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Promoting Communication Skills:
Group projects and presentations

Introduction

One could easily respond to a suggestion of using group presentations or group projects in large classes as nearly impossible.  While this is certainly a valid response, we would like to suggest the rationale for pursuing group projects and presentations and then give ideas for incorporating them into the agenda of a large class.

Rationale for group presentations and group projects

These suggestions are certainly not new to this larger document.  Some have been suggested elsewhere but they bear repeating in the context of validating the inclusion of group work into the course curriculum.  Here are some reasons for including group presentations/projects into the large class.

Group presentations and group projects

  • Engage students in the class content:  Group presentations/projects provide one more method for promoting active learning.
  • Build teamwork skills: Employers continue to emphasize the need for future employees skilled in working as part of a team.  Students learn to take responsibility for their share of the assignment.  Students must develop accountability to the group rather than just to themselves.
  • Help students to become acquainted with each other:  By working together, students may develop small study groups and certainly see the value of synergism as many ideas come together.  Needless to say, human interaction skills are honed when less than perfect members are assigned to one’s group and good coping mechanisms are developed.
  • Give all students a structured setting to have a voice:  Often the more reticent students may be unwilling to voluntarily contribute to the class discussion.  By formalizing the group presentation effort, all students are given equal opportunity to speak or participate in producing a project. 
  • Provide additional forms of assessment outside of exams:  Group presentations or projects give the instructor an option for giving a participation grade.  A participation grade may provide students who are not good objective test takers a chance to shine.
  • Provide an opportunity to apply course content:  Students can apply content to problem solving and decision making settings outside the lecture or reading venue.
  • Help to keep the course on the students’ ‘radar screens’:  By having more than reading assignments and test preparation as their out of class work, students can become more focused on the course as a whole.
  • Help to eliminate the anonymity common in large classes: Student input at an individual and group level is valued.
  • Help to give variety to an often lecture-focused class:  Group presentations and projects are an alternate to lecturing while still providing good learning experiences for the entire class.
  • Recognize that students can learn from each other:  Students realize that knowledge is not the sole domain of the professor.

A primary benefit of group projects is collaborative learning, which educator Kenneth Burfee (1993) defined as “a form of indirect teaching in which the teacher sets the problem and organizes students to work it out collaboratively.” In his 1984 essay “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” Burfee wrote, “To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively -- that is, we must learn to converse well.” When students collaborate on group presentations and projects, they are compelled to converse – and this sharpens their thinking skills.

Challenges of organizing for group presentations/group projects

Engaging in group presentations group projects comes with a new set of challenges for the instructor.  Among these are:

  • Making sure that all students participate in the presentations/projects can be a scheduling challenge.
  • Ensuring a way to monitor/assess individual accountability is a challenge in equity of grading.
  • Guaranteeing ways for busy, over-committed students to interact and plan outside of class can be daunting but Blackboard and email provide good options.

We suggest that there are two principal avenues to follow in doing group presentations/projects.  Informal presentations/projects are those that require minimum time expenditures by the students but allow for students to work together to create a product useful for all. Formal presentations/projects are those requiring substantial effort throughout the course of the semester.

Informal presentations/group projects

These are activities that are spontaneous in nature and may require extemporaneous speaking.  Alternatively these activities can be posted on Blackboard as a form of shared learning.  These ideas can be used as a means of taking attendance in an informal way or used as a way to evaluate student participation.  Keep in mind that access to Blackboard allows virtual conferencing among the members of a small group.  We suggest that good students be selected to give the first presentations because this sets the standard high for subsequent presentations.

Suggested informal presentations or informal group projects.

