There has always been at least one important group project in every subject I’ve taken at IE so far. These are often worth a large percentage of the final grade and are sometimes weighted as much as the midterm or even the final exam. This is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. The focus on collaborative work enables students to better understand how to communicate and coordinate effectively with peers, increasing their interpersonal skills and in some cases even their leadership skills. Both are in high demand in the workforce and are likely to only become more important in the future. According to a McKinsey survey, firms are increasing their focus on training employees in interpersonal skills and leadership skills. Mastering these early could give IE students a significant professional advantage in the future.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant drawbacks to the group project approach. We’ve all been in a group with a person who just won’t work, no matter how much other team members ask politely or even beg for their collaboration. Normally, there are enough people in a group that the slacker’s work can be redivided without increasing anyone’s workload too much. However, there are extreme cases. Students may find that half of their group or more decide they’d rather not make an effort. In this case, the workload for team members who do want to work can increase unmanageably. I have even seen a case where the remaining members weren’t able to complete the project on time because they had to suddenly divide the work of five people between the two of them.
Even in cases where only one member decides not to work, the situation is still unjust. Usually all team members receive the same final grade. This means that a student that hasn’t made the effort to write even a single paragraph or design a single slide could get a 9 or more if everyone else on the team worked hard. Not only is this unfair, it is also not what group projects are meant to be evaluating. Presumably, the rationale behind a team getting a single grade is that the work was a group effort, but this is simply not the case if some members of the group didn’t make an effort.
It’s clear that group projects at IE need to be reformed to make them fairer. However, it is also clear that working with classmates can improve teamwork, communication, and leadership skills, all of which will benefit students in their professional lives. IE therefore needs to find a way to fix the problems of group projects without losing the benefits of collaboration. Fortunately, some professors have already put strategies in place to achieve this.
The most common is allowing students to choose their own groups. This is very helpful when it comes to avoiding free riders. After more than a year with the same class, I know who can’t be relied upon to lift a finger to help. I even know who will dedicate time to making sure that a powerpoint slide is beautiful, and who will just slap a wall of text onto a slide and call it a day. I’m sure most of my classmates could do the same. This knowledge is helpful for making group projects more equitable, as it enables students to avoid working with people who never or rarely turn in their part of the project. Furthermore, those who still choose to work with free riders because they’re close friends at least know what they’re getting themselves into.
Unfortunately, there are two main problems with this method. Firstly, it depends on students already knowing each other’s attitudes and abilities. This is reasonable to assume for a class in the same degree programme, provided they aren’t first-years in their first semester. It is not so reasonable to assume for a class made up of students from various degree programmes. This happens fairly often, not only in electives and advanced seminars but also in mandatory courses such as Technology. In this case, students have no way of avoiding free riders. They can’t even penalise free riders for their behaviour by refusing to work with them in the future.
There is another more serious problem with the tactic of choosing groups. Over time, most people will end up always choosing friends that work reasonably hard, and hence always working with the same people. This reduces the benefits of group projects. In our professional lives, we will have to work with all kinds of people, including those whose personalities are the opposite of ours, or who annoy us and who we would never want to make friends with. By always choosing the same group of people we get along with, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn how to cooperate with others unlike ourselves, as well as with others who we don’t personally like. The real-world value of our teamwork skills plummets as a consequence.
Fortunately, I have seen another method used in some courses which makes group projects fairer while not reducing their benefits. The details vary, but the core idea is that group members are able to evaluate each other’s contributions. This is often done by rating each member on a scale (e.g. 1 = low contribution to the project and 10 = high contribution). The rating is then combined with the overall group grade to give each member an individual grade. Essentially, the group is able to penalise members who didn’t do their share and reward those who went above and beyond what was expected of them.
Not only does peer evaluation make group projects fairer, it also makes them better able to teach students teamwork skills. This is because being reliable is actually a core part of being a good teammate. The conventional method of assessing group projects doesn’t incentivize being reliable at all, given that a free rider can get the same grade as other members. On the other hand, reliable team members are likely to get higher ratings on peer evaluations and hence higher grades. This encourages students to develop the important skill of being a reliable and trustworthy teammate.
Many IE courses already include peer evaluation in group projects. However, there are still many other courses which do not. To make group projects as beneficial and equitable as possible, IE should implement peer evaluation in every course. This ensures that project grades are fair and reflect an individual’s contributions to the project.
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