Independent Group Work

Charly Bank, PhD Associate Professor, Teaching Stream

Course: ESS345H – Computational Geology
Class Size: 20-40 students
Duration of Class: Half-year
Class Style: Problem-based

Charly Bank has been teaching in the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Toronto since 2005. He facilitates authentic learning experiences by taking students on international research excursions and by having them engage in skills development besides their learning of the discipline.

Instructors recognize the value of group work for their students’ intellectual development. Group work can be challenging, especially with regards to access and mental health. In his course, Charly implements and uses group work to develop code and write a report to describe the data output. Charly sets up group work to ensure that the entirety of the project is never fully dependent on one student’s contribution. For example, Student A has to read and input data from a spreadsheet, while Student B receives a different dataset, already formatted for their part of the code (where usually Student B’s progress would depend on Student A’s).

To set up group work, students prepare a group contract, where each student’s tasks and contributions are listed. This contract also specifies how to deal with unexpected situations. The benefits of this approach are that students learn how to work together without the stress that group work usually entails.

Assignment Criteria:
Have clear expectations and communication with the students.

As the course instructor or teaching assistant, guide students in what makes group work happen and what impedes it.

Ask each group to write a contract, including everyone’s commitment. This can be done after asking the class to share experiences of good and not so effective group work they may have encountered in the past.

Discuss deadlines and flexibility around it.

You can use different methods to create groups. For example, have students pick their own groups, create the groups based on students’ strengths, or at random.

Break down the assignment into segments for each student in a group to tackle.

For coding projects, or for projects where students must rely on a previous step from another student, have alternative formatted inputs that students can use as a default, if their group-mates haven’t completed their part.

Students are asked to produce one final product.

How to evaluate:

Grade each student individually based on their contribution and task completion, referring to their contract.

Give feedback both on the written report and the various steps
within the project.

If you do multiple group assignments in one course, consider leaving students in the same groups so that they can take on different roles.

For his five assignments, Charly prefers to maintain groups for the first three assignments, and then the rearranges students into new groups.