  1. At the start of class, randomly assign a group of students to be ready to do some of  the following:
    1. Before the next class, confer with one another and post one or two good exam questions relevant to the day’s lecture or the assigned readings on Blackboard.
    2. Be responsible for reading the relevant textbook section under discussion and providing summaries of sections.  The summaries are then collected into one document by a group member and distributed via Blackboard.  Alternatively, student groups can be responsible for summarizing one particular section of the reading applicable to the day’s lecture.  They can give an oral summary at an appropriate time in the lecture as a way to provide a break in the lecture.
    3. If appropriate, student groups can collect related news items relevant to the day’s topic and give a brief summary at some point in the following class.
    4. Write a one-page study guide relevant to the day’s lecture including possible exam questions and necessary terms.  At the following class, students can lead a quick review and give the answer key to their study guide.
    5. Student groups can be assigned a journal article or on-line article which they read, and during the lecture each member of the group provides one segment of the annotation guide that is posted in Appendix A.  The students can be required to submit one complete annotation for a graded writing assignment.
  1. Course supplementary workbooks lend themselves nicely to informal group work. A group of students can be assigned to individual chapters of the workbook.  They then divide up the questions, terms or critical thinking exercises.  Their responses are then collected into one document which is circulated via Blackboard.  Some sources refer to this as the “jigsaw” method of shared learning.  This serves as a good exam preparation technique, especially when the group is required to post their responses at least one week before the exam.  The professor can evaluate the responses and give additional information as needed.  Alternatively, the students can take on the role during exam review time of providing further explanations to their responses.  This allows for spreading the student participation out across the semester.

Formal presentations/group projects

These are the presentations/projects that are assigned early in the semester for which students work together over a period of time and then submit an assessable document/presentation.

It is critical for faculty members to clearly state the instructions for the group presentation or project. They should articulate their expectations and standards – and perhaps even show models from other semesters or classes. First-year students especially need a vision of what they must deliver. The instructions should be crystalized in writing as a handout but also discussed in class. Instructors should list the criteria by which they will evaluate the group work.

For example, in MASC 290 (Ethical Problems in Mass Media), students are divided into groups of four or five. Each group must make an oral presentation on an assigned topic regarding media ethics. (The faculty member chooses the topic and provides a few articles as background. Typical topics include: ethical issues for reporters and news organizations in covering the war in Iraq, the ethics of product placement in movies and television shows, and ethical issues surrounding violence and sex in video games.) In Appendix B to this section, we have included the “Group Project Instructions & Evaluation Criteria” for these oral presentations. That document not only sets expectations but also serves as a tipsheet for effective presentations. It states in part:

Each group will make a 10- to 15-minute presentation, with 5 minutes for questions (20 minutes total). Each presentation should include: introducing the team, introducing the topic and summarizing the media-related ethical issues and supporting information. You should augment your presentation with visual aids, such as posters, pictures, PowerPoint or video clips. (If you show a video clip, it may run no more than 5 minutes.) All members must be involved in the presentation. Organize and practice your presentation in advance; make sure you don’t exceed the time limit.

Each group will write a one-page handout summarizing your topic and findings. Give me the handout at least 2 hours before class begins so I can make copies for everyone.

Here are the criteria on which I will evaluate you:

Presentation Basics:

  • Introduced team members.
  • Introduced presentation and clearly stated the topic.
  • Group presentation was coordinated, with teamwork and organization demonstrated.
  • Managed time well – presentation lasted at least 15 minutes and not more than 20.

Presentation Content:

  • Presentation as a whole was clear and easy to follow.
  • Key ethical issues related to the topic were emphasized.
  • Audio or visual components were used and effectively integrated into the presentation.
  • Presentation demonstrated creativity and/or group research.

Presentation Impact/Conclusion:

  • Presentation had a conclusion/summary of main points.
  • Presenters took topic seriously and worked to make a professional presentation.
  • Presenters “reached” the audience by projecting energy, enthusiasm.
  • Familiarity and understanding of the topic were evident.
  • Group effectively addressed audience questions.

Handout:

  • Information in handout corresponded with presentation.
  • Information was concise and key points were clearly sum marized.
  • Writing was grammatical.
  • Handout was neat and easy to read.
  • Handout showed ability to integrate information from various sources.

