Top 5 List: Effective Group Projects In Online Courses

Top Five List – CC0 Public Domain
Top Five List – CC0 Public Domain

Participating in group projects will offer students the chance to develop interpersonal communication skills, build relationships with each other and increase the level of competencies as each member brings something different to the group. In online courses, however, where work is done asynchronously students are resistant to working in groups with others.

Students say that they do not like group projects because they are expected to contribute more than others or they will have difficulty scheduling times to meet with each other. Students also report being uncomfortable with the idea of being assigned an individual grade based on the work of others.

Having taught fully online courses for over 15 years I’ve discovered a few best practices that can be used for group projects in online courses:

Small groups – use smaller groups wherever possible. As groups become larger, the more challenging meetings and communication can be. Having an odd number of group members also eliminates the potential for groups being split when a decision is needed. Encourage groups to come to a unanimous decision knowing that this may not always be possible. Having an odd number guarantees there were always be a majority in the event of a team vote. Depending on the overall size of your course you’ll have to define exactly what a small group means. Does this mean a group of seven or nine… or can this be a group of three or five?

Expectations – all assignments should have general directions with a rubric explaining exactly how assignments will be assessed. For group projects, it is important to go beyond this and define exactly what the individual contributions and expectations for each member are. A good strategy to follow here is to divide the project into equal parts for each member of the group that they all know exactly what they’re expected to do. All expectations should be laid out within a framework that will help facilitate the overall process.

Shared space – all learning management systems (LMS) have tools that facilitate communication for group work. Create a shared private space for each individual group where they can connect with each other and share ideas away from the other students who are not part of the smaller group. At a minimum there should be a place to have discussions, share files and allow for real-time chat. Instructors should provide directions for the use and make suggestions that will help students be successful. It is key that all students understand how to access the shared space. Ask groups to conduct all of their discussions in the LMS rather than rely on tools that you as the instructor can not access. This is helpful should you be called upon to act as judge or jury during times of conflict.

Monitor – a best practice to consider in an online courses is to monitor the shared group space and make it known to all students that an instructor will be present. By consistently offering advice and feedback as work progresses instructors will be modeling the expected use of the shared space. Instructors should find a balance between providing feedback and being too involved. The goal here is to simply guide the process and help make adjustments as needed. By monitoring the shared space faculty will also build presence within the course and create another opportunity to engage the students.

Individual and group grades – it is important to assign both individual and group grades for any group work assigned. Students need to be assessed on their individual contributions as well as how they participated with the other members of the group. The individual grades requires clear expectations and assigning individual grades increases individual accountability that will lead to a positive collaborative experience.

Overall online instructors should not eliminate effective pedagogical techniques that are present in traditional courses such as group work. Online instructors must take advantage of the technologies and best practices to create equal learning opportunities for students in the online space.

-RG