A Guide To Setting Up Classroom Groups for Success: Group Contracts (Part 1 of 3)

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Spoiler alert: The final blog post in this 3-part series about how to set up your class for success when working with groups will be titled:

Should Students Be Able to Fire Teammates in a Class Project?

In my classes, the answer is “yes.”

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If a student is not doing their share of the work in a group project, their teammates are empowered to fire that person.

I know what you’re thinking. “Are you serious!? What is this, The Apprentice? My students would be firing one another left and right.”

Put simply, my classes live and die by the success of groups. Every class I teach relies heavily on group work. That’s why I put a great deal of effort into team building and establishing avenues, assignments, and protocols to hold groups accountable.

The good news is that I have only had a group fire a team member a very few times in the 5.5ish years I’ve been using this (2 at UVU, 3.5ish here at Shepherd). And I do a lot of group projects.

To me, there are two reasons why I haven’t seen a lot of instances of a student being fired from a group. They are:

1) The way I set up groups in my classes

2) The fact that I teach in a small program where students will see each other in many classes and thus may not want to risk social ties in an intimate learning environment.

In the below post and in two follow up posts, I will explore both of these concepts. First, let’s look at how I set up groups for success:

Setting Up Groups For Success

At the beginning of the semester, when we form our groups, I start with an ice breaker. I use something fun. But the key is that everyone in the group has to arrive at one answer for the group. For example, I’ve had students write a group haiku on how they spent their summer. Or, I’ve had them come up with their collective answer for the greatest movie, TV show, and album of all time.  I’ve had them come up with the one meal they would all eat if they were stuck on a deserted island and the survival tools they’d agree to bring. With this in place, some of the walls have been broken down and the group environment is relaxed and welcoming.

Next, I have students write group contracts. It’s group building 101. These set group norms and empower the group to set expectations and a culture of inclusiveness.

What goes into group contracts:

  1. Names and contact info
  2. The dates they are available to meet outside of class – to eliminate excuses.
  3. Group rules

In terms of group rules, I tell the students that the rules they set in these are the basis of what they have to fire someone else. For example, if they say “don’t miss meetings without letting others know,” and someone repeatedly misses meetings, he/she could be fired for that offense. If someone is doing something in the group and it wasn’t in the contract, then did they really break a rule (save, not doing their work, of course)? In a lot of ways, this essential step mitigates the likelihood that we will have any group problems in the future.

Therefore, in making their group contracts, students are keenly aware that the contract is directly tied to their ‘survival’ in the group.

Students spend a good 10 minutes or so talking these things through. The really powerful thing is that students will express what frustrates them about group work BEFORE it becomes an issue. I hear things like, “I really hate it when people ignore your texts and a project is due the next day. Even if your reply is simply to let everyone know you are sick and can’t do the work or be at the meeting, just reply. Be honest. And tell everyone. That way, we can make a plan.”

The students are, in short, putting their cards on the table in an open, collaborative environment where they aren’t being judged because no one has broken a rule. This open communication lets everyone know the things they could do that would bother or harm a fellow teammate. Armed with this information, they have greater respect for group members and an opportunity to reflect on how their behavior could impact others. This simple 10 minute exercise can reduce the likelihood that such behaviors happen. That saves your students time, produces better work, and saves you time and headaches.

I collect all of the group contracts and make a photocopy so everyone has one. I keep the original, signed contract for each group.

The group contract  sheet is below! I’ll be discussing items #2 and #3 in upcoming blog posts. Item #1 is a department-wide policy. Note that the term “group report card” in the sheet below is synonymous with team evaluations.

The second instrument I use is team evaluations. A significant chunk of a student’s grade in my class is based on the evaluations made by their peers.  In the next post, I’ll talk about group evaluations and the unique way that I use them.

Then, in the third post, I’ll get into the drama – how I empower my students to fire one-another from their teams and what happens when they do.

In the meantime, remember: “Empowered students do powerful things.”

— Cheers

m@

 

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