The Folly of Team Projects

Jason Fertig

I have a challenge for all of my fellow academics regarding their use of team projects in their classes – do them right or don’t do them at all.

Team projects, team presentations, and team research papers have become a common portion of college course grades.  Such assignments are well-intended – many students are careerists, and because much of modern industry involves working with others, these projects will give students real-world experience without the pressure of a real-life job.  In practice however, these assignments do much more harm than good.

Students usually tell me about the inner workings of their group projects.  Regardless of how much researchers suggest that teamwork creates synergy, from my experience at several schools, the theory does not always align with practice.   

I have spent several semesters trying to force a square peg into a round hole with a team consulting assignment.  On paper, the project appeared to be something that students could pitch to future employers – “I was part of a team that interviewed a local client, discovered an organizational problem, wrote up a proposal and solution to that problem, and presented my results to a mock client.”  However, only the top 5% of assignments ever approached something that was worth presenting outside of class.

One consistent result across all of my schools was that the top students did not necessarily earn the best grades on team assignments.  It is fascinating to see A students put their names on papers that they would never dream of submitting for individual assignments.  The most common explanation for those occurrences is that the A students do their portions to their standards, and then they sit back and assume that the rest of the team will do their part.

I envision that the previous sentence will lead some readers to say that such results are not a big deal – I’m the professor; I should grade according to performance.  If students submit poor work, they should receive their low grade and sleep in the bed that they made.  I agree, but there is also no such thing as a perfect assignment.  There are other issues in play.

If one student takes charge of a team project, that student will inevitably contribute more to the project than other students.  In turn, professors navigate those waters by building in a peer evaluation system to align the final grade with student effort. 

But, such pedagogy is flawed on many levels. 

First, these evaluations, while intended to guard against free riding, typically become a license for individuals to do their part and then sit back and penalize poor performing team members instead of properly managing the project.  This turns the whole idea of “team project” into no more than a façade because students are graded individually.  While covering oneself is a valuable lesson to learn, it moves further and further away from teaching the course material at hand.

Furthermore, by basing a portion of a course grade on peer evaluations, this grade may now reflect individual traits instead of behaviors.  Ideally, course grades should reflect a student’s learning and application of class content. 

This assessing of traits in evaluations is similar to the effect of an overreliance on class participation as a portion of a course grade.  Any educator who wants an active classroom despises when students sit on their hands.  But forcing class participation through grading results in rewarding extroverts – unless the educator is fully prepared to moderate a class discussion by calling on everyone to prevent a few students from dominating the discussion.  Such moderation is possible, but trying to get everyone to talk creates an unnatural flow to a classroom discussion that inhibits the ability to go deeper into the subject.

Team projects also result in grade inflation for weaker students (I am not just accusing; I have been guilty of this too).  While many students submit team projects below their individual standards, the collaboration rarely results in F-level work.  It takes a real effort to fail a team project because one member usually does not let that happen.  Because these projects often pass, they do more to bolster the grades of weaker students than help the stronger students.  I have witnessed F’s become D’s and D’s become C’s because of team project performance.  Thus, I regrettably pass weaker students onto other professors solely because someone else’s work helped them get through my class. 

When I raise the grade inflation issue with others, they tell me that I should weight the project low enough that it cannot cause such a grade enhancement.  But in doing that, the lower weighting invites poor performance, and students devote their energy to other assessments that matter more towards their course average (I call this the insanity of weighting something 10%).

I never claim to be the best teacher in the world, but my students always appreciate that I try to assess them fairly.  With that in mind, I have decided that managing team projects effectively was more trouble that it was worth; the projects did more to damage learning than to aid it.  I know when to cut my losses, so last semester I decided to drop team assignments in favor of traditional essay exams and individual papers, and the early results on student papers and evaluations suggest that I was a better educator for it.

At this point, I’ve probably lost those educators for whom research is the top priority.  In the current climate of higher education, especially in tier-1 research institutions, the notion that a professor will shun research to take a day or two to do nothing but grade papers is career suicide, regardless of the quality of the research or the teaching ability of the individual.

But for professors who care about teaching, I urge them to reconsider the effectiveness of their team projects.  Are they used for efficiency?  Are students really learning?  Is it time to move the cheese?  If so, know that a shift towards more individual assignments does not have to result in an unmanageable grading load.  There are ways to reduce the grading load such as carefully determining the ideal amount of papers per student (two good assignments with feedback beats four with minimal comments) or staggering assignment due dates so the weekly stack is manageable.  I have also successfully implemented a policy, controversial among my peers, that gives requirements for D through A grades and lets students choose the grade they want to achieve.  This pedagogy allows me to spend more time grading work from motivated students while ensuring that those who earn a C do enough work to be able to handle successive courses.

I invite those who disagree with my view to state their case.  I’m not interested in abolishing all team projects, but only the ineffective ones.  In the end, if a professor feels that he has a project that is effective in achieving set outcomes, great.  But experience suggests that there is no “I” in team, but there should be plenty of “I” in the classroom. 

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