Volume 55     Number 4    Spring 2018      Editor: Tara Behrend

Meredith Turner
/ Categories: 554

Max. Classroom Capacity: The Dreaded Group Project

Loren J. Naidoo, Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Like most of you, I’ve spent much of February absorbed by the thrilling coverage of Olympic curling, an athletic spectacle unlike any other. As a good Canadian, I’ve spent many an evening screaming “Hurry! Hard!” at the TV in a fit of ecstatic simpatico with the vigorously sweeping titans gliding down the sheet, graceful as a cheetah scratching its chin. The strategizing, the polite sportsmanship, the coordinated yelling—these are groups working at their groupiest! Coincidentally, I have just started overseeing a set of student group projects in my undergraduate research methods class, with hopes for similarly lofty levels of excitement and achievement.

 In fact, when I reflect on my academic career, I realize that almost every class I teach has a group project of some sort, but I’m not sure how much thought or planning went into that decision at the time. Thinking about it now, I can come up with a couple of reasons:

  1. Students should learn to work together because most likely they will have to do that in their work and personal lives, and it’s nice to make new friends.
  2. For some groups in some classes, a kind of magic happens and the group is able to create something that greatly exceeds expectations—the group can be greater than the sum of its parts.

The flip side is that for some other students, group projects can be an academic nightmare like no other. In a spirit of well-intentioned masochism, I decided to dig up past student evaluation feedback on various group projects:

  • “The group project is long and dull”
  • “The (group) project is beyond torment”
  • (Some say the same of televised curling—pure balderdash and calumny!
  • But somewhat to my surprise I found quite a few positive comments too:
  • “The thing I appreciate most about the class is the group work”
  • “The group projects help me to understand how to apply what we have learnt”

My original goal for this column was to provide a detailed report on the issues, considerations, controversies, and empirical evidence concerning the use of Collaborative Learning techniques, in about 2000 words. This, of course, is impossible. So instead, like my Olympic heroes and heroines, we will skim lightly across a slippery surface, with the hopes that some of our stones (of wisdom) will end up “on the button.”

What are group projects?

Without getting bogged down, let’s define group projects as a particular case of collaborative learning in which evaluated classroom activities involve three or more students actively communicating and cooperating with each other towards a common goal, under the guidance of the instructor. OK? OK. While we’re defining things, curling can be defined as shuffleboard + chess on ice on steroids!

Why use group projects?

There are circumstances in which group work is beneficial for practical or structural reasons. It can allow students to work on projects which would be too much work to complete individually, such as conducting an empirical study in a research methods class, or a consulting project in an I-O psych or management class. Group projects may also reduce the grading burden of the instructor and/or TA, though if they are designed well, probably not by much.

Various theoretical reasons for the value of collaborative learning also have been proposed, including the notion that knowledge encoding is superior when occurring in a rich social context (Olmstead, 1974), collaborative work promotes the development of positive interpersonal relationships with fellow students (including multicultural relations; Aronson, 1971), self-esteem, social support, and positive attitudes towards school (Johnson et al., 2007).

In addition, the perceived value of teamwork skills to the workplace is evident in the attention they receive in the training/teams literature (e.g., Chen et al., 2004; Stoner et al., 2015) and in I-O and business classrooms. This value also is reflected in teamwork skills appearing on the list of AACSB learning standards. In sum, teamwork is valued by employers, and thus those who are concerned with preparing students for the work world tend to see the importance of developing student teamwork skills.

Are group projects effective?

There is a large literature in education, including several prominent meta-analyses (e.g., Johnson et al., 1991, Pae et al., 2015; Sung et al., 2017) which consistently supports the learning effectiveness of collaborative (versus competitive or individualistic) learning at various educational levels and across diverse contexts (see Johnson et al., 2007 for a review). As an example of evidence more specific to psychology, Tomcho and Foels (2012) conducted an underpowered meta-analysis of studies on group learning activities in psychology classes published in the Teaching of Psychology Journal between 1974 and 2011. They found a large positive effect for collaborative learning activities on outcomes including graded performance, nongraded knowledge, self-reported attitude/belief change, and behavior change.

What are the ideal conditions for group work?

Wait, wait, wait—what about social loafing? Doesn’t that make group projects risky? Yes, social loafing is a real concern, but here are some guidelines (e.g., read Meyers, 1997) for how to avoid it, in brief: (a) The task must be divisible so that different students can take on different aspects; (b) the task must be additive such that contributions from every student are needed; and (c) individual performance must be identifiable, evaluated, and incentivized. To put it in more familiar curling terms: when you have the hammer in the tenth end and you need a simple hit and stay for the win but you throw a hog so the other team steals two, it’s pretty clear that you’re the hoser, eh?

For example, in addition to submitting a single paper for their group projects, I require students to submit evaluations of the contributions to the project of all of the group members including themselves. When students rate others (or themselves) poorly, I ask them to carefully describe the specific incidents or behaviors that led to the low ratings. I carefully examine these ratings and comments, and where the pattern of evidence indicates that one or more students were loafing, I adjust individual grades accordingly. This is a lot of work, especially when there are big disparities in the ratings. I have found it a worthwhile investment to help groups at the beginning to devise reasonable ways to divide up the work and assign specific tasks and deadlines. It also helps to make students well aware of the fact that their individual contributions to the group project matter, and that failing to do one’s part will result in a lower grade. When I take the time to do this, the majority of groups seem to function well, which means they probably learn more, and there are far fewer ratings disparities to deal with. There are many other ways to achieve these ends, and Meyers (1997) provides a nice description of many of them.

