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There Must Be a Better Way: Presenting an Alternative to the Traditional Group Project

Stephen D. Risavy, Wilfrid Laurier University

Most of us have been there before: We describe our group project in the course syllabus and in our first class; we provide reminders throughout the semester. We might even have a few interim deliverables during the semester; however, our students avoid working on the project until the end of the semester, and when they do begin their work, they divide the work and each complete a portion of the project individually instead of working on it collaboratively. There must be a better way!

The purpose of this article is to provide a description of a novel alternative to the traditional group project that I have successfully implemented in three of my undergraduate-level courses: (a) human resources management; (b) recruitment and selection; and (c) strategic compensation. My alternative involves modifying a traditional group project in order to require students to complete their project work more regularly throughout the semester, to encourage greater student collaboration on their project work, and to foster more dialogue between educators and students regarding the application of course content. After applying this technique successfully across three different courses that are prevalent in I-O psychology, business, and management curricula, I am confident that any I-O, business, or management educator could also use this technique to modify an existing group project in a way that will avoid the issues of student procrastination and lack of collaboration while fostering more dialogue between educators and students.

In this article, I present (a) the theoretical and empirical foundation underlying my alternative to the traditional group project, (b) the steps required to modify a traditional group project, (c) an exemplar of a modified group project; (d) highlights of student experiences and perceptions of my alternative to the traditional group project; and (e) advice for other educators and trainers who are interested in implementing an alternative to the traditional group project. Overall, my approach can provide educators with an additional option that can be utilized to address issues inherent in traditional group projects while hopefully making the educational experience better for both I-O educators and their students.

Theoretical and Empirical Foundation

The first goal that I set out to accomplish was to encourage my students to work more collaboratively. Considering the pervasiveness of teams in the workplace (e.g., Forsyth, 2018; Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006), it is important for students to learn how to work effectively with one another so that they can be prepared for the collaborative work that they will encounter once they join the workforce. There is also evidence in support of the positive impact that team-based work has on organizational performance (e.g., Guzzo & Dickson, 1996; Pulakos et al., 2019). Regarding the formative assessment literature, having more collaboration within groups is consistent with the key formative assessment strategy of “activating students as instructional resources for one another” (Black & Wiliam, 2009, p. 8). One issue with the traditional group project is that once a large group project has been assigned, students divide the work and then work independently on one part of the project. My alternative to the traditional group project recommends providing class time to allow students to work more collaboratively on their group project. Once I replaced the class time that I had previously used for group presentations with opportunities for students to work on their group project task for the week, I began to see much more collaboration between the students and less of the “divide and conquer” approach.

The second goal that I set out to accomplish was to have my students complete their group work on a more regular basis throughout the semester. It is unsurprising that task groups, such as groups of students working toward a collaborative assignment, often wait until the deadline approaches to complete the majority of the work. The punctuated equilibrium model (Gersick, 1988, 1989) suggests that groups working toward a deadline make little progress until at least the midpoint between when the task is assigned and when the task is due. “Engineering effective classroom discussions and other learning tasks that elicit evidence of student understanding” is another key formative assessment strategy (Black & Wiliam, 2009, p. 8). My alternative to the traditional group project recommends dividing a traditional group project into smaller deliverables that are due throughout the semester. When I started to divide my large group projects in this manner, I began to see students working on their group project more regularly while better realizing the connection between the class content they were learning and its practical application.

The third goal that I set out to accomplish was to allow for more interaction between myself and my students as well as for more opportunities for me to provide feedback to my students. Hackman and Oldham’s (1980) job characteristics theory prominently includes feedback as one of the five core job characteristics, emphasizing its link to intrinsic motivation. Having additional feedback opportunities is consistent with the key formative assessment strategy of “providing feedback that moves learners forward” (Black & Wiliam, 2009, p. 8), as well as the notion that providing students with feedback on their group project throughout the semester will allow them to make better decisions during subsequent parts of the project than if they had not received that feedback. My alternative to the traditional group project recommends providing feedback to the students both in class during the completion of the tasks as well as after each group project task is submitted. This modification resulted in not only having more opportunities to discuss the application of the course content with students but also enhanced students’ understanding of how to apply the course content and comfort with the material.