Oral presentations can take many forms. They could be debates or skits, for instance. In classes with hundreds of students, oral presentations involving every student may not be feasible. In such cases, the group’s “deliverable” might be a paper, a Web page or other project. That could be augmented by a brief oral presentation by one member or a few members of the group.

In Introduction to Human Geography (GEOG 102), the last two meetings of the class focus on student group presentations.  Students are randomly assigned (in groups of 4)  to a topic relating to resources and/or the environment.  They are required to present a five minute discussion on the topic and provide classmates with a study guide of the presentation including key terms.  They give me a list of their sources and two potential exam questions relating to their presentation.  Appendix C gives the requirements for this presentation.

Tips for making group assignments

  • In assigning groups, remember that heterogeneous groups are generally better. The length of time the groups stay together is dependent on the specific collaborative learning activity; however, keep in mind that time is needed for groups to become cohesive.
  • Discuss with students the importance of teamwork and the dynamics and characteristics of effective teams. Help students foresee what problems can emerge in groups and how they should deal with these problems. Empower students to resolve problems with team members who do not do their share of the work. Agree to support the team if it decides to “fire” a member.
  • Plan instructional materials to promote interdependence especially with newer groups or inexperienced students. Provide only one copy of the instructions per group or provide different members with different resources.
  • Explain the academic task. Set the task so the students are clear about the assignment. Explain the objectives of the lesson and relate the concepts and information to be studied to students' past experience and learning to ensure maximum transfer and retention. Define relevant concepts, explain procedures students should follow, and give examples to help students understand what they are to learn and do in completing the assignment. Ask the class specific questions to check students' understanding of the assignment.
  • Explain your criteria for success.
  • Structure positive interdependence by reinforcing that the students have a group goal (not just an individual goal) and that they need to rely on one another.

Involve students in establishing responsibilities for group work. Have students discuss how they would like the group to function. Maryellen Weimer (2002), in Learner-Centered Teaching, suggests that you “ask for this description in the form of a memo from the group to you, signed off by all participants.”

Assessment

Tomorrow’s Professor Message #441 gives an excellent presentation for coping with “hitchhikers and couch potatoes” on teams.  The recommendations are valid for the students and the faculty member alike.  The article recommends that professors give students the privilege of firing a member from their group at which time the member is required to work alone on subsequent projects.

Assessing group participation and individual contributions should include a student component (perhaps with a weight of 25%) and a faculty component with a weight of 75%.  Student peer assessment helps to eliminate the negative impact of uneven member participation (the “student couch potato effect.”) and awards individual accountability (Michaelson et al 2002.)

One assessment method, a “360-degree evaluation,” has become popular in corporate circles and has been adopted by some professors. In this method, each student evaluates:

  • Himself or herself
  • Each member of his or her team
  • The team’s presentation as a whole
  • Each of the other team’s presentations

In addition, the instructor evaluates each team’s presentation and then gives each student a grade. While that may sound overly complicated, the process can be done relatively quickly and painlessly. In MASC 290, for instance, each student confidentially completes a one-page “360-degree Evaluation Form” (included as Appendix D ). On that form, students estimate what percentage of the group’s work they did and what percentage each other team member did. Students also can explain what tasks they performed for the group. In addition, students evaluate their own group’s presentation (ranging from “poor” to “excellent” on criteria such as “Explained the topic clearly” and “Held the audience’s interest”). As the other groups present, students evaluate them as well, using the same scale.

The faculty member collects the evaluation form and looks at them group by group. In doing so, it often is obvious whether a group had a free rider and who had to pick up the slack. Also, by scanning the evaluation forms for the entire class, the instructor can see which presentations students thought were the best.

In World Regions (GEOG 303), Service Learning groups do anonymous peer evaluations of members of their groups by assigning grades ranging from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest).  It is then easy to use the numerical grades to calculate a mean score for each member of the group.  This has proven effectual in identifying empirically those students who have not fully participated in the efforts.  It works well when the instructor cannot fully monitor all activities.