There are many other questions to ask about how to design group projects, including: what are the optimal group size, project duration, task complexity, group and/or individual reward/accountability structure, and peer and/or instructor assessment methods? Here the literature yields disparate findings and many effects look to be context-specific. For example, Sung et al. (2017) found generally larger positive effects for collaborative learning on learning outcomes with groups of 4 and more than 4 compared to groups of 3 or 2. In contrast, Tomcho and Foels (2012) found no moderating effect for group size. Similarly, Sung et al. found that effect sizes were larger for project durations of roughly between 1 week and 6 months than for those less than 1 week or more than 6 months. In contrast, Tomcho and Foels found larger effect sizes for projects one to three class sessions long compared to half a semester or greater. Primary studies in different contexts also tend to produce different effects for these variables. There does not appear to be a simple story—perhaps we will revisit this issue in some future column.

Can technology help?

Yes! Only fairly recently did I get around to removing a standard line in my syllabi asking students to turn off their pagers in class. Technology advances! Mobile phones provide ease of access to a variety of helpful collaboration tools, especially in the context of hybrid/blended and fully online classes. Today I met with two groups of students to discuss their first group project in an asynchronous fully online research methods class. Most of these students are taking research methods fully online precisely because it is very difficult for them to come to campus for class or other meetings. So we met using Zoom, a platform similar to Skype which allows group audio/video conferencing, screen sharing, whiteboarding, hand raising, and so on. There are many other tools.

There are also people who conduct empirical research on the effectiveness of Mobile-Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (mCSCL). For example, Sung et al. (2017) meta-analyzed 16 years of empirical research on the topic. In case you are wondering how long smart phones have existed (like I did when I read that paper—I googled it so you don’t have to!), blackberry phones with e-mail were out by 2003 and the iPhone was released in 2007; their definition of mobile includes laptop computers and PDAs. They examined the outcomes of learning achievement, learning attitude, and peer interaction. They found large positive effects for mCSCL over noncollaborative learning and computer-less collaborative learning, and a smaller effect over nonmobile CSCL. The benefits for mCSCL were somewhat greater with larger group sizes suggesting mobile technologies mitigate some of the process losses due to a lack of social cohesion, lack of coordination or increased diffusion of responsibility associated with larger group sizes.

Nowadays most students will use mobile technology to help with group projects whether you intend them to or not, to their benefit—all the more reason to assign such projects! You know what else technology lets you do? Replay entire Olympic curling matches on your phone…

What are some ideas for innovative and effective group projects in my I-O psychology/management class?

Muir and van der Linden (2009) describe an incredible group project they developed that involved groups of 3 to 5 introductory psychology undergrads preparing and delivering a short lecture on psychology to local elementary school students. The task required students to deeply understand the target material and how to present it to a developmentally younger audience. This approach is particularly powerful as it combines collaborative, experiential, and service learning.

Another relatively intensive approach is Aronson’s (1971) jigsaw classroom. A lesson is divided into a certain number of parts—let’s say five as an example. The class is divided into groups of 5 students, each tasked with learning one of the five parts. All students assigned the first part get together to learn it, same with those assigned the second part, and so on. Then, each student returns to their jigsaw group, and teaches their part of the lesson to the four remaining group members. Here the task is divisible, interdependence is baked into the structure, and individuals are accountable for their own learning and that of their group mates.

If these sound like too much of a commitment, about 12 years ago I created a group project for my large social psychology classes which involved small groups of students creating a short and entertaining educational video about a social psychology theory or study and posting it on a then obscure website called YouTube. The idea is similar to Muir and van der Linden’s (2009) (i.e., students as teachers) though I don’t doubt the superiority of their approach. In full disclosure, this was probably the project that was deemed “beyond torment” by one articulate student. However, some groups produced incredibly creative, clever, funny, moving and insightful videos that I’m certain had a greater impact on their long term retention of that material than anything else in the class.

Please tell me about your experiences with group projects, good and bad: And keep your broom on the sheet.


Aronson, E. (1971). The jigsaw classroom:

Chen, G., Donahue, L. M., & Klimoski, R. J. (2004). Training undergraduates to work in organizational teams. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 3, 27-40.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, C. A. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (2007). The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 15-29.

Meyers, S. A. (1997). Increasing student participation and productivity in small-group activities for psychology classes. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 105-115.

Muir, G. M. & van der Linden, G. J. (2009). Students teaching students: An experiential learning opportunity for large introductory psychology classes in collaboration with local elementary schools. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 169-173. 

Olmstead, J. A. (1974). Small-group instruction: Theory and practice. Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization.

Pae, H. H., Sears, D. A., & Maeda, Y. (2015). Effects of small-group learning on transfer: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 79-102.

Stoner, J. A. F., Finn, D., Fairfield, K. D. (2015). Twelve steps to effective classroom teams… and beyond. Journal of the Academy of Business Education, 16, 34-53.

Sung, Y. T., Yang, J. M., & Lee, H. Y. (2017). The effects of mobile-computer-supported collaborative learning: Meta-analysis and critical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 87, 768-805.

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