söndag 23 september 2012

How should student project groups be put together?

Our media technology engineering students work on several project courses throughout their education, or work with smaller projects within "ordinary" courses. Should they be able to choose who to work together with or should the teacher decide (perhaps thorough throwing dice or some other method)? I will use my current project course, Future of Media, and describe how the procedure for choosing groups will work this year and why I have changed it since last year.

Last year, there was a kind of "marketplace" for choosing topics and forming groups. Students had information about possible topics around which groups would be formed beforehand (but limited information about the practical procedure of how the groups would be formed). At The Event (directly following a lecture in the course), each topic had been printed on a large sheet and each student has a big (1st hand choice) and a small (2nd hand choice) post-it note on which he (or she) wrote his name. Students could thus choose a specific topic they wanted to work with and/or they coordinate their choices with other persons they wanted to work with. My experience is unfortunately that choosing to work with your friends trumps choosing to work on a specific topic that interests you nine times out of ten. Furthermore, students sometimes put together a daisy chain of post-it notes signifying that "us five friends want to work together". The implicit message in such a daisy chain is for others to not bother and to stay away. I don't like that.

I guess an argument could be made for allowing students to choose to work with their best friends. It obviously represents a bigger effort to work with people you don't know that well. If you've managed to become a member of a stable group that works together smoothly, then why change a winning concept? As a teacher, my experience after having managed this particular course for the better part of a decade is that I don't really see that groups of friends working together produce better results. They might do it if it's a group of high-performing and ambitions students, but a group of friends might equally well drag each down to the minimum level necessary to "get by". It is also possible that friends all too quickly decide upon and zoom in on a specific solution, whereas more diversity in the groups instead can lead to broader experiences being represented - and more and better discussions (which I believe would indicate better results).

Further reasons for not letting students freely choose who to work with is:
- It's unrealistic to be able to choose exactly who you want to work with in a project. You are supposed to be able to work with "anyone" (many different kinds of people) in future jobs.
- We have a majority of Swedish students in the course, but no less than a third are international students. In general, I think it's a good idea to make it possible for international students to meet Swedish students and vice versa. Several international students have also explicitly mentioned that they look forward to working with Swedish students in this course and making new friends. Not encouraging this is thus a missed opportunity in several respects - and what's the point of studying abroad if you don't make any local friends? I'd like to do my part and increase the chances that international students are happy about their studies at KTH and their stay in Sweden.
- Meeting new people is an opportunity to make new friends and tap into new networks. I think that is to be encouraged on a general basis - also among Swedish students.
- When choosing freely, students with extensive networks prior to the course will have an advantage compared to those who knew fewer other students and thus have smaller or non-existing networks to rely on. Not being able to choose freely is thus a way of making the playing field a little more even.

On the other hand, I don't like the idea of randomly dividing students into groups, since the project is a pretty major one; students will work together for more than two months and each groups should together put many hundreds of hours into these project. Not being able to choose what or who you want to work with would suck. What I would like to do is thus to increase the chance of groups being formed based on interests in different topics rather than primarily (or exclusively) based on pre-existing friendship ties.

After this list of pros and cons, this is thus how the project groups will be put together this year:
- Student will get to see a long list of possible project topics (same as last year) after our brainstorming seminars (a collective process that sorts out the good project ideas from the bad).
- Student will make a 1st, a 2nd and even a backup 3rd choice of topics they would like to work with in the project phase.
- I will put the groups together and try to figure out ways of making as many students as possible as happy as possible. Hopefully everyone will be allocated a group based on their 1st or 2nd hand choice.

If a project group can only have X number of members (last year it was 5-6) and X+3 students choose that group as their 1st hand choice, I will basically throw a dice to determine which students will make it into the group and which won't. I thus introduce an element of randomness and chance into the process. If you negotiate, prepare and coordinate your choices with friends you want to work with beforehand, there is a high chance you will work together with some of your friends, but there is little chance of forming a group only consisting of your friends. The fact that a student won't be able to choose to be part of pure "friendship-groups" will hopefully also increase the likelihood that people will aim for working with topics they are truly interested in rather than subordinating their own interests to their friends' wishes.

While I think this way of choosing groups sounds good in theory, I don't know in detail how I will go about to put the groups together so as to make as many students as possible as happy as possible. I might need a good way of representing and visualizing students' choices (I have to think a little about that). This whole thing for sure means more work for me, but I think and I hope it is worth it.

See this blog post (published 10 days later) for musings about how to handle students' varying levels of ambition, time spent on projects and grades in project courses.

5 kommentarer:

  1. I took the course last year. When the group formation took place, I put my big post-it note on the sheet of a subject which I really thought was inspiring, interesting and challenging and which I really wanted to work with. Five other people also put their big post-it notes on the sheet, and I thought a group would be formed with myself as a member, so I was satisfied. So far so good. But then all of a sudden, four people removed their post-it notes, leaving me and another person. I realized that if only two people signed up for a subject, that subject would be dropped. So I waited for a few minutes to see if enough people would join in, but it didn't happen. Nobody joined. Time was running out, so I had to remove my note and put it on another sheet, because I thought the subject would be dropped due to lack of interest. So did the other remaining person. Right then, fast as a pack of wolves feasting on a sheep, the four persons who dropped out before put their notes back, together with two new people, forming a complete group of six! It then struck me! I had been tricked into leaving the group so that the "gang of four" could sneak their friends into the group via the "back door"! It didn't feel that good...

    So I really believe you are doing the right thing by not having the same procedure as last year.

  2. Wow, I didn't notice that at all but that is just one more (really really good) reason not to let students choose (and manipulate the process) freely...

    Just for tying up loose ends, I would be very interested in knowing which group that was (the grades were set a long time ago - so it isn't like anybody will suffer...). Perhaps an e-mail would be better if you think this is a sensitive topic... not sure the project name should be on the web even if was a very ugly plot for tricking and manipulating fellow students...

  3. Well, I'm not so sure there are any loose ends to tie up? It's not that my feelings were hurt just because I was considered an "unwelcome guest". Although I did feel bad about not getting to work with the subject in question...

    I did finally end up with a great group to work with, and I direct no hard feelings towards the "conspirators", so after all it's not really a sensitive topic. I let bygones be bygones.

    But I guess you for some reason really want to know, and since they did what they did completely openly at the group formation for everyone to see, I see no reason not to publish the project name here. The group in question was: "Important message to the public - handling crises in a post-radio age".

  4. Ok, well, I'm happy it worked out for you and that you did end up with a great group. I think it would have been harder to let go of the issue if you ended up in group that didn't work out so well...

  5. This is definitely the way to go in choosing groups, topic and interest should decide, not which people you enjoy spending time with