Having students evaluate themselves and each other is, in itself, a way for students to learn. It increases their self-awareness and requires them to repeatedly review and look for the elements that make an effective presentation.  It helps students to understand accountability and respond accordingly.

Robyn Lacks, an assistant professor of criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, has students evaluate each other when they do group projects involving crime scene investigations. This evaluation process is explained in the document “Grading Criteria for Violent Crime Scene Investigation Group Projects” (Appendix E):

  • Each student in the group must provide a letter grade for each member of the group.  Each student must then provide a justification paragraph for why they believe each student in the group deserves the grade they have assigned.  The justification should include all aspects of what the student has or has not done with regards to the overall group project process.
  • After each group presentation the class will rate the student presentation from a 1(not very well done) to a 5 (very well done). Each member of the class will be asked to list at least two justification points for their rating of the group project.
  • The instructor then take the above information into consideration in assigning each student a group project grade.

Peer reviews also can be done with group projects and papers. In SOC 111 - Introduction to Sociology, at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Dr. Jarl Ahlkvist divided his large-enrollment into groups and had each group do online projects: “… the first project was an unobtrusive observational study of driver behavior. Groups commonly studied variation in drivers responses to stop signs or speed limits, but also included innovative studies of car quality such as comparing faculty and staff to student vehicles in campus parking lots (students had nicer cars on average). Project 2 asked groups to identify a youth subculture and provide a sociological analysis of how the group’s values and norms are reflected in members’ use of material and non-material culture. Projects ranged from studies of music subcultures such as Phishheads and Goths to Cheerleaders and skateboarders. In the final project groups were asked to examine how the dimensions of race, gender, and class are used in advertising and marketing campaigns. Groups studied everything from beer to clothing in an effort to better understand how companies use dimensions of difference and inequality to sell products. … To encourage members of the class to examine other group’s finished projects, each student was required to write a brief review of one project produced by a group other than their own. Project reviewers were required to comment on the strengths and limitations of the project, the links between the project and material covered in class, and to offer suggestions for developing the project further.”

Print Sources

Burfee, Kenneth A. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Burfee, Kenneth A. 1984. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” College English. 46: 635-52.

Johnson, David W.; Johnson, Roger T.; and Smith, Karl A. Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty instructional productivity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Michaelsen, Larry K., Arletta Bauman Knight, L.Dee Fink, eds. 2002.  Team-Based Learning:  A transformative use of small groups.  Westport, CT:  Praeger Publishers.

Weimer, Maryellen. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Online sources:

Tomorrow’s Professor is an online newsletter published twice weekly.  Each publication has a single focus related to the roles of teaching professors.  To join the mailing list, send an email to majordomo@lists.stanford.edu.  Do NOT put anything in the subject line.  In the body of the message type:  subscribe Tomorrow’s Professor.  Past issues of the Tomorrow’s Professor are archived with a search engine at http://ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprofindex.shtml

Speaking of Teaching is the Stanford University newsletter on best teaching practices in the university classroom.  These are accessible at http://ctl.stanford.edu/newsletter/cooperative.pdf

Introducing Sociology through Group Projects: An Assessment of Online Collaboration in a Large Lecture Class; available at http://www.uccs.edu/~irpage/IRPAGE/
Assessment_Index/documents/alkvist%20report.pdf

Collaborative Learning, resources from the National Institute for Science Education; available at http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/archive/cl1/CL/

 

Appendices:

  • Appendix A - Annotation format
  • Appendix B - Group Project Instructions & Evaluation Criteria
  • Appendix C - Introduction to Human Geography; Class Presentations
  • Appendix D - 360-Degree Evaluation Form for Group Presentations
  • Appendix E - Grading Criteria for Violent Crime Scene Investigation Group Projects
 
 
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Last updated: 06/20/2013
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