Group projects are an essential element of the undergraduate engineering student experience because they provide the opportunity to hone professional skills prior to graduation and apply classroom-taught knowledge.
Despite its benefits, project-based learning can be very challenging to run due to the inherent administration, student interaction, material preparation and marking involved in delivery. This guide aims to give some practical tips to help you provide the most effective project-based learning experience for your students, whilst minimising academic administration overhead.
A major barrier to the progress students make in projects is the amount of perceived time that they have to complete a given task. Those new to group-based working often only consider the time they spend working and not the collective time for each member of the group.
An interesting exercise to work on at the beginning of the project is to ask students how many hours will go into this project from each team i.e. hours per student per week * weeks * students. Most universities stipulate (if quite vaguely) around eight hours per module, per week. So for a team of five students over a ten week semester, this gives ~400hours throughout the semester. This seems to help change perspectives and gives a greater scope for what can be produced.
Later in this article we will outline means of managing students who get into disagreements. One measure to reduce the likelihood of this happening is to begin by getting students to form a list of ‘rules’ or a ‘code of conduct’. Some of these could be:
Each set of rules may be different for each group, so a standard contract may not be suitable. Once completed and agreed upon, every team member signs it and will then be held accountable by this during any conflicts.
Perfect democracies work in principle, but the real World is far more complex than that. It is advisable to have each group nominate a leader to act as point of contact for academics, and to manage output of the group. Useful to settle conflicts and manage submissions.
One of the major causes of student discontent in group projects is working with others. This is exacerbated when students cannot pick their own teams. We recommend facilitators form teams using two criteria:
The average academic ability can be determined in a number of ways, but average marks across previous modules, or even just one common/similar module such as engineering mathematics. The reason for having a similar amount of marks is that this reduces the tendency for ‘sink teams’ i.e. teams that produce nothing and get no marks. This type of group usually affects module progression, so this format is also a little self-serving for the academic. It may also give less confident students the ability to see how others work and how they can develop their own academic work.
Some engineering courses hold project-based modules where students from different courses work together. The benefit of this is that a wider range of groups interact, but also that more complex projects can be set due to a range in specialities. This is also more realistic for industry where engineers more often work in interdisciplinary teams.
Modern-day students are very mark-focussed and can be incredibly sensitive to how these are assigned for different elements of the project. In [title/description of previous post] we discussed the idea of ‘passengers’ within teams, and how this affects student satisfaction for those engaging in the module. To help avoid passengers, it is worth ensuring that a reasonable proportion (say 40%) of the module’s marks are assigned for ‘individual contribution’ i.e. how effectively did the student contribute to the team effort? We will discuss a little later some strategies on how to assess this.
With the group assessments i.e. a report and presentation, ensure that there is scope in the marking criteria for ‘exceptionality’. By providing very ‘rigid’ assessment criteria, groups usually provide similar work and are not encouraged to ‘reach’ for more ambitious outcomes. Leaving something non-specific at the higher mark bands will encourage this tendency for creativity and excellence.
Teams are inherently quite fractious at different points throughout projects, going through the forming storming, norming and performing stages proposed by x. Some strategies discussed in [this post] were to give students the right to ‘have their say’ on the performance of other students which benefits overall student satisfaction. This can be through peer marking software, an Excel sheet or a Microsoft form. Of course the latter two options are more intensive to collate. Peer marking also means that you have less marking to do, reducing the overall project administration load.
Despite poor feedback from group members, some team members do not produce useful output towards their team’s goal. For this reason, it may be prudent to remove them from the team, or give warning, as a means of motivating them. The most effective method for this seems to be the yellow and red card scheme. Following two weeks (or an appropriate time-scale) of underperforming, or lack of adherence to the team contract, students are given the warning by the team. If this underperforming, or non-engagement, persists for another week the student is ‘red-carded’ and removed from the team to work on their own. With large cohorts 10+ teams, there are usually one or two teams formed from ‘red-carded’ students. It is worth giving them the chance to work in teams to avoid them fail the module.
The topic chosen for project modules is very subjective and should be considered long-before the module starts to give sufficient time for preparation. The topic should be relevant for all team members (if from different courses) and the level of challenge should be just beyond what the students think they should be able to complete. Ensure that there is flexibility in the marking criteria where projects are somewhat incomplete.
A useful means of getting challenging and interesting projects is to ask local engineering companies for something simple and relevant. These are usually solutions to problems they have had for years, but were never business critical. This helps engaging students in the project due to its industrial relevance and could open up opportunities to invite the company to give a presentations to your students, thus fostering industrial engagement.
An alternative method of obtaining project topics is to use existing projects which help to reduce the time and energy spent developing the a brief. Some examples of already existing challenges are Engineering Without Borders and the Bio-Mimicry Challenge. These are led by organisations and they develop a lot of the context material.
Another amazing benefit is the inclusion of these challenges are that they contain competitions and prizes. Nothing motivates students like cash! National Engineering Without Borders competitions can give students £1000s for work they were already doing.
Project-based learning modules are incredibly beneficial for student learning and development, but very intensive for admin, engagement, preparation and marking.
Hopefully you have gained some useful insight in how to run project-based learning modules. If you have any additional thoughts or suggestions, please get in touch via out contact page. We’d love to hear from you.