Welcome back to the next installment of the PBL Q&A posts where I answer commonly asked questions about Project Based Learning. You can find the first post here if you want to catch up!
Another set of common questions I receive about Project Based Learning has to do with group work. Here are three of the most frequent,
1. "Should I assign groups or let students pick them?"
2. "What if a student doesn't want to work in a group"
3. "What do I do if I have students working in a group and one of the students is not doing the work?"
These are very tough questions to answer and can cause lots of stress for a teacher, especially if they are new to Project Based Learning. Let's unpack these questions and see what we can do provide some support when you encounter these in your classroom.
1. To assign or not to assign...
Group work is tricky because most of the time, it comes down to the chemistry of the group. As a teacher, if you do not know your students very well, assigning groups could be disastrous. The inner workings of the social structure of your students group might not be evident and conflict could pop up if students are forced to work together in groups. I have found that the start of the school year leans more toward student selected groups with some minor teacher intervention as needed.
Like all things school related, the age group of the students is important to consider. High school students are much better at choosing their own groups than middle school students. In my experience, having an honest conversation with students about choosing partners for projects really helps set the tone for the rest of the year. I explain that it is great to work with your friends, but you need to be able to trust them to do their part. I had friends that were great friends, but terrible work partners for projects. High School and Middle School students respond well to these conversations. Ultimately, I tell students that they can pick their groups and I will only get involved in extreme situations.
An extension of this part of the process focuses on the students that are not asked to join a group and this where it is important to really know your students. I have found asking a group of students to include the one looking for a group to join to invite them in is often very successful. I have seen amazing friendships blossom because of this approach. Other times, there are students who are not included in groups because they have a history of not doing their work. This issue leads to question 2.
2. Flying solo in group work
Many people find it hard to believe, but I am an introvert in many ways. Large scale group projects are not always my things and I only enjoy them if I can do my part of a larger project on my own or I am working with a close group of friends that understand my eccentricities. We often forget about our introverted students in the classroom in a rush to have everyone socialize and have "normal" interactions in the classroom. Sometimes it is ok to let the "quiet kid" stay the quiet kid.
Every lesson I have created that has a PBL element allows for the flexibility to be completed as a solo project. Every project has the opportunity to be expanded based on the number of students in the group. For example, if the average group size was three, an assignment for a novel we read might ask for 3 examples of theme and three examples of symbolism be showcased in their project. That would break down to each student being responsible for a theme and symbol example. If the group had four students, It would be up the examples to four. I tell the students that if they want to add more students to the group the work, and the expectations, go up. Group work is not about packing in as many bodies as possible to reduce the workload for everyone. After a certain number of students, there are diminishing returns.
For the student that goes solo, I will have a conference with them and see what we can do to adjust the assignment for them to meet them where they are. There are so many different reasons why a student might want to go solo for a project. I think it is important to have conversations with your students to find out where they are. I have had students tell me they are working the late shift the next two weeks to help their family and can't work in a group because they'd never be able to meet up with them. Some have had serious anxiety issues that make it difficult to connect with others outside of the classroom. Having these conversations with students is important because it will inform you on how much you will nudge them to work with other students.
I've encouraged students to push themselves to work with other that might not be in their friend group and see how different ideas can come together to create some interesting projects that really push their thinking. There have also been times when the group got the work done, but it was not an awesome experience. That is the reality of group work sometimes and it is important for students to understand that as well. Sometimes group work does not work the way we want it to and that leads us to questions 3.
3. Carrying the group
The toughest part of group work is when someone in the group is not doing their part. It is important to be upfront with students at the start of the year about the process that is in place when students are in groups and they feel one of their partners is not doing their work. Every teacher needs to create a process that is good for their students and must be comfortable adjusting it from class to class as needed. Here is the process that I had in place for my classes,
1. Talk to your group member to see if they need any help with their part of the project. Encourage them to see the teacher if they are having trouble getting started.
2. Privately talk to the teacher if you feel the project is getting close to the end and a group member has not completed or started their part of the project.
1. Once a student has had a conversation with you about the lack of progress, go over to the entire group and check-in with them about their progress. (Note: Hopefully project check-ins are a normal part of your class period while students are working on projects so this should not seem weird.) Ask each student where they are at and if they need any support. This is usually when you will see that a student has not been doing the work needed for the group project.
2. Have a private conversation with the student to see what type of support they need to be successful for the project. Some many things can be going on in a student's life that a school project is not a priority. This check-in can inform the next steps.
3a. The student was just stuck on an idea and was afraid to let their friends know. You help them get started and they are back on track with the rest of the group. An extension can be given for the whole group if the student needs a little extra time.
3b. The student needs to work on their own because of personal issues. The project is adjusted for the student so they can be successful and focus on the project in a way that does not add to the stress and anxiety they are already facing. Consider reaching out to other teachers and the appropriate school resources depending on the severity of the personal issues. The project is adjusted for the group as well as so they can focus on their work and not worry about the loss of their group member and the work they needed to complete.
3c. The student says they will get it together after the talk and shows some progress. Unfortunately, they do not finish their part of the project and the rest of the group is worried about their grade. Luckily, the project can be assessed based on the different parts that the students completed as individuals and their grade will not be harmed because a member of their group did not complete their part.
This last part opens the door to the next question I will write about next week that addressed the grading of project based learning. Here is a hint, it involved rubrics!
Every project in every class will present teachers with a new problem that has to be addressed. Group projects can lead to some amazing leaps in learning. Some can be downright disastrous. I will leave with a project from a group that I was worried about, but managed to pull it together and blow the class away. I present to you, The Great Gatsby Rap
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments or to message me on Twitter @TheNerdyTeacher
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