Group projects

I have been thinking about the title subject of this blog entry, but before I get to that, it’s worth mentioning a bit about Microsoft’s stock price. A month ago, I commented that the price had been going up constantly since early October, which was conveniently when I purchased some shares. I have since sold the shares when I saw the price hit $28 and stay there for a couple days. Apparently 28 is a bit of a glass ceiling for MSFT, which has bounced down to 27.13 in the past week. If it returns to 25 I might be interested, but for now I’ll try my luck with XOM.

Now, to discuss group projects. For a long time, I have known that having to do group projects for school generally sucks. Sometimes they can be tolerable or even decent, but usually they are not enjoyable to work on and do not provide effective learning experiences.

Motivation of the group members is often a problem. In high school and earlier, my fellow classmates frequently lacked motivation. They were there because they had to, not because they wanted to be there. This issue improved as I moved on to college and now business school.

Groups require a period of adjustment before optimal performance can be realized. This is a well accepted fact of team dynamics, and my experience has reinforced the claim. With a brand new team, you have no idea what to expect…. who can you rely on? Who should you not rely on? What are the real strengths of each member? Even if you knew the fellow members before the group formed, working with them may show a different side of them. Many of my classes would have us form a new group for each project, or only have one project, so the group did not have much time to gel. While the teams in MSU’s MBA program were designed to maximize conflict, by sticking with the same team for the whole school year, we have ample time to mutually adjust and then perform optimally.

While groups for school projects rarely exceed sizes of 4-5 members, even this number is too large for most tasks. Writing a report, possibly the most common requirement for school, can really not be actively performed by more than 3 people. Even with only 3 people, the third person is not adding much net value. Probably the best way to organize the team would be to have 2 people do the writing and have the other members review and critique the paper, with one member nominated for final review.

The real problem with having groups larger than required for the task is that students feel obligated to equally contribute to the project. This may be the result of simple peer pressure but is often backed up by teachers requiring peer feedback. Having separate writers and reviewers is not a equal division of labor, so groups are effectively encouraged to either (1) have all of the team members huddle around one computer collectively dictating the report or (2) farm each section out to a different member. The first option is a waste of time, and the second option yields a report that lacks flow and has inconsistently writing styles. The problem is further compounded when the group exists for only one project, because there is no opportunity to allow the individual contributions to level out across multiple projects.

While I do not have a fix for the motivation problem, the way to improve school group projects is fairly clear. Teachers should either have students form groups for the length of course and work on multiple projects or have no groupwork at all. The compromise, having one group project for the course, is actually the worst idea.

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