Ungrouping Groups, pros and cons (and other reflections on Fall 2014 teaching)

Normally at this time of year, during the holidaze on some family visit (now at the inlaws and later at my side of the family), I’m finishing the planning for the next semester’s classes and reflecting a bit on the semester that has just been. But since I’ll be sabbaticalling in winter term, now I’m just reflecting, and in particular not assigning a collaborative project in either of my classes.

(This is mostly interesting to me and for “future Steve” to read when he actually has to start thinking about the fall 2015 term. But just in case anyone else is interested, I thought I’d put it all here).


I taught two classes in the fall (one less than normal because of a course release I was owed for directing MA projects), 323: “Writing in the Professional World” and 354: “Critical Digital Literacies.” By the way, this is the first time I haven’t taught a graduate course in a semester in a long time– and really, with the sabbatical, this is the first school year I haven’t taught a grad class in at least seven years, maybe more. 323 was online and 354 was face to face. 323 is a mix of students majoring or minoring in written communication along with a significant minority of students who are taking the class as a substitution for a “Writing Intensive” class in their major; 354 was almost all majors and minors. 323 has been on the books for years and I’ve taught it a handful of times before, though (for quirky institutional/historical reasons) it is kind of an ill-defined class in relation to our introductory course in technnical writing; 354 is a relatively new course that has only been taught twice in the last four years, both times by me.

Both of these classes have what I would describe as “big final projects” that I would normally have students complete as a collaborative effort: that is, a group of 4-5 students working together to make one deliverable. For 323, I’ve students do a “formal proposal report” where the premise/idea for the project is that I have won the lottery and I’ve decided to donate $5 million to EMU that has to fall into the “Education first” mission/tagline of the institution. Students need to research and present a proposal for how to use this money.

For this latest version of 354, the final project was what I dubbed the “writerly video” assignment. Students had to make a planned-out short video about whatever they wanted, and this video project needed to have a “pitch,” a script, and a storyboard (all of which were completed ahead of time).  Besides all this and the video itself, there was an essay where students were asked to reflect on their process and how this all connected with the readings and their thoughts on what “writing” is and means.

I’ve had students working collaboratively on big projects like this for years. I’m a big believer in the pedagogical value of such work for all the reasons that are common in the field– writing as a social/collaborative process, students actively creating knowledge/projects together, exposing students to a writing experience they are likely to face in the “real world,” etc., etc. While I think I have a reasonably good system for running collaborative projects (and by the end of these collaborations, students generally agree with me about that), students almost universally despise group work. In the nutshell, they don’t like working together because of the organizational/time spent together outside of regular class meeting problems and they don’t like their grade depending on others in their group, often other students who they would really never voluntarily work with in a million years. I think this student perception is wrong of course, but I will say I have some sympathy about objecting to forced collaboration. I don’t like being forced to work with others either.

So when I was planning the Fall 2014 semester, I said to myself “Fine, no group work. Everyone will do their own projects.” The results were interesting.

The “writerly video” assignment worked fine as an individual project, though there was a fair amount of what I would describe as soft/self-selected collaboration. This was a face to face class and I gave students a lot of classtime to work on their videos. In that time, almost all of the students asked each other for technical and equipment help, asked each other advice, and some asked each other to act in their projects.

Slight Tangent: There are at least two things I’d change about this assignment next time. First, I let students do “whatever they wanted” and there were some really sketchy bits of work. So while I don’t want to hem students in too tightly, I think I’ll restrict them to something like “instructional videos,” which were generally the most effective ones. Second, I let students use whatever platform they wanted to edit their videos, and that just creates too many problems for the less techno-literate students, which probably accounted for about half the students. I can’t really require students use iMovie since half of them have Windoze PCs. Anyway, I’ll have to mull that one over, but I suspect I’ll go back to using Wevideo or something like it. The downside is it isn’t exactly “feature-rich;” the upside is it’s pretty easy and it is cross-platform. /tangent

The results in 323 were more interesting. The top third or so of students in that class were able to do the whole thing themselves very effectively: that is, they came up with good ideas, did the research, wrote a lucid report, etc. A few of the better students (call them in the top half of things) had not very good ideas but were able to still execute a decent report. Some of the students in the bottom half/third group came up with pretty good ideas but they were really unable put them together well, and the rest of the students in the bottom half had not very good ideas and not very good execution.

So to me, it’s a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, it would seem that the students who benefit the most from this sort of group work are actually the weakest students.  The weaker performing students in this class would have probably earned better grades had they been grouped up with stronger students, and they probably would have benefited in lots of other ways by working with the better students. At the same time, the better students were probably a bit “held back” and frustrated by some of the weaker students, which is probably why I think a lot of the stronger students resent group work the most.

On the other hand, even the best students’ projects weren’t as good as the ones done by groups in the previous version of the class, which is to me evidence that just pitching in to do things makes it easier to get things done. And I have to think that if some of these weaker students with good ideas could have also helped some of these better students with not so good ideas.

So the ungrouping worked out in 354– probably because making videos lends itself better as a project with soft collaboration, probably because it was face to face class– and not so much in 323. The next tim I teach 323 (and it’s likely to be on the list in Fall 2015), I think I need to go a bit more “all in” on this collaboration, starting it earlier, forming the groups based on some personal statement and resume assignments, etc.

But enough notes from me on this….

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