by Matthew Worwood

Published: 3 years ago

Project-Based Learning: The Struggles of Collaboration

I’m an advocate for Project-Based Learning because I believe it is one of the best methods to cultivate the ‘soft’ skills. However, I’ve noticed many students ‘HATE’ group projects.

Each semester, as the challenge project gets underway, I slowly feel the student opinion of me change as they battle to meet tight deadlines and work in a team that is often imbalanced and overwhelmed. My heart softens, but I remain resilient in my belief that group projects are an essential to developing important 21st Century Skills that are lacking from so many students. I’m not a researcher, but I’m certainly intrigued to see Bruce Tuckman’s Group Dynamics, play out in my classroom. I watch with curiosity as students select an idea and establish teams of four or five.

As students initially ‘form’ there’s a sense of excitement and naivety to the task in front of them. Because of a lack of clarity in the idea very little appears to be accomplished in the first week and usually the initial owner of the project takes the lead; delegating tasks based on an internal vision that is rarely completed as new members are still looking for a sense of ownership and purpose.

I support the groups to define their problems and this usually moves them to the storming stage as they enter design and development. Here members begin to experience conflict as they debate the correct method of execution, those who have been silent speak up, and derail the train as it finally gets underway. At this stage of the project I feel there’s a genuine danger of failure if students are unable to resolve their issues quickly and more time can be lost. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable time for me as an instructor, especially as students come to me for decision-making and intervention. As I challenge students to work through their problems independently they become irritated and sometimes disengage with the project entirely. I appear as though I have little interest in the complaints of other group members and emphasis that as a group they are still required to deliver weekly progress reports and deliver their project. I try and focus the learning on the process as opposed to the development of a final project, as it’s here where they will be assessed. There’s a realization from many that their initial vision is unobtainable and they begin to identify specifics items that can be accomplished in the time they have remaining, and in some ways become more comfortable about the prospect of failing. I help them identify the ‘soft’ skills that must be engaged in order to succeed, such as communication and problem-solving the issues. This usually pushes them into the ‘norming’ stage, where individuals assume more defined roles and are clearer with their deliverables. There’s usually one group a semester that maintain members that continue to not talk to each other, but they manage to establish a working relationship and slowly the icy begins to thaw at the end. Sadly, only one group has ever reached the  ‘performing’ stage in my class. This is the state where everything flows seamlessly from one task to the next. Occasionally, a group has the characteristics of the ‘performing’ stage from the first week. There’s a false sense of confidence and the feeling that they have time to waist by reiterating their plans for development as opposed to actually executing them. Unfortunately, as development actually gets underway cracks appear and I’ve noticed they silently enter the ‘storming’ stage toward the end of the project. Some members of the group disengage, perhaps because they never obtained a sense of ownership or purpose. The remaining one or two members pull most of the weight and share their frustration in the final week complaining that they did all the work, but stop short of actually communicating this to the rest of the group, or reflecting on what they might have done to better engage their team members.

In the final week very few students are making eye contact with me, and this is usually when I ask them to write their course evaluations. Each semester much of the feedback centers on group projects and a lack of hard skills. Unfortunately, it is only at the very end, as they work on their self-reflection exercise, do the majority of students reference the words ‘failure’, ‘communication’, ‘collaboration’, ‘presentation’ and ‘problem-solving’. As they identify genuine areas for improvement I find the strength to once again resist the temptation to take the easy way out and give in to the demands to ‘work on my own’.

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