Making group projects work for both the students and the lecturer

There is a general acceptance in management education (as suggested by Universities UK) of the need to develop students’ team-working skills in part to aid their employability. I imagine it would be difficult to find an undergraduate management degree in the UK where students do not undertake some (if not many) group projects as part of their assessments. However, there is an assumption that by working in a team, students will develop team-working skills. In fact, numerous studies and my own experiences have shown that this assumption is questionable and that the negatives, including conflict and free-riders within groups and an increasing workload for the lecturer, can often outweigh the positives.

The issue of group work and how it can be beneficial for students and not a headache for myself came to prominence when I was given a new module that I was required to develop. It was to be a final year undergraduate module. Students would be work in a group across the entire academic year (all other modules the students had taken so far in their degree had only been for one semester). Of most concern to me was the fact that the module had been designed (not by myself) with 80% weighting for the group work.

Keen to reduce potential conflict and the additional work for me in dealing with such issues, and to try and ensure students do actually develop team work skills on the module, I decided to identify tools that could aid the group work element of the module. One such tool I had been aware of and used myself was Basecamp. Basecamp is designed for businesses and enables groups to communicate through a chatroom and a more structured message board, to plan activities, allocate tasks and monitor if these have been completed. It also enables groups to share documents and resources and to work collaboratively. Basecamp is currently free to use for educational purposes. Below is an example of a group’s Basecamp page:

At the start of the module, once students had been arranged into groups of 4 or 5 individuals, each group had a Basecamp page allocated to them. On the page they could use each of the aforementioned tools and only them and myself could view this (students were aware that I had access to everything they put on there). Throughout the module students were encouraged to use all of the features of Basecamp and when any issues did arise (usually around non-engaged students) the group were told they should ensure all communication and work is done through the tool to demonstrate who was and was not contributing.

Towards the end of the module’s completion I was keen to measure whether Basecamp had provided any benefits to the students and what their perceptions were of the team-working skills they may or may not have developed. 95% (from 71 students) completed a survey at the end of the module. The findings were:

In terms of this module, more students felt that their group performed effectively than did not and a large majority felt it had been a positive experience working in their groups (number in brackets is mean response score).

One interesting finding in relation to the impact on how they worked as a team was that the majority of students divided up tasks rather than working together. This supports various other studies that suggest teams often coordinate work rather than collaborate. Overall, students’ perceptions of the impact of the module were positive in terms of the impact it had on their own team working skills.

In terms of their use of online tools, Basecamp was used by the majority of students. However, Facebook was used the most often, by a significant margin.

Basecamp was used at least once a week by the majority of students but most groups did not use all features, with document sharing being the most commonly used.

The majority of students felt that Basecamp had a positive impact on how their team worked together and that it impacted how they communicated, allocated tasks and worked together.

One of the most positive responses was the extent to which they perceived Basecamp to have impacted their own team working skills, and 76% stated it would have been beneficial to use in other modules.

From my own perspective, Basecamp became an extremely useful tool to check-in on how teams were doing, identify if students not attending classes were engaging with groups and to deal with any conflicts and disagreements about non-engagement by individuals.

It would be easy to take all of the above as a fairly strong endorsement of Basecamp (or similar tools) and their impact on teamwork and students perceptions of the module, however, having observed how it was used by students and the limited range of specific tools used by each of them, I feel that there is still scope to improve its use and focus more on how students function in terms and the specific skills they develop. With this in mind the following steps will be taken by myself with this module when using Basecamp (or other online technologies) going forward:

  • Identify specific team-working skills and competencies that should be developed in this module and communicate these to the students;
  • Enforce Basecamp (or other online tools) use by all students with specific tasks required by certain milestones (e.g. allocating roles and tasks within a couple of weeks of the start of the module);
  • Make clear links between these specific tasks and the expected team working skills and competencies they should develop;
  • Assess the students use of Basecamp and their contribution to their team through viewing their input to the discussions and other activities as well as through an assessed written reflection with the students; specifically reflecting on the expected competencies and skills and their own experiences of the various tasks.

By Dr Adam Frost, Lecturer (Education) in Entrepreneurship, Queen's University Management School, Queen's University Belfast.