prompted the students to take their group discussion into consideration, but to answer the question individually in writing. Each student gave their opinion on which branch is more powerful than the other two, drawing from the chart they produced as a group and the group discussion.
Mr. Arnold created a collaborative task that focused on learning larger concepts, where students completed both a group assignment (the checks and balances chart) and an individual one (evaluating which branch might be slightly more powerful than the other two). Likewise, by weaving feedback and individual and group accountability throughout a collaborative task, you can avoid lopsided project leadership or piecemeal participation. 


Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

 

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