How to Modify a Traditional Group Project

If you are using a group project that is assigned at the beginning of the semester and is due at the end of the semester, then you will likely be able to modify the project in a way that will help with the aforementioned procrastination and lack of collaboration issues. In order to modify a traditional group project, follow these five steps:

  1. Take the large group project and divide it into smaller task deliverables. Ideally, there will be a task for most of the weeks during the course. The idea is that when the students are learning particular content that is needed to complete part of a traditional group project, then a smaller task deliverable will be created related to that content for the students to complete and then submit directly after that content has been learned.
  2. Create instructions, deadlines, and grade weightings for each of the group project task deliverables to be shared with students in the course syllabus and in class.
  3. Structure the classes so that there is approximately 30 minutes available for the students to work on the group project task that is due for the corresponding weeks. Schedule this time for after the content has been presented so that the students can directly apply it to the corresponding group project task.
  4. Create a rubric for evaluating the group project task submissions (or use mine! See Appendix 1).
  5. After each group project task is submitted, use the rubric to evaluate the group’s submission, and post additional feedback comments before the students begin to work on the next group project task.

Modified Group Project Exemplar

I mentioned at the outset of this article that I have successfully implemented an alternative to a traditional group project in three of my undergraduate-level courses. Each initiative was slightly different; human resources management involved modifying a current event assignment and presentation project; recruitment and selection involved modifying a large group project; and strategic compensation involved modifying a simulation-based project. Perhaps most pertinent to demonstrating how my alternative to the traditional group project works, the recruitment and selection course modification is exemplified in the appendices, with Appendix 2 showing the original group project task instructions and Appendix 3 showing the modified group project task instructions.

As one example of how to take a large group project and divide it into smaller task deliverables, the Week 7 content for my recruitment and selection course focuses on recruitment source options, specifically their advantages and disadvantages as well as their appropriateness for different types of job openings. My original group project required students to include a recruitment plan (e.g., strategies to attract candidates, where they will advertise, a sample recruitment advertisement) with their final group project submission. My modified group project now requires students to submit an interim deliverable at the end of the week where they are learning about recruitment. The new deliverable asks them to identify appropriate external recruitment sources and to create an example of a recruitment advertisement for a specific job. Further examination of Appendices 2 and 3 can help to demonstrate other examples of specifically how I divided this large group project into smaller deliverables that were required to be completed throughout the semester as the content was being learned.

Student Experiences and Perceptions

Once I implemented my alternative to the traditional group project, groups were regularly working on and submitting their work throughout my courses. Further, I observed the groups working collaboratively in class on the assigned group project task for the week as opposed to the students dividing the work and having each student only be responsible for a specific aspect of the project. I also had much more opportunity to engage with my students, answer their questions, and provide them with feedback throughout the group project.

As further evidence of the success of my alternative to the traditional group project, I began to see several positive comments about the group project from my students on my end of semester course evaluations. Previously, I would typically either receive no comments about the group project or negative comments about the group project, the latter of which was part of my impetus for creating an alternative in the first place! Here is a sample of student comments from the most recent administration of my recruitment and selection course, which was in spring 2021 (delivered remotely):

  • “I loved that we had time in class to work on the group project—it took an enormous amount of stress off and helped connect the material to the project more, since we had just finished learning about it and now had to apply it. Ongoing feedback on participation and group project tasks was timely and helpful.”
  • “I liked that the group projects [sic] had small tasks that related to each week’s content.”
  • “I love how the course is structured with participation marks and the project being split up into different tasks.”

And here are a couple of student comments from the most recent administration of my strategic compensation course, which was in winter 2023 (delivered in person):

  • “I especially liked the format of the course where I got to apply my learning each week to a task within a group. This helped to advance my learning and gain a better understanding with my peers.”
  • “I really enjoyed the structure of this course, in particular, the weekly Kahoots and the time we were given in class to complete group work. I also enjoyed how the group work was due weekly instead of as one large project at the end of the term.”

Advice for I-O Educators and Trainers

Regarding advice for I-O educators and trainers interested in modifying their traditional group project, here are some important lessons that I have learned for each of the five steps from the above “How to Modify a Traditional Group Project” section:

