Structuring Collaborative Assignments

by Gene Roche

Most of my students hate group work. Group projects require more time to schedule meetings, chase down procrastinating classmates, deal with free riders and spend time critiquing, editing and repairing other people’s work. Group grading is tricky, and workloads never balance out fairly. It’s a lot easier to brew up a pot of coffee, fire up the word processor and crank out the assignment than it is to navigate the complicated world of group process.

Requiring significant group projects almost always insures snarky comments at evaluation time; we’ve all gotten gems like “Those group activities in class are a waste of time. I’m paying tuition for you to teach me, not to trade ideas with students who don’t know any more than I do”(Cite: 1) Even if the students grumble a bit, though, collaborative work is central to most of my courses because the big professional and civic problems of the future require folks who are very skilled in collaboration. Like any skill, the ability to contribute to a collaborative group requires practice, feedback and the opportunity to learn from mistakes. The development of those skills can become the central outcome or purpose of the course.

When creating a collaborative assignment, I try to keep several concepts in mind, all of which are designed with skills that students already possess and then help them expand those skills in a slightly different direction.

  1. Connect with students cognitively and emotionally
  2. Balance the individual with the group
  3. Focus on both product and process

1.) Connecting Emotionally and Cognitively

One of the major challenges with cooperative work is helping students invest emotionally in a project. We need to find ways to engage them in the process at a level that generally goes beyond the investment that they make just to complete and assignment and get a grade. Otherwise, students often don’t have the energy or motivation to do the things necessary to collaborate successfully, such as confronting a teammate who’s not contributing or totally rewriting a poor first draft to which another author is clearly attached.

Faculty members can help to elevate student engagement in a number of ways. It’s often helpful to help students make explicit links between the skills they’ll learn in a class assignment and their long-term professional goals. Many students have very little sense of how much collaborative work goes into getting an article into a peer-reviewed journal—or how much time their professors spend reviewing and commenting on their colleague’s articles. Providing examples from your own professional life about the importance of collaboration can help fill in some of those gaps.

Another strategy to for building engagement is to link assignments to authentic problems that have an impact beyond the course and classroom. Students will often take their writing more seriously if they know that someone other than their professor and their classmates are going to read it. Blogs, wikis and other web resources allow students to publish their and encourage interaction through comments. If students are writing in a public medium, faculty members can expand the collaboration even further by encouraging colleagues within the discipline to read and comment on student work.

2.) Balancing the individual with the group

Collaboration isn’t opposed to individual work. Collaborative activities only succeed if the members of the group can read, write and think critically and are willing to use those skills to create a group product. As students are learning to contribute to a collaborative project, it’s often helpful to identify explicit roles—such as copy editor, fact checker, project manager—to help appreciate the complexity of having multiple perspectives on the writing process. Having students rotate through the roles often dramatically improves the quality of the overall product.

The mix of individual and group work makes collaborative assignments notoriously hard to grade, since it’s often impossible to separate and quantify the contribution of any individual. Sometimes the most significant contributions are subtle shifts in direction or nuanced enhancements to an argument that are difficult to identify, even with the comprehensive revision tools built into the collaboration software. I’ll often use a two part grading system to address this difficulty—assigning a group grade for the overall product and then asking students to write a reflective essay evaluating and documenting their personal contribution to the effort.

3.) Focusing on product and process

From the very beginning of the class, I try to make it clear that group assignments don’t detract from the content of the course; they are the content of the course. The face-to-face classes that form the core of the residential college experience offer powerful opportunities for students to adopt new frameworks and to expand their repertoires of skills in group learning. It’s often easier to engage students in discussion of the process and to provide detailed feedback in face-to-face settings than through written comments.

In addition to class time, providing the groups with some structured opportunity to identify ground rules and determine how they’ll deal with problems can provide big payoffs in the future. If the project is a big one, it may make sense for groups to develop a team charter that specifies procedures for dealing predictable issues like slipped deadlines, sloppy work, missed meetings or lack of engagement in the revising process. For smaller projects, it can be useful to the instructor to anticipate some of those problems and incorporate remedies for those common group problems in the grading scheme.

From my perspective, assignments are the most important component of a course since they define what kind of experiences students will have, and learning grows out of experience. The most important question in course design—and often the most difficult to answer—is what do I want students to do differently as a result of being a part of this class. It’s worth a snarky comment or two, if an assignment can help students learn to set goals, share leadership, engage in constructive controversy, and produce a document that transcends what any individual would have produced alone.


1. Feldman, Sermons for Grumpy Campers.

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  1. Interesting and helpful information. Thanks for sharing.