A Team Learning Conundrum

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One of the video vignettes from the Rock Ethics Institute Principles Curriculum is about group ettiquette for student group projects. Although it's "ettiquette" this clip neither shows a loud argument or an initial session to establish operating parameters.

Instead it shows how one of the group members can subtly highjack a project. The specific scenario is that three students - an Anglo male, an Anglo female and an African-American female student are asked to make a joint presentation, but the male student forces through his idea, writes all the slides and categorizes other comments as "stupid" or "I already did that." Not too welcoming.

What's interesting is that the other members realize he's taken over, but aren't sure whether to complain. It's apparent that they feel his work is actually adequate and will earn them a high grade and so wonder what they are really concerned about. Since they are being silent for now, if anything happens later, the dominant student really will wonder what went wrong (it's too bad he's not a body language reader).

And The Problem is....

Actually one student does identify a problem - which is that when one or more students are super dominant in a project, the others do not have the chance to practice the skills they need to learn. Even though the overall product will be fine and not mess up their GPA's, there is a dissatisfaction among the non-dominant members that they did not do more. Not only are they not practicing the research, organization and writing skills they need to learn, they feel almost no ownership in the project. Even if they get an "A", they may just say "Whatever".

I can relate because the same thing happened to me. I was in a group phonetics project (with a romantic couple yet). Even though I volunteered to help, they did all the recruiting, wrote all the test conditions and did most of the digitization. I actually like linguistics, so I actually did want to learn what to do. Fortunately, we had to submit separate results sections, or I might have literally learned nothing for the project. Group projects in linguistics? No thanks.

I think the clip here shows the underlying paradox all team assignments must overcome - how do you gain the benefits of team learning without losing the opportunities for individuals to learn what they need to do?


First, I think it's important to consider WHY team projects are a good idea for a course. I do think a valid learning objective for working on teams is to learn to work on teams (almost all working environments require group skills). Some other ones, like reducing the number of assignments submitted to an instructor, can be more dicey in my opinion. Does it serve the student?

Almost all team learning experts recommend students rate their peers, but is it clear to the non-dominant students that there is a real problem? Suppose the African American student (who is genuinely concerned) makes a comment, but her team member says nothing. The result is that the dominant student may feel that "race" is a factor (Ugh).

I do think that expectations for each person should be drawn up with guidance from the instructor. Many teams assign specific roles to each members, and that can give each person a sense of ownership. A guideline here could be to require roles, maybe an editor, researcher and person to the the jazzy opening/closing. Another might be to require some task from each member (e.g. each person must record one subject so that we all learn how to use the audio equipment).

The Right Learning Space?

We had some ideas about creating appropriate learning spaces for group projects, and here I think the right learning space would be a mini-conference room with a shared screen everyone could see. One problem was that the lounge set up showed the dominant student just working on slides on his laptop and spitting out his comments. Really he was so focused on the slides, he wasn't paying any serious attention to his teammates.

I believe a shared screen would change the dynamics. The whole team could judge the quality of the product. Changes could be shown live. And if another laptop (or iPhone) was in use, someone could even be doing some live research. If you're really brave you can all meet virtually and do it over Adobe Connect (which might be more convenient for everyone). In other words, I think a shared screen would give a sense of shared ownership.

As you can see, I think there are solutions to creating a worthwhile team project. In retrospect, I wish I had been on a good team project. Not only can you make more friends in school, but you CAN learn a lot from your peers if you're in the right state of mind.

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