  1. To help with the procrastination issue, I usually have a group project task for most of the weeks during my courses; the exceptions are usually the first and last weeks of the course and the week before the midterm exam. I sometimes also include a week off from the group project at some point in the semester. The ideal schedule will likely vary depending on the course content; for example, the schedule in Appendix 3 shows that for this 12-week course, there were no group project tasks assigned during weeks 1, 2, 5, 6, and 12 (the main content to apply in this course occurred during the second half of the course).
  2. I usually include instructions such as the ones shown in Appendix 3 in my course syllabi, and I also include the instructions relevant to each week where there is a group project task in my class slides. I then elaborate on the instructions and discuss more specifics about my expectations when I introduce the task in class. For deadlines, I usually set the deadline for the end of the weekend after I introduce the task; the reason for this is so that anyone who has to miss class can still have the opportunity to contribute to their group’s work after class and before the end of the weekend. The ideal grade weightings will likely vary depending on the group project tasks that have been created; for some of my courses, I have them all equally weighted, and for others, such as the example in Appendix 3, the weightings vary depending on the complexity of the task and the amount of work required to complete the task.
  3. To help with the group collaboration issue, I usually allow the last 30 minutes of my class time for the week for the students to work on the group project task for that week. I will allow more or less time depending on the complexity of the task and the amount of work required to complete the task. I am able to provide this in class time as I no longer require a group presentation from my students. This has been one of the most helpful modifications to my group project. For the students, this allows them to have time to work with their fellow group members without having to find outside-of-class time when they are all available, and it allows them to ask me questions as I circulate between the groups during this time so that they can revise their responses accordingly before submitting their work.  This allows me to form better connections with my students, provide additional feedback, and ensure that they have comprehended the lecture information and understand how to apply that content. It is worth noting that this modification also worked well when teaching in an online modality by assigning each group of students to their own breakout room. I then circulated between the breakout rooms to see if the students had questions and to discuss their progress.
  4. Usually, the students perform well on the group project tasks, but I do not think that I have ever had a substantive challenge to a grade that they have received. Part of the reason for this is likely the use of my general rubric that I use to evaluate each group project task submission (Appendix 1), the feedback that I am providing after each group project task submission (see the next point!), and the feedback that I am providing as I am circulating between the groups during their in-class time for working on the project.
  5. After the deadline for each group project task has passed, and before the students begin to work on their next group project task, I use my general rubric to evaluate their responses, and I also provide more specific comments for any rubric criterion that did not receive a perfect score (i.e., I will provide them with additional feedback comments for each rubric criterion where they did not receive a 5/5). All of this is done through my institution’s learning management system (LMS), which makes scoring the rubric, providing additional feedback comments, and uploading the grade for each group member seamless and efficient. I then often start the next class after a group project task has been submitted by inviting the students to share a highlight of their learning from the previous task, which allows us to revisit the previous week’s topic before making the connection and proceeding to the next topic.

Conclusion

This article has presented what I have found to be a much better way of designing and delivering a group project in several of my undergraduate-level courses. Connected to the formative assessment literature (e.g., Black & Wiliam, 2009; Wiliam & Thompson, 2008), my alternative to the traditional group project will hopefully help I-O educators design and deliver group projects in a way that results in greater student collaboration and less procrastination while fostering additional educational interactions with their students.

If nothing else, our I-O community is unfailingly collaborative and supportive, so please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of this in further detail or if you would like individualized advice for how to restructure your traditional group project: srisavy@wlu.ca

References

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5–31.https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5

Forsyth, D. R. (2018). Group dynamics. Cengage Learning.

Gersick, C. J. (1988). Time and transition in work teams: Toward a new model of group development. Academy of Management Journal, 31(1), 9–41. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1988-21891-001

Gersick, C. J. (1989). Marking time: Predictable transitions in task groups. Academy of Management Journal, 32(2), 274–309. https://www.jstor.org/stable/256363

Guzzo, R. A., & Dickson, M. W. (1996). Teams in organizations: Recent research on performance and effectiveness. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 307–338. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.47.1.307

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work redesign. Addison-Wesley.

Kozlowski, S. W. J., & Ilgen, D. R. (2006). Enhancing the effectiveness of work groups and teams. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(3), 77–124. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-1006.2006.00030.x

Pulakos, E. D., Kantrowitz, T., & Schneider, B. (2019). What leads to organizational agility: It’s not what you think. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 71(4), 305–320. https://doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000150

Wiliam, D., & Thompson, M. (2008). Integrating assessment with learning: What will it take to make it work? In C. A. Dwyer (Ed.), The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning (pp. 53–82). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315086545-3

 

Appendix 1 – Group Project Task Evaluation Rubric

Rubric Component

1

2

3

4

5

Task instructions were followed

  • Several components of the instructions were not followed

Demonstrates
performance in both 1 and 3

  • Some components of the instructions were not followed

Demonstrates
performance in both 3 and 5

  • Task instructions were followed perfectly

Response was
comprehensive

  • Response did not demonstrate a comprehensive effort from the group

Demonstrates
performance in both 1 and 3

  • Response demonstrated a somewhat comprehensive effort from the group

Demonstrates
performance in both 3 and 5

  • Response demonstrated a comprehensive effort from the group

Content was
applied correctly

  • There were several questions regarding the application of the content

Demonstrates
performance in both 1 and 3

  • There were a few questions regarding the application of the content

Demonstrates
performance in both 3 and 5

  • Content was applied perfectly

Note: For example, a score of 4 would correspond to a relatively minor issue, but instructions were otherwise followed completely (e.g., it was submitted late), whereas a score of 3 would reflect a more substantive issue (e.g., one of the assigned questions was not addressed).

 

Appendix 2 – Original Group Project Task Instructions for My Recruitment and Selection Course

To integrate course material, students are required to complete a comprehensive group project entailing the development of a selection system for a job and organization of your choice. Groups may use actual organizations and jobs; however, the project must “create” a new selection system rather than describe an existing system. The paper should contain:

  1. A description of the organization. Indicate the industry, size, location, key product lines, financial status, vision and/or mission statement, values, key elements of the strategic plan, and specific HR policies/practices, including employment equity plans. (approximately 3 double-spaced pages)
  2. A job analysis strategy. Describe the strategy that you would use to analyze the job. Include any questionnaires you would use and/or a detailed description of any techniques you would use. (approximately 2 double-spaced pages)
  3. A comprehensive job description for the job. Indicate duties and responsibilities, reporting relationships, working conditions, supervisory responsibilities, as well as education, experience, required skills, and personality requirements. Be sure to indicate what features of the job are most important or critical. (approximately 2–3 double-spaced pages)
  4. A recruitment plan. State what strategies you will use to attract candidates, including any special steps that you would take given your organization’s employment equity plan. Estimate the costs of your efforts (where will you advertise and how much will it cost) and indicate any specific procedures you will use (e.g., realistic job previews). You may include additional information, such as a sample recruitment advertisement. (approximately 3 double-spaced pages)
  5. A description of your selection procedures. Outline ALL procedures that you will use to select applicants. You must include matrices that show (a) important job tasks (from the job description) X applicant KSAOs* and (b) KSAOs X selection tools that you intend to use. (approximately 6–7 double-spaced pages)
  6. All reliability and validity information on selection procedures. Indicate known or estimated reliability and validity information (e.g., based on validity generalization or other similar studies). If you are lacking such information, describe how you could obtain this information in a study of your chosen organization. Be sure to indicate how your procedures meet existing legal legislation. (approximately 4 double-spaced pages)
  7. An interview protocol. Provide a plan for interviewing candidates. Indicate the type of interview questions and format you will use. Provide examples of at least three interview questions and a detailed scoring key for evaluating each question and the interview overall. (approximately 2–3 double-spaced pages)

* KSAO = knowledge, skill, ability, or other characteristic/attribute.

Appendix 3 – Modified Group Project Task Instructions for My Recruitment and Selection Course

Week

Task

Weight

3

  • Select an organization and a job in that organization.
  • Provide the justification from each group member regarding why you would like to study this organization and job—each group member should include their own reasons for why the organization and job have been selected.

5

4

  • Perform a job analysis for the job that your group has selected using the information from the “Getting Started: Gathering Job-Related Information” slides.
  • Be sure to include job description information, job specification information, reporting relationships, and working conditions.
  • Also note the most important and critical aspects of the job description.

10

7

  • Identify the external recruitment sources that should be used to generate a qualified and representative applicant pool for the job that your group has selected.
  • Create an example of a recruitment advertisement for the job that your group has selected.

15

8

  • Identify the minimum qualifications (MQs) from your job description. Next, decide how you will screen for those MQs.
  • Lastly, determine whether your screening methods have acceptable levels of validity (e.g., based on validity generalization or other similar information).

5

9

  • Identify the components of the job description that are the most important or critical for the job and that have not been addressed in your screening.
  • Next, decide which of those components can be tested for during selection. Finally, determine whether your testing methods have acceptable levels of validity.
  • The best way to complete this task would be to include matrices that show (a) important job tasks (from the job description) X applicant KSAOs and (b) KSAOs X selection tests that you intend to use.

20

10

  • Identify the components of the job description that are the most important or critical for the job and that have not been addressed in your screening and selection testing.
  • In addition, consider other noncognitive attributes that are likely to be important for your organization. Hint: look to their organizational values!
  • Next, create situational interview questions (p. 417; Table 9.1) and behavioral interview questions (p. 419; Table 9.2) for these job description components/noncognitive attributes.
  • Your group should create two situational and two behavioral interview questions.
  • Last, determine whether your interviewing methods have acceptable levels of validity.

20

11

  • Now that you have determined your screening methods, selection tests, and interview questions, how will you use the candidate data to make a final selection decision? Hint: look to the decision-making model options!

5

 